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10 Dec 2014
The current US Congress isn't very good at getting things done, which means that they delay even their most essential activities to the last minute. One of the more essential of their activities is appropriating the money to run the government, so in keeping with recent practice, a continuing resolution to fund the government through next year was published yesterday (Tuesday), two full days before the previous resolution runs out and the government would shut down.
Congressmen often attach riders to these "must pass" bills that they could never pass separately. This resolution has a rider on page 214 that says:
(a) None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to relinquish the responsibility of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration during fiscal year 2015 with respect to Internet domain name system functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions.
(b) Subsection (a) of this section shall expire on September 30, 2015.
Some observers have argued that this is no big deal, the transition probably wouldn't be ready until next September anyway, it can go ahead then. They are wrong. It will be a long, long time until the NTIA lets go of ICANN.
Conservative Republicans, to the extent they think about the Internet at all ("a series of tubes") are nativists who believe that we Americans built it, we own it, we're running it right, and nobody's gonna give it away to a bunch of foreigners, so they added this rider.
The reason the rider runs out in September is not that they plan to stop objecting, but only because this is a bill for this fiscal year. The incoming Congress is even more conservative than the current one, so we can be quite confident that the spending bills for the next two fiscal years will have the same language.
A fair amount of horse trading, to put it mildly, goes on in the Congress, and hypothetically, someone who wanted the ICANN transition to happen could try and trade this rider for another one, or the President could object and say he's not going to sign a bill until the language is gone. But that's not going to happen, because to the US government, ICANN is not important.
The horses being traded on this bill involve regulation of Wall Street banks, rules about large political contributions, and the President's recent immigration sort-of-amnesty. Is the ICANN transition worth trading for any of those? Don't be ridiculous.
Even better, this rider gives the government deniability. The only reason the transition has gotten as far as it has is that there's been pressure from foreign governments to change, and no backpressure from within the U.S. The current ICANN setup works fine for the U.S., so now, if the stalled transition were to come up in a discussion with a foreign government, John Kerry can shrug his best gallic shrug, sigh deeply, and say that the administration would be delighted to move ahead with the transition, but the Republicans are intransigent, so it is not possible. Nothing different going to happen in the next Congress, which takes us up through September 2017.
There is a reasonable chance that the 2016 election will flip the Senate back to the Democrats, and a small chance it'll flip the House. But even if that happens, there will still be plenty of Republicans who don't want to give away Our Internet, and nobody in Congress who has strong opinions to the contrary. So I see this no-transition rider sticking around for a long, long time, since it throws a morsel of red meat to the Republicans at negligible political cost to anyone.
I expect this analysis will outrage people who are sure that ICANN must must must be freed from U.S. shackles. But you know what? Everyone who matters has bigger fish to fry. It may happen eventually, if someone can figure out how to tie it to something else of sufficient political importance to make it worth fighting with the nativists. But unless and until that happens, don't expect anything to change.
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