What Is the IANA Contract and Why is it Important?

Those of us in the domain name space often take the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) Functions and the contract that governs those functions for granted. And those outside of the domain name space may not even know about them at all if it weren’t for recent media coverage. If you’ve been hearing a lot about he IANA transition or who “runs” the Internet, here is some background information.

The IANA Functions are critical to ensuring that the Internet runs smoothly, and they consist of the following:

  1. Domain Name System (DNS) Root Zone Management;
  2. Internet Numbers (IP Addresses) Registry Management; and
  3. Protocol Parameter Registry Management

To put it simply, the IANA Functions coordinate the Internet’s unique identifiers (#1 & #2) using standardized protocol parameters (#3) to allow computers/phones/tablets to efficiently communicate with each other.

Another way to understand the IANA Functions is to visualize the Internet as a city grid with an intricate system of roads and streets. No matter how well paved and spotless the streets are, it would be impossible to get to a destination if there were no coordinated street signs or addresses. Imagine trying to give your out-of-town friend directions to your favorite pizza joint without a street address or cross streets!

Even if individual shopkeepers and restaurant owners put up their own shingles, street signs, and neighborhood names, the lack of coordination at a citywide level would make it difficult for the city’s residents to effectively find their destination. How confusing would it be if there were multiple Pizza Streets in two distinct neighborhoods called Little Italy?

Just as a city council would ensure coordination of unique addresses to allow its residents to traverse the city, IANA coordinates domain names and IP addresses according to a standard protocol to enable Internet users to navigate the Internet.

Who is responsible for the IANA Functions?

Currently, the IANA Functions are administered by IANA, a division within ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), through the IANA Contract with the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) of the U.S. Department of Commerce. If the Internet were a city, ICANN serves in the “city council” role and manages (among other things) the coordination of unique addresses within the city.

Initially, the IANA Functions were performed on an ad hoc basis, until the explosive growth and commercialization of the Internet made this unsustainable. Although it might be easy to coordinate a small village, it becomes much more complex once the village grows into a giant metropolis. After gradual formalization of the IANA Function during the 1990s, the NTIA finally established a stand-alone IANA contract with ICANN in 2000.

What does it mean to own the IANA contract?

Although it is the entity that awards the IANA contract, the NTIA’s role as the contracted party is limited, and largely symbolic. Specifically, the NTIA is simply tasked with verifying that ICANN follows established policies and procedures when managing the IANA Functions. Nevertheless, the NTIA’s IANA Stewardship role has come under scrutiny for a variety of reasons. From a domain name standpoint alone, some national governments see NTIA’s role in overseeing changes to the Root Zone regarding ccTLDs (country code top-level domains) as encroachment. Although the NTIA is tasked with reviewing requested changes “solely with respect to whether or not ICANN has followed established policies and procedures, the perception (understandably) remains.

How is the transition going to take place?

The U.S. Government never intended to remain in the role of the IANA steward. For instance, the U.S. Department of Commerce expressed its commitment to a “transition that will allow the private sector to take leadership for DNS management” in its Statement of Policy in 1998.

In line with this commitment, the NTIA announced its intention to transition this “key Internet domain name function to the global multistakeholder community” on March 14, 2014, and asked ICANN to facilitate the multistakeholder process with the end goal of delivering a transition proposal.

According to the NTIA, the proposal must adhere to the following four principles:

  • Support and enhance the multistakeholder model;
  • Maintain the security, stability, and resiliency of the Internet DNS;
  • Meet the needs and expectation of the global customers and partners of the IANA services; and,
  • Maintain the openness of the Internet.

In response, ICANN launched its Process to Develop the Proposal and Next Steps, and the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) was formed to develop a proposal to the NTIA recommending a transition plan of NTIA’s stewardship of IANA functions.

The NTIA also stated that it will “not accept a proposal that replaces the NTIA role with a government-let or an inter-governmental organization solution”. Although the current IANA Functions contract will expire on September 30, 2015, the NTIA has indicated the contract will simply be extended until an equitable, non-governmental solution for IANA Stewardship transition can be found.

Hearing more about the IANA contract Transition in the media and have more questions? Let us know.

Josh Bourne
The IANA Functions and IANA Contract 101

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