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ICANN’s September Surprise

Gomer Pyle "Surprise, surprise, surprise!" is how Gomer Pyle would react to the news that the US government has allowed the JPA to expire, thus completing the transition of DNS management to ICANN.   Plenty of skeptics doubted the US would let it happen, but today really is ICANN’s independence day.

I was among the many who called for an extension of the JPA (Joint Project Agreement).  First, I wanted to give ICANN more time to develop permanent mechanisms for true accountability.  But I was even more concerned about the threat of capture, especially on hearing proposals from the United Nations and European Commission to assume control over a newly-independent ICANN.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see the new Affirmation of Commitments unveiled by ICANN today, since it does much to address both of those concerns.

This Affirmation establishes new accountability reviews that should end the jockeying for control of ICANN, by giving governments what they’ve wanted: a defined and decisive role for the Government Advisory Committee (GAC), which gets one seat on each of the four review teams. This should give a green light to governments who’ve been staying away from ICANN, waiting for some signal to come join the multi-stakeholder process.

As for accountability, this new framework delivers what the global Internet community has wanted: an independent ICANN that preserves private sector leadership, while holding it accountable to maintain a secure and reliable DNS serving “ the interests of global Internet users.”  To emphasize the global focus, there’s an explicit call for ICANN to deliver internationalized domain names for over half the people on this planet who can’t even use their native language when entering domain names or email addresses.

These new “review teams” could bring to ICANN something similar to the ‘official review’ we have for football and tennis.  For close, controversial decisions, this framework could help ICANN to correct a bad call and get back on-track.  I can see a couple of areas where these new review teams can have an impact right away:

I’m glad to see that the security review team has a forward-looking focus on making sure the DNS stays up 24-7, around the world, even under increasing security threats and a major expansion of top-level domains. 

The review team for competition and consumer choice might finally get ICANN to get its registrars to fulfill the role they were designed for: to offer consumers a choice of all top level domains—not just the ones that a registrar prefers to sell.

The ICANN community has been clamoring for better accountability, but what we’d heard so far from management wasn’t so satisfying.  At the same time, the US Commerce Department collected a stack of public comments and got an earful from Congress about the need for permanent accountability mechanisms to guide ICANN in the post-transition world.  The community has long demanded action on accountability, but short on ideas for how to get it done.

You have to jump several ranks above Gomer Pyle to find this bit of  George Pattonwisdom from General George Patton, “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.”

At first look, it seems to me that Commerce and ICANN have delivered a pair of welcome September surprises for the global Internet community: ICANN independence; plus a balanced framework that brings all governments into the oversight process alongside private sector stakeholders, with a sharpened focus on security and serving global internet users.

–Steve DelBianco