Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at American University's GigaNET Conference

Remarks by Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Global Internet Governance Academic Network (GigaNet)
Washington, DC
May 05, 2011

I am very pleased to join you today at American University for this GigaNet workshop on Global Internet Governance.  I would like to thank Nanette Levinson for the kind words of introduction and Milton Mueller for the invitation to speak.  In looking at the conference program, it appears that many of the topics being discussed are squarely on my agenda as the Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).  With that in mind, I would like to share with you the principles that guide our work and where we at NTIA are headed on some key Internet governance issues. 

At NTIA we have made it a priority to develop policies to ensure that we continue to have an Internet environment that encourages innovation and creativity and fosters trust with its users.  We are guided by two dominant principles as we approach these challenging issues.  First is the idea of trust.  It is imperative for the sustainability and continued growth of the Internet that we preserve the trust of all actors on the Internet.  For example, if users do not trust that their personal information is safe on the Internet, they will be reluctant to adopt new services or fully engage in Internet commerce.  If content providers do not trust that their content will be protected, they will threaten to stop putting it online.  Our second key principle is that we want to preserve and enhance a multistakeholder model for dealing with these issues. Multistakeholder organizations have played a major role in the design and operation of the Internet and are directly responsible for its success.  We believe that maintaining and extending this model is important for ensuring the continued growth and innovation of the Internet.

We’ve put these principles into practice with our work as the convener of the Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force, where working with colleagues across the Department, we have made substantial progress on the issue of consumer data privacy and hope to issue recommendations on cybersecurity, free flow of information and online copyright in the coming months. 

For example, in the case of privacy of online commercial data, last December, after convening a workshop and soliciting comments, we released a green paper recommending the establishment of stronger privacy protections. The starting point for our recommendations was that strong privacy protection is necessary to preserve and build the trust of users of the Internet and is indispensable to the continued growth and innovation on the Internet. 

Our recommendations also carve out an important role for multistakeholder processes. We propose that baseline privacy protections be adopted in legislation but that we then convene stakeholders to develop enforceable codes of conduct to implement the baseline protections. This multistakeholder process allows us the speed to respond quickly to new issues of consumer privacy and the flexibility to have new protections crafted in the most efficient manner.

This notion of multistakeholder governance figures prominently in the Internet policy-making principles we have introduced in discussions at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).  Our OECD effort is focused, among other things, on advancing the global consensus around the multistakeholder concept that we believe is critical to the Internet’s success.

From all of this it should be crystal clear that the Obama Administration is fully committed to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.  But when we seek to extend it to other areas of Internet policy, the obvious questions we get are (1) where has the model been used before and (2) how well has it performed.  It is important that we have success stories to point to.  One is the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a key multistakeholder institution.  I believe that the IGF is the very embodiment of the multistakeholder Internet governance model.  I am very pleased that the United Nations has renewed the mandate of the IGF for an additional five years and I look forward to attending this year’s meeting in Nairobi, Kenya as well as the U.S. IGF in July.

Some of you may have heard that the United States recently requested the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD), to discontinue its working group on improvements to the IGF.  I want to make clear that this letter does not signify any lessening of our support for the IGF.  Indeed, just the opposite is true.  We like the IGF as it is currently constituted and we simply did not think that the group was likely to produce any outcome that would strengthen the existing model.  We were concerned that the longer the group survived, the more likely it would advocate for fundamental changes to the IGF.  Moving forward, the United States government is fully committed to working with our partners in the private sector and civil society as we prepare for future meetings of CSTD or any other body which make take up the issue of the IGF. 

In addition to the IGF, we also want to point to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as an example of a successful multistakeholder organization.  ICANN is important not just because of its multistakeholder nature, but also because of its core mission to provide technical coordination of the Internet's domain name system (DNS).   We remain committed to the ICANN model as the best way to preserve and protect the security and stability of the DNS.  But as with any important institution, we should never shy away from critically evaluating its performance and making improvements where appropriate.  And for those of you that participate in ICANN or follow the debates, you know that I have been anything but shy in my role as NTIA Administrator to point out where ICANN can improve.

And there have been improvements.  In recent speeches, I have highlighted the progress that ICANN has made since we signed the Affirmation of Commitments in 2009.  Today, however, I’d like to focus on two key challenges confronting the ICANN Board as it prepares for its upcoming meeting in Singapore in June.

First is the accountability and transparency of ICANN’s decision-making processes.  The Affirmation of Commitments, among other things, established four global multistakeholder review teams to evaluate ICANN’s performance and execution on key tasks.   The first of these review teams is related to preserving and enhancing accountability and transparency in ICANN’s decision-making and ensuring the interests of global Internet users are taken into account.  I had the privilege of serving on the first Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT).   This effort allowed me to do a deep dive into the inner workings of ICANN, and along with fellow Review Team members, provide what we think are thoughtful and meaningful suggestions, based on community stakeholder input, to enhance and improve this model. 

The recommendations deal with some of the key building blocks of the ICANN model, specifically, (1) Board governance, performance and composition; (2) the role and effectiveness of the Government Advisory Committee and its interaction with the Board; (3) the processes for public input into the policy development process; and (4) the mechanisms for the review of Board decisions. 

For the most part, our recommendations are not new.  They have been suggested in past studies from past years.  The question before us is whether the ICANN Board and management have the discipline and will power to embrace and implement these recommendations in a serious and meaningful way.  It is my expectation as a Review Team Member and co-signer of the Affirmation that the Board will take up this challenge and move to implement these recommendations at the upcoming ICANN meeting in Singapore.

