October 24, 2005

Who Really Installs New Top Level Domains?

This morning Bret Fausett wrote a note that concerned the question whether there is US Government involvement in the choice to deploy .xxx.  Bret's points are well taken but I believe they reflect the surface and not the substance.

It may be true that the decisions are independent, but what about the actions that transform those decisions into actual changes in the root zone file?  Is that sequence of actions performed independent of the USG?

To put it another way, the question is whether the USG is in a position to approve, reject, or modify ICANN's decisions?

We have seen evidence that the USG is completely willing and able to bypass ICANN:  A couple of years ago the United States Government ignored ICANN when the USG had the root zone file modified to reflect the USG's redelegation of the .us ccTLD.

Thus we have smoke - is there fire?  It seems that we need to dig deeper to find the answer.

In the list of principles I wrote about the other day I listed this principle: "The first step towards governance is a clear understanding of what it is that needs to be governed and what the goals of that governance are."

So lets ask, what is really the ultimate step of adding a TLD?

More properly we should ask: whose fingers are they that will enter the letters "xxx" into the file or database that constitutes the root zone file?

Way back in 2003 ICANN published it's CRADA report.  (Go here for my comments on that report.)

That report describes the then existing mechanism through which TLDs are added to the root zone file.  It is a process in which the USG is directly involved.  And the body that ultimately makes the changes to the file is Verisign.  Here's is how the CRADA describes this process:

In the current implementation, root-zone change requests from top-level domain (TLD) operators are received by ICANN, which is responsible for reviewing the appropriateness of these requests as part of its performance of the IANA function. Once their appropriateness is verified, ICANN sends these requests to the United States Department of Commerce for approval; these approvals are then transmitted to VeriSign, which makes the changes as requested by ICANN and approved by the Commerce Department.

That's what it was in 2003.  I am not aware that the change suggested in the CRADA (to shift Verisign's role to ICANN [or IANA]) has ever actually been implemented.

But even if the CRADA change were to be implemented, the only thing that shifts is the responsibility for making the final "edits" from Verisign to ICANN.  Here is the important part: the loop in which the USG must approve (which implies the power to reject) TLD changes remains with the USG.

It appears to me, backed by the language of ICANN and the US Government, that the USG retains a significant authority the addition, removal, and alteration (and thus redelegation) of Top Level Domains.  To my mind the only open question is whether the the USG is willing and able to act in this process independently of a change request from ICANN (and the .us situation suggests that the USG is willing and able.)

Posted by karl at October 24, 2005 11:44 AM