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Remarks of Assistant Secretary Strickling at The Internet Governance Forum USA

July 14, 2016

Remarks of Lawrence E. Strickling
Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
The Internet Governance Forum USA
Washington, D.C.
July 14, 2016

--As Prepared for Delivery--

I come here today to speak out for freedom. Specifically, Internet freedom. I come here to speak out for free speech and civil liberties. I come here to speak out in favor of the transition of the U.S. government’s stewardship of the domain name system to the global multistakeholder community. And I come here to speak out against what former NTIA Administrator John Kneuer has so aptly called the “hyperventilating hyperbole” that has emerged since ICANN transmitted the consensus transition plan to us last March.

Protecting Internet freedom and openness has been a key criterion for the IANA transition from the day we announced it in March 2014. The best way to preserve Internet freedom is to depend on the community of stakeholders who own and operate, transact business and exchange information over the myriad of networks that comprise the Internet. Free expression is protected by the open, decentralized nature of the Internet, the neutral manner in which the technical aspects of the Internet are managed and the commitment of stakeholders to maintain openness. Freedom House reported that “Internet freedom around the world has declined for the fifth consecutive year ...” Its prescription for defending Internet freedom is to encourage the U.S. government to “complet[e] the transition to a fully privatized Domain Name System.”

What will not be effective to protect Internet freedom is to continue the IANA functions contract. That contract is too limited in scope to be a tool for protecting Internet freedom. It simply designates ICANN to perform the technical IANA functions of managing the database of protocol parameters, allocating IP numbers and processing changes to the root zone file. It does not grant NTIA any authority over ICANN’s day-to-day operations or the organization’s accountability to the stakeholder community. The transition plan goes beyond any authority that NTIA or the U.S. government has today by enhancing the power of stakeholders to ensure ICANN’s accountability. For example, the U.S. government has no ability to reject an ICANN budget or to remove an ICANN board member—two of the new enumerated community powers. 

Extending the contract, as some have asked us to do, could actually lead to the loss of Internet freedom we all want to maintain. The potential for serious consequences from extending the contract beyond the time necessary for ICANN to complete implementation of the transition plan is very real and has implications for ICANN, the multistakeholder model and the credibility of the United States in the global community.

Privatizing the domain name system has been a goal of Democratic and Republican administrations since 1997. Prior to our 2014 announcement to complete the privatization, some governments used NTIA’s continued stewardship of the IANA functions to justify their demands that the United Nations, the International Telecommunication Union or some other body of governments take control over the domain name system. Failing to follow through on the transition or unilaterally extending the contract will only embolden authoritarian regimes to intensify their advocacy for government-led or intergovernmental management of the Internet via the United Nations.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Cartwright recently noted in Politico that rejecting or even delaying the transition would be a gift to those governments threatened by a free and open Internet. The Global Commission on Internet Governance, a group of leading experts from around the world, echoed this message by recently calling on the U.S. Government to adopt the proposal and to meet the September 2016 target date for the transition of the IANA functions. Failure to do so, the Commission said, would “send the wrong message to the international community, increase distrust, and will likely encourage some governments to pursue their own national or even regional Internets.”

Over the past two years, the global Internet community, comprised of businesses, technical experts, public interest groups and governments, has engaged in one of the most compelling demonstrations of a multistakeholder process ever undertaken. The transition plan is a thoughtful proposal that was developed through consensus over two years by hundreds of stakeholders around the world. Stakeholders spent more than 26,000 working hours on the proposal, exchanged more than 33,000 messages on mailing lists, held more than 600 meetings and calls and incurred millions of dollars of legal fees. Given the intensive level of effort that went into constructing the transition plan and obtaining support for it from all parts of the ICANN community, it is no surprise that the community supports the transition and wants to see the United States follow through on its long-standing, bipartisan commitment to privatize the domain name system.

I realize that the transition raises many important questions. None are more important than the ones we asked in March 2014 when we laid out the criteria for the transition. We said then that the plan must:

  • support and enhance the multistakeholder model of Internet governance;
  • maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and
  • maintain the openness of the Internet.

In addition, we said we would not accept a plan that replaced NTIA’s role with a government-led or intergovernmental organization solution.

Upon the community’s completion of the plan, NTIA led an intensive interagency review to ensure the plan met these criteria. On June 9, we found that the plan satisfied each and every one of our criteria. We also evaluated the proposal against relevant internal control principles, as recommended by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). We separately engaged a panel of corporate governance experts to review the ICANN accountability proposal. The experts concluded that the proposal is consistent with sound principles of good governance.

Despite the open and transparent two-year process that developed the plan, the many pages of documentation provided by the community to describe and support the plan, and the exhaustive review we conducted, misperceptions and outright misrepresentations about the plan continue to circulate. I will use the remainder of my time to correct the record on many of these claims.

Among the most persistent misconceptions is that we are giving away the Internet. First off, we do not control the Internet. It is simply not true, and people who really understand the Internet know it is not true. No one controls the Internet. The Internet is a network of networks that operates with the cooperation of stakeholders around the world. The most significant operational change required by the transition is to end the largely clerical role NTIA plays in reviewing updates to the root zone file.

Even more extreme (and wrong) is the claim that we are giving the Internet away to Russia, China, and other authoritarian governments that want to censor content on the Internet. No one has set forth even a plausible scenario as to how that could happen, and the fact is it simply will not happen as a result of completing the transition.

