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November 9, 2005

US to open internet root to bids?

The US government is said to be planning to open the contract to manage the internet's addressing systems, currently held by ICANN, for competitive bidding. But an official yesterday denied a report that such a move has been discussed publicly.

By CBR Staff Writer

ICANN has carried out the so-called IANA functions — managing the master directories of IP addresses and domain names — under contract with the US Department of Commerce since 1998, but its term expires in March 2006.

According to a source present at a small meeting hosted by the Association for Competitive Technology on Saturday, a Department of Commerce official revealed that the IANA contract would be opened to competitive bidding for the first time.

The comments were attributed to Meredith Attwell, senior advisor at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a division of Commerce, by internet policy expert Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University.

Mueller, who was at the meeting, described the revelation as very surprising. Previously, Commerce has granted ICANN the IANA contract on a sole-source no-bid basis. Many expect that it will continue to do so.

Attwell could not be reached yesterday to confirm the comments attributed to her, and officials at the NTIA denied that any public statement has been made.

The Commerce Department has made no public announcement about the future of the IANA functions contract, an NTIA spokesperson told Computer Business Review. He said such an announcement would be made consistent with federal procurement law.

It seems unlikely such an announcement would come now, a week before the US is set to defend its position of unilateral oversight of the internet’s addressing systems before the UN-backed World Summit on the Information Society.

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At WSIS, to be held in Tunis, Tunisia, senior government representatives from around the world will attempt to come to agreement on the matter of internet governance — what it is and who should do it.

Part of that debate, but not all of it, is figuring out who gets to say what goes into the domain name system and how IP addresses are allocated. Currently ICANN does both, and the NTIA is the nominal governmental overseer.

Many countries want the NTIA, if not ICANN itself, taken out of the equation and replaced with a multilateral forum of governments, possibly with links to the UN or International Telecommunications Union.

In many respects, IANA is at the heart of the debate. One of its functions is to maintain the database of country-code top-level domains — suffixes such as .uk, .us and .de. This necessarily entails deciding who, and which servers, get to run them.

For example, after the invasion of Iraq, IANA had the job of redelegating .iq to the new Iraqi government.

That was a relatively clean decision, given .iq’s original managers were in a Texas prison, but other redelegations have not been as easy. Sometimes the incumbent ccTLD operator does not want to let go, despite the wishes of their government.

Transferring the IANA contract to another party, and such an eventually still seems unlikely even if there is competition for it, would not mean the end of ICANN, it should be noted.

IANA could be characterized as ICANN’s executive wing, rather than its legislature. It was ICANN’s board that told IANA to redelegate .iq. ICANN sets policies and makes decisions, and IANA executes them.

Over the years, some people have argued that there should be a separation of powers. IANA should be removed from ICANN so it could be run more efficiently, they say.

As well as making tough calls on who should run TLDs, IANA has more mundane, if vital, tasks. When a ccTLD operator moves its name servers to a new IP address, for example, IANA has to inform the rest of the internet, by updating the DNS root zone file.

Some ccTLD managers, notably the Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries, CENTR, have been vocally critical of what they see as IANA’s bureaucratic inefficiencies. CENTR wanted to bid for the IANA contract in 2003.

The most notable hiccup in the IANA system came in April 2004, when Libya’s tiny .ly domain stopped working for five days. The ccTLD manager blamed IANA, and ICANN blamed a breakdown in communication and fixed the problem.

While ICANN is arguably the best-qualified to run IANA, having done so for seven years, if the contract did come up for competition, CENTR seems a likely candidate to step up. Other non-profit technical bodies, such as the IETF or Internet Systems Consortium, could offer similar expertise.

The IANA functions do not generate any revenue, so any commercial entities that wanted to bid would be doing it purely for the prestige value. Companies such as VeriSign Inc and ISC already manage some of the internet’s addressing resources for free.

According to Mueller, no details about the criteria that would be used in the purported competitive bidding process were revealed at the Saturday meeting.

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