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Keynote Address by Assistant Secretary Strickling at the American Enterprise Institute

Keynote Address by Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
“Who governs the Internet? A conversation on securing the multistakeholder process”

American Enterprise Institute
Washington, D.C.

July 22, 2014

--As Prepared for Delivery--

I want to thank the American Enterprise Institute, and in particular, Jeff Eisenach and Shane Tews, for inviting me to address this group today on the important issue of Internet governance.  In particular, I want to focus on what has been happening in response to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s (NTIA) announcement in March that we intend to transition our stewardship role with respect to the Internet domain name system (DNS).

At the outset, I want to put your minds at ease.  Contrary to some initial concerns that we were giving away the Internet, the response from the global Internet community has been overwhelmingly supportive.  The community has organized a multistakeholder process to determine what will happen once the United States government steps out of its current limited role.  The discussions to date demonstrate that the community is taking this transition very seriously and is determined to develop a transition plan that will ensure that the Internet DNS continues to support a growing and innovative Internet. 

However, before I get into the details, let me start by setting the stage.  What is NTIA’s role today with respect to the domain name system?  And what is changing?

This transition is the last step in a process that started 16 years ago when the U.S. government committed to allowing the private sector to take leadership for domain name system management.  In 1998, the Department of Commerce designated the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to perform what are known as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority or IANA functions. These include assigning Internet protocol, or “IP,” numbers to regional registries who then assign them to Internet service providers. Another function is the maintenance and updating of the root zone file for top-level domain names—the so-called address book for the Internet that is necessary for the routing of Internet communications. 

In March, we asked ICANN to convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition the current role played by my agency in the coordination of the domain name system. Our role is largely procedural in that NTIA verifies that ICANN followed its policies and procedures in processing domain name change requests.  Then we pass that request on to Verisign, which implements those changes in the root zone file.  We have no operational role and we do not initiate any changes to the root zone file, to the assignment of IP numbers, or the allocation of Internet numbering resources. 

In making our announcement, we communicated a number of conditions that must apply to the transition.  First, the proposal must support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, in that it should be developed by the multistakeholder community and have broad community support.  More specifically, we will not accept a transition proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution.  Second, the proposal must maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the domain name system.  Third, it must meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services.  And finally, it must maintain the openness of the Internet.

This announcement does not change anything about how the domain name system operates today.  Before any transition takes place, the businesses, civil society and technical experts of the global Internet community must present a consensus plan that ensures the uninterrupted and stable functioning of the Internet and its present openness.  We have not set a deadline for this action.  While the current contract with ICANN expires in September 2015, we have repeatedly noted that we can extend the contract for up to four years if the Internet community needs more time to develop a proposal that meets the criteria we have outlined.  In the meantime, our current role will not change.

Since our announcement, ICANN – working with other Internet organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the Internet Society, and the Regional Internet Registries – has laid out a process for developing the plan based on consultations with stakeholders, which began in Singapore in March.  Acting as a facilitator, ICANN earlier this month announced the formation of a coordination group of around 30 individuals representing 13 different Internet communities that will help develop a transition proposal.  The group held its first meeting last week in London.

The group appears to be off to a good start.  It has developed a proposed charter for comment that affirms that it “will conduct itself transparently, consult with a broad range of stakeholders, and ensure that its proposals support the security and stability of the IANA functions.”  I am confident that by working out these important issues, this process will strengthen the multistakeholder process and will result in ICANN becoming even more directly accountable to the customers of the IANA functions and to the broader Internet community. 

Also this spring, in response to community discussions at its Singapore meeting, ICANN announced a separate process to address ways to improve its overall accountability.  Specifically, this process will examine how ICANN can strengthen its accountability mechanisms to address the absence of its historical contractual relationship with NTIA.  This important accountability issue will and should be addressed before any transition takes place.

We will monitor the progress of both of these work efforts closely and carefully.  We remain steadfast in our commitment to preserve and protect the vibrant, free-flowing Internet. We will ensure that the plan submitted to us from the community satisfies our conditions and has been stress-tested to ensure that it can deal with whatever contingencies arise in the future. 

As anyone paying attention to Internet governance issues knows, our announcement created a lot of discussion and a little bit of controversy.  But overall, the international community has applauded the move as it demonstrates in a concrete way the commitment of the United States to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.  But here in the United States, some have argued, if it is not broke, do not fix it.  However, let me explain why this is the right move at the right time.

First, as ICANN has performed the IANA functions over the years, it has matured as an organization and has taken important steps to improve its accountability and transparency as well as its technical competence.  Second, as witnessed so strongly in the past several months, international support has continued to grow for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.  And as a result, many of the Internet’s key stakeholders, including Internet firms like Google; communications providers like AT&T and Cisco; and civil society groups such as Human Rights Watch and Public Knowledge support this transition as the right course, at the right time.

Now I understand that these issues are complex and that any change, even one as planned and as evolutionary as this one, raises questions that need to be answered.  We welcome a full and open debate on the transition but at the same time, we should base that discussion on facts, not on myths or ideologies.

For example, there is a persistent notion that the United States currently controls the Internet.  That is simply not true.  The Internet has been, and will continue to be, a decentralized network of networks that relies on cooperation and coordination of many stakeholders for its efficient function.  It works today, and it will work after the transition, because the stakeholders are committed to making it work, not because of the IANA functions contract between the United States and ICANN.

Some critics have argued that NTIA is proposing to give away United States “property” as if we were proposing that the United States give Alaska back to Russia.  We do not own the domain name system and we cannot give away what we do not own.  Instead, our contract with ICANN simply designates it to perform the IANA functions.  Neither ICANN nor the United States pays anything to each other under this contract.  Now that ICANN has demonstrated its ability to perform these functions with the support of the community, there is no longer a need for the United States to designate ICANN to perform these functions and we are not obligated to maintain a contract when it is no longer needed.