Within ICANN, the transition proposal does not expand the role of governments vis-à-vis other stakeholders. The bylaws retain the prohibition on government officials serving as voting board members. The role of governments in ICANN policymaking remains advisory. Under the proposal, governments will continue through the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) to provide input to the Board in the normal course of business. As is currently the case, the Board is free to reject GAC advice.

Today, the Board does give special consideration to consensus GAC advice. The transition proposal codifies current practice through a bylaw change that defines consensus as agreement to which no one formally objects. Now it is true that under the proposal, the threshold for rejecting such GAC consensus advice does increase from 50 percent to 60 percent. However, given the codification of “consensus” in the bylaws, this standard only applies to advice from governments to which no government, including the United States, has objected.

The GAC has the potential to participate in the Empowered Community, but only at a level commensurate with other stakeholders. Notably, the GAC cannot unilaterally exercise the community powers. Moreover, the bylaws expressly prohibit the GAC from participating in the community powers when the issue in contention is a Board action on GAC advice.

Some argue that authoritarian countries are not going to give up their goal of having governments control the domain name system and that the United States is daft for thinking that this transition will change those countries. We would be silly if we thought that, but that has never been our goal. We have never thought we would persuade authoritarian regimes that our view of the Internet is the best approach, but what matters is what the rest of the world thinks. There we have made great progress over the last few years.

At the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in 2012, 89 countries joined in a resolution to expand the authority of the ITU relative to Internet issues. The United States was in the minority that day. However, since then, we have worked hard with countries in the developing world to build support for the multistakeholder model of Internet governance. Due in part to our transition announcement and due in part to focused diplomacy of the U.S. government coordinated by the State Department, we have made a lot of progress, as represented by the fact that almost 30 of those 89 countries have now demonstrated their support for multistakeholder governance of the domain name system by joining in the Governmental Advisory Committee’s consensus position to move the transition proposal forward.

Another claim now making the rounds is that the transition plan is a radical proposal that is being rushed through by the Obama Administration. How can anyone call a longstanding bipartisan policy to privatize the Internet radical? The direction to privatize the domain name system goes back nearly twenty years. The community spent two years to develop its plan. No one rushed the community effort. To the contrary, we extended the contract for a year when the community said it needed more time to complete its work. Nothing is being rushed here and to suggest otherwise is to ignore the facts.

Another false claim is the fear that ICANN will move its headquarters abroad once the transition is complete and “flee” the reach of U.S. law. However, this ignores the fact that the stakeholder community has spent the last two years building an accountability regime for ICANN that at its core relies on California law and on ICANN to remain a California corporation.

ICANN’s own bylaws confirm that “the principal office for the transaction of the business of ICANN shall be in the County of Los Angeles, State of California, United States of America.” ICANN’s Board cannot change this bylaw over the objection of the stakeholder community.  Additionally, ICANN’s Articles of Incorporation already state that ICANN “is organized under California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law.” Changes to the Articles of Incorporation now require support of a 75 percent majority of the empowered community. ICANN is a California corporation and will remain so.

Other claims keep popping up and I do not have time today to correct every misstatement being made about the transition. For example, after living for two years under an appropriations restriction that prohibits us from using appropriated funds to relinquish our responsibility for the domain name system, it is now asserted that this restriction prevents us even from reviewing the transition plan. Yet this claim ignores the fact that at the same time Congress approved the restriction, it also directed NTIA "to conduct a thorough review and analysis of any proposed transition" and to provide quarterly reports on the process to Congress.

In the last couple of weeks, I have heard new concerns about the possible antitrust liability of a post-transition ICANN. However, this concern ignores the fact that ICANN in its policymaking activities has always been and will continue to be subject to antitrust laws.

I could go on but let me close with some observations on the multistakeholder process. There is no question that within ICANN, the last two years have strengthened the multistakeholder model as it is practiced there. Moreover, the accomplishments of the process at ICANN are serving as a powerful example to governments and other stakeholders of how to use the process to reach consensus on the solutions to complex and difficult issues. However, as we work toward completing the transition, we must recognize that the multistakeholder model will continue to face challenges. It is important that we remain dedicated to demonstrating our support and respect for the multistakeholder approach in all the venues where it is used.

We do not show respect for the multistakeholder process when we wait until the process is over and the community has reached consensus and then propose a two-year trial of the plan without ever asking the community to consider such an option. We do not show respect for the multistakeholder process when we do not participate for two years and then afterwards say we preferred an option that the community considered and rejected.

Closer to home, here at the IGF-USA, we need to respect the process by working to expand participation beyond the Beltway and to support the inclusion of new stakeholders on a nationwide basis in an open, transparent, and inclusive manner. This kind of growth requires a strong foundation, which is why NTIA supports the work of the IGF-USA’s new Sustainability Working Group. This group is working to develop a governance structure to guide the organizational process and to ensure that there is diverse, inclusive and multistakeholder engagement.

In closing, thanks to all of you for your interest and involvement in IGF-USA and in the IANA transition. I want to particularly thank those of you here today who actually contributed your time, effort, and creativity to reaching consensus on the IANA transition plan. Your hard work and dedication has been truly inspiring.

Thank you for listening.