The Board appears to be moving forward to implement the recommendations but it has provided little visibility into the substance of its review to date.  In order for ICANN to continue to enjoy the support of global stakeholders, it must take the specific proactive steps outlined by the Review Team to ensure that the accountability and transparency of its day-to-day operations match the expectations of the global Internet community. 

A second challenge facing ICANN as the Singapore meeting approaches, is finding a way to adequately address the collective concerns of governments, as expressed through the Government Advisory Committee (GAC), regarding the possible expansion of generic top level domain names (gTLDs).  I have spoken before about my concern that one of the greatest challenges facing the Internet in the next five years is its political sustainability, which of course forces us to confront the question of what is the collective role of nation-states with respect to the multistakeholder governance model.  The ICANN Board – GAC interaction in recent months is a perfect example of this challenge.  Those discussions represent the first really meaningful exchanges between the Board and the GAC to understand and evaluate GAC advice on the gTLD program and I commend ICANN for its efforts to respond to the GAC advice.  Nonetheless, it is unclear to me today whether ICANN and the GAC can complete this process in a satisfactory manner for the Board to approve the guidebook on June 20, 2011, as ICANN has stated it wants to do. 

At NTIA, we are working with others in the Executive Branch to evaluate the proposed changes to the guidebook.  We will provide input into the GAC’s deliberations on key issues such as a meaningful way for governments, via the GAC, to express objections to proposed strings, as well as other issues related to law enforcement, consumer protection and intellectual property protection.  But one issue is clearly going to be a problem for the United States and I suspect, for other nations as well.  And that is effort of ICANN to say on the one hand that a GAC consensus objection to a proposed string for any reason gives rise to a strong presumption for the Board to deny the application but then on the other hand to dictate the terms of how the GAC should develop its consensus advice.  The GAC has been operating on a consensus basis as set forth in its operating principles and there is no basis for ICANN to now attempt to dictate a new definition of consensus in the context of the expansion of top level domains.

I want to emphasize that this proposal for dealing with objectionable proposed top-level domains, is not intended to turn over decision-making to governments but to find a way to bring them willingly, if not enthusiastically, into the tent of multistakeholder policy making. While some nations persist in proposing such measures as giving the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) the authority to veto ICANN Board decisions, the United States is most assuredly opposed to establishing a governance structure for the Internet that would be managed and controlled by nation-states. Such a structure could lead to the imposition of heavy-handed and economically misguided regulation and the loss of flexibility the current system allows today, all of which would jeopardize the growth and innovation we have enjoyed these past years.

ICANN is well on its way to providing governments a meaningful opportunity to participate and be heard inside of ICANN.  But it needs to fix this issue as well as to conclude its discussions with the GAC on the other open issues related to the top level domain expansion.   Unless the GAC believes that ICANN has been sufficiently responsive to their concerns, I do not see how the Guidebook can be adopted on June 20th in Singapore in a manner that ensures continuing global governmental support of ICANN.

Yet another example of NTIA’s commitment to the multistakeholder model is the process we have underway to review the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) functions contract.  The IANA functions have historically included:  (1) the coordination of the assignment of technical Internet protocol parameters; (2) the administration of certain responsibilities associated with Internet DNS root zone management; (3) the allocation of Internet numbering resources; and (4) other services related to the management of the .ARPA and .INT top-level domains.  As you know, ICANN currently performs the IANA functions, on behalf of the United States Government, through a contract with NTIA.  This contract expires on September 30, 2011 and on March 4, 2011, we issued a Notice of Inquiry to seek stakeholder input on how to enhance the performance of the IANA functions in the development and award of a new IANA functions contract.

I would like to personally thank the stakeholders from the around the world, including some of you in this room, that took the time to file comments on such an important issue.  The fact that so many of the comments are from stakeholders outside of the United States reinforces the global nature of the Internet and the need for NTIA to understand that our stewardship role in this area must reflect the interests of stakeholders worldwide.  We are carefully reviewing the record of this docket and expect in the coming weeks to issue a further call for global stakeholder input on the appropriate next steps. 

I heard from yesterday’s House hearing that some of the witnesses proposed that we use this contract as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency on the part of the company performing the IANA functions.  We are seriously considering these suggestions and will be seeking further comment from the global Internet community on this issue.

I would also like to respond to two of the issues addressed in the comments.  The first is the community’s response to our questions about the potential for unbundling the three core IANA functions going forward.  While several commenters supported the idea of unbundling, it was surprising that none of the parties that could logically perform these unbundled services supported this approach. 

Second is the issue whether NTIA should transition the IANA functions to the private sector or adjust the current contractual framework into a Cooperative Agreement.  The fact is, however, that NTIA does not have the legal authority to transition the IANA functions contract into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, nor do we have the statutory authority to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, or any other organization, for the performance of the IANA functions. 

Let me finish with one last reference to the importance of the multistakeholder process.  The issue of the transfer of previously allocated Internet protocol numbers, specifically legacy IPv4 numbers, has been in the news recently in the context of the agreement negotiated between Nortel and Microsoft.  Consistent with the historical evolution of the Internet, the current structure of managing and coordinating Internet numbers is through both regional and global multistakeholder policy making processes.  As we monitored the legal situation, our primary concern was to preserve the applicability of these processes to the coordination of IP numbers and I was pleased to see that the resolution on this important issue to allow the transfer was consistent with that model. 

In closing, I reiterate that the Obama Administration is absolutely committed to the multistakeholder process as an essential strategy for dealing with Internet policy issues, particularly when compared to the more traditional, top-down regulatory processes.  We do however, need to address how all stakeholders, including governments collectively, can operate within the paradigm of a multistakeholder environment and be satisfied that their interests are being adequately addressed.  Resolving this issue is critical to ensure the long term political sustainability of an Internet that supports the free flow of information, goods and services.  Thank you.