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Capturing the Meaning of "Capture" at ICANN

The higher-ups at Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers(ICANN) were in town on Wednesday, talking up their plan “improve institutional confidence” before they walk away from a key relationship with the U.S. Government in September 2009.


I had a chance to ask them (good account here) how they plan to address a major concern of the business community — the possibility that an independent ICANN could be “captured” by a foreign government or multi-national bureaucracy.


When ICANN’s Joint Project Agreement (JPA) with the U.S. Department of Commerce came up for a mid-term review in 2007, one of the key concerns cited by members of the Internet community was that ICANN could be subject to capture after its traditional relationship with the U.S. Government ends.


ICANN appeared to acknowledge that concern, making “Safeguarding Against Capture” their top agenda item in their plan to improve institutional confidence. But to our chagrin, almost all of the proposals ICANN offered were aimed at preventing internal capture, by parties already involved in the ICANN process.


But what the Internet community was really concerned about was not internal capture, but rather the threat that ICANN would be forcibly taken over by the foreign governments who believe that the Internet’s addressing system is too important to leave to the private sector.


ICANN is claiming they have “checked the box” on capture, with a few bureaucratic measures to stop ICANN participants from capturing ICANN’s internal processes. But the real danger to private sector leadership of ICANN comes from EXTERNAL forces eager to usurp ICANN’s role.


With a $60 million budget and control over the Internet DNS, ICANN is a magnet for the United Nations and governments. Last fall we heard the Russian government call for the United Nations to assert control over critical Internet resources. Just goes to show ICANN that all that money and power may not buy friends, but it does invite a better class of enemies.


Many of us believe that the legacy role of US Commerce Department oversight is the main defense against capture by the United Nations and restive governments. But who’s protecting ICANN after it walks away from its partnership agreement with the US next year?


Plenty of governments question whether ICANN is doing enough to stop Internet fraud and abuse, particularly cyber-terrorism like the denial-of-service attacks that crippled Estonia and more recently Georgia? What happens when they decide to take matters into their own hands? Frankly I don’t know, and what scares me is that I don’t think ICANN does either.


Until somebody gets a handle on it, we may want to put the brakes on ICANN’s impending “transition.”