Limited Progress on Privatization Project Makes Outcome Uncertain
GAO-02-805T: Published: Jun 12, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2002.
This testimony discusses privatizing the management of the Internet domain name system. This system is a vital aspect of the Internet that works like an automated telephone directory, allowing users to reach Web sites using easy-to-understand domain names like www.senate.gov, instead of the string of numbers that computers use when communicating with each other. The U.S. government supported the development of the domain name system, and, in 1997, the President charged the Department of Commerce with transitioning it to private management. The Department issued a policy statement, called the "White Paper," that defined the four guiding principles for the privatization effort as stability, competition, representation, and private, bottom-up coordination. After reviewing several proposals from private sector organizations, the Department chose the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a not-for-profit corporation, to carry out the transition. In November 1998, the Department entered into an agreement with ICANN in the form of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) under which the two parties agreed to collaborate on a joint transition project. Progress on and completion of each task is assessed by the Department on a case-by-case basis, with input from ICANN. The timing and eventual outcome of the transition remains highly uncertain. ICANN has made significant progress in carrying out MOU tasks related to one of the guiding principles of the transition effort--increasing competition--but progress has been much slower in the areas of increasing the stability and security of the Internet; ensuring representation of the Internet community in domain name policy-making; and using private bottom-up coordination. Although the transition is well behind schedule, the Department's public assessment of the progress being made on the transition has been limited for several reasons. First, the Department carries out its oversight of ICANN's MOU-related activities mainly through informal discussions with ICANN officials. Second, although the transition is past its original September 2000 completion date, the Department has not provided a written assessment of ICANN's progress since mid-1999. Third, although the Department stated that it welcomed the call for the reform of ICANN, they have not yet taken public position on reforms being proposed.
Recommendation for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Not Implemented
Comments: On September 29, 2006, the Department of Commerce signed a Joint Project Agreement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) on the Internet domain name and addressing system. The agreement has a three-year term and requires a mid-point review of ICANN's progress towards becoming a more stable organization with greater transparency and accountability. On November 2, 2007, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the Department of Commerce published a Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on ICANN's progress. NTIA held a public meeting on February 28, 2008, to discuss the mid-point review. Subsequently, NTIA issued a statement indicating that it completed the mid-point review, and noted that important work remained to increase long-term stability and stakeholder participation and that NTIA would continue to monitor ICANN's progress. NTIA did not release a report associated with the mid-point review as we recommended. On October 9, 2008, NTIA issued a Notice of Inquiry seeking comment on deploying the Domain Name and Addressing System Security Extensions (DNSSEC) at the root zone to preserve the security and stability of the domain name system. There appears to be no effort to prepare a status report on the ICANN transition.
Recommendation: In view of the critical importance of a stable and secure Internet domain name system to governments, business, and other interests, the Secretary of Commerce should issue a status report detailing the Department's assessment of the progress that has been made one transition tasks, the work that remains to be done on the joint project, and the estimated timeframe for completing the transition. In addition, the status report should discuss any changes to the transition tasks or the Department's relationship with ICANN that result from ICANN's reform initiative. Subsequent status report should be issued periodically by the Department until the transition is completed and the final project report is issued.
Agency Affected: Department of Commerce