Another misconception about this transition is that our announcement has emboldened authoritarian governments like Russia to attempt to exert greater influence over Internet policy.  To the contrary, our announcement arguably has had the effect of reducing Russia’s influence in the rest of the world for greater government control over the Internet. 

It is a historical fact that Russia has long argued for more governmental control of the Internet.  This is nothing new.  It is simply not the case that Russia started to argue for greater governmental control only after our announcement.  It has consistently done so for years.  What is new is that other countries are rejecting Russia’s arguments and demonstrating support for the multistakeholder model. 

This was on full display in April when businesses, public interest groups, technical experts and governments met in Brazil for the NetMundial conference on Internet governance. The conference gave all stakeholders the opportunity to participate in a discussion about the future of Internet governance. Those parties came together in two days and agreed that Internet governance should be built on democratic multistakeholder processes that ensure “meaningful and accountable participation of all stakeholders, including governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community, the academic community and users.”

Now as reported in the press, Russia spoke out against the NetMundial consensus.  What was not as fully reported was the fact that only one other government, Cuba, joined it in open opposition to the outcomes statement endorsed by the NetMundial participants.

We firmly believe that our announcement will help prevent any government or group of governments to take over the domain name system.  Our continued stewardship of the IANA functions has been a source of friction and used as an excuse by Russia and others to push for organizations like the International Telecommunication Union to take over the IANA functions.  Our announcement takes that argument off the table, and affirms the role of the global Internet community, which is committed to a truly inclusive multistakeholder process for Internet governance.

Leading human rights groups agree.  In a letter to Congress earlier this year, the Center for Democracy and Technology, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and others said that the transition “could help thwart government overreach in Internet governance, which would have devastating implications for human rights worldwide.”

Another misconception about our announcement is that some countries have used it as an excuse to clamp down on Internet access in their own countries.  Nothing about our role with the IANA functions can prevent countries from censoring and restricting access to the Internet within their own borders.  Efforts by Russia and others to limit access within their own country to information online and offline began long before our announcement.  As the Freedom House noted in its 2013 Internet Freedom report, “Blocking access to information on entire websites, IP addresses, and particular webpages has become the most common means in Russia to restrict user activity on the Internet.”

While countries like Russia might want to export this approach worldwide, the Internet’s decentralized and cooperative nature would never allow it to happen.  Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain, an expert in the intersection of policy and technology, summed it up best in the New Republic earlier this year.  He wrote, “Any attempt to impose broad-based censorship through domain name assignments would be met with stiff resistance by the operators of domain name registries, and ultimately by the Internet Service Providers who choose to consult those registries for information about what destination each name represents.”

Such a move would be strongly resisted by the United States government as well.  Because while we seek to transition out of our limited, largely clerical, role with the IANA functions, we are not walking away from ICANN or exiting from the debate over Internet governance. We will continue to be vocal and active players in all Internet governance forums including ICANN.

Like other governments, the United States is active in ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).  We have been and will continue to be vigorous advocates within the GAC for policies that promote the openness and freedom of the Internet. As one group of stakeholders in the ICANN process, governments have unique power to speak to the public interest when they speak as one based on consensus positions.  I want to emphasize this point.  The Internet does not respect national boundaries.  No one country, no two countries, no ten countries can claim to speak on behalf of the public interest.  This fact is reflected in the ICANN bylaws in which governments can provide advice on public policy matters to the board.  However, such advice only has true power when it is presented as the consensus advice of governments; in other words, when it reflects a global view and not just the parochial view of a handful of governments. 

In that context, the idea that governments could enhance their influence within ICANN by changing its rules to allow for a majority vote on policy issues reflects a misunderstanding of the policymaking process at ICANN as well as a misunderstanding of the meaning of the word consensus.

The United States would strongly oppose any such move and indeed, any effort by governments to eliminate the requirement of consensus will simply weaken the role of governments within ICANN.  Ultimately, ICANN’s multistakeholder process makes it impossible for any one group to dominate the discussions or impose its will.  That is the beauty of the multistakeholder process and why it has enabled the Internet to grow and flourish.

Domestically, there has been strong support for the multistakeholder approach.  Both chambers of Congress voted unanimously in 2012 to “preserve and advance the multistakeholder governance model under which the Internet has thrived.”  Now I understand that some lawmakers have concerns about the IANA transition and its potential impact on Internet freedom and openness.  I respect those opinions but strongly believe Congressional efforts aimed at delaying this transition would send the wrong message to the rest of the world about our commitment to the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance.

The unified message has traditionally been a bulwark against regulatory efforts by foreign authoritarian regimes.  It is important that we continue echoing that message and do everything we can to support the multistakeholder approach as the best model for promoting a free and open Internet across the globe. 

The multistakeholder model allows anyone the opportunity to participate and be heard.  That includes all of you in this room today.  So I urge all of you to show your support for the transition process by participating in it. We have made it crystal clear that the plan should be developed in an open and transparent manner.  Now, there will be coordination out of necessity, and I referred earlier to the coordination group that will do just that.  But anyone can provide input into the process.  I encourage you to do so. 

Second, I urge you to continue to demonstrate your support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.  As with any consensus-based organization, one will not always be able to get everything one wants. But that is a hallmark of the process.  It is not a sign of failure of the process.

And finally, continue to work with all of the stakeholders at ICANN to improve the accountability and transparency of the organization.  I have made that commitment by personally participating in the two prior Accountability and Transparency Review teams, and I encourage all of you to contribute to the accountability review as it gets organized this summer.  

Thank you for listening.