In March, I was in San Francisco for a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) board of directors.
In terms of ICANN meetings, it was pretty run of the mill. However, in light of some ongoing events in the broader Internet governance world, there were some moments that highlight some of the deep issues that are making their way to the surface.
The welcoming ceremony, often a formal ‘pat on the back’ type event, had some very interesting moments. Larry Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information, made some very pointed remarks with regard to ICANN’s role in governing the Internet. Strickling called out the ICANN board for its lack of transparency around its decisions:ICANN still has work to do to ensure that decisions made related to the global technical coordination of the DNS are in the public interest, are accountable, and are transparent.”
This, of course, is most interesting in light of the fact that the contract between the U.S. Department of Commerce and IANA to manage the root expires in September 2011. IANA is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing, and other Internet protocol resources. ICANN manages IANA under a contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Under this contract, ICANN, coordinates the root of the Internet’s domain name system. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has issued a Request for Comments on IANA functions and will be, I’m sure, using those comments to inform their decision about the next iteration of the IANA functions agreement.
The ICANN board has had a few public showdowns with the Governmental Advisory Committee, including most recently around the introduction of new gTLDs and the approval of the .XXX TLD (more on that later). So, it comes as no surprise that the U.S. government might use whatever means it has available to it to exert its authority, even if to just make a show of it.
Though the ICANN board doesn’t necessarily have to follow the advice of the GAC, they do have to be transparent about why and how decisions are made. In terms of a democratic approach to decision making, one group’s opinion can’t carry more weight than any others, but let’s be frank – governments are one of the most important stakeholders in the Internet governance world. The GAC even has special status in the Affirmation of Commitments.
There’s no question that some changes are necessary. This contract, originally written in 2000, reflects a very different Internet world than the one we have now. When I think about it, the original contract was written, Jon Demco was running the .CA registry out of a basement office at the University of British Columbia. We exist in a very different world now, and this agreement, whatever form it should take – needs to reflect these changes. It’s not just the U.S. government that wants changes; ICANN, clearly wants to distance itself from the U.S. government as well.
The U.S. Government is in a bit of a bind here. They are, unquestionably, the most powerful voice in shaping ICANN board behaviour. However, they can’t play their hand too forcefully.
Many of the proponents of a multi-lateral approach are nations that are less than happy with the Internet being controlled – as they see it – by the U.S. Government, a government that is diametrically opposed to their policies and beliefs. We’re talking about countries like Syria here, for whom human rights are not on their agenda as a priority issue. It is a very delicate balance that the US Government has to weigh in its actions and pronouncements. They need to help mature ICANN’s behaviour, perhaps through tough love and guidance, but be seen to not be too directive and hands on. All this because they actually do believe in the multi-stakeholder, bottom up model for Internet governance and genuinely want it to succeed.
Strickland went on to outline his suggestions for ICANN to move forward to demonstrate that the multi-stakeholder model, in practice, can work in the eyes of the U.S. government. The plan included the implementation of the recommendations of the Accountability and Transparency Review Team, and a rethinking of the relationship of governments to ICANN through the GAC.
Are these suggestions a set of marching orders? Or some kind of threat? Time will tell. There’s a lot of politics at play here. Different entities are jostling for position, and the end prize is fundamental to the way the Internet – as we currently know it – is run.
In other surprising Internet news, it turns out I was wrong in one of my predictions for 2011. ICANN did approve the .XXX TLD. However, if the Internet landscape really is changing for the better, I’m happy to eat metaphorical crow.