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Institutionalizing Consumer Trust and Public Interest at ICANN

For an organization where people argue for hours over arcane minutiae, it’s remarkable that virtually everyone agrees that ICANN should serve the “global public interest” and build “consumer trust” in the Internet.


Although it’s only three pages long, ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments (AoC) cites “public interest” five times and “consumer trust” eight times. So at the ICANN meeting today in Cartagena, Colombia, a group of participants explored ways to “institutionalize” these concepts within the organization.


There’s no argument about whether to institutionalize concepts of public interest and consumer trust at ICANN. The real question is how to do it in the ICANN context.


At today’s meeting, participants focused on institutionalizing these concepts by creating a new ‘consumer’ constituency group within ICANN. That’s not surprising, since ICANN is organized as a constellation of special-interest stakeholder groups and  constituencies. A newly chartered ‘Consumers Constituency’ would get a box on the ICANN org chart and its own seat at the table to advocate on behalf of the public interest and consumer trust.


But before we head down that path and create yet another new institution within ICANN, let’s think about how to instill these values in the institution we already have.


After all, when ICANN committed to accountability in the AoC, there was no rush to create a new ‘Accountability’ Constituency. Instead, everyone assumed that AoC commitments apply to the entire ICANN organization and all of its operations. You might even say that accountability has become “institutionalized” within ICANN.


ICANN constituencies are special-interest by nature and oppositional by necessity. They defend the interests of their members against other constituencies that are advancing their own interests. That’s inevitable in making zero-sum policy decisions, but is a competing constituency model the best way to embrace commitments that would be agreed by all and applied to all?


Another issue with the proposed Consumer Constituency is that it would be placed within the ICANN organization that makes policy only for generic domains like com, org, and info. That means this Consumer Constituency would have no bearing on policies for country-code domains such as uk, cn, and br. However, these country-code domains are growing faster than the generics, and certainly ought to share the same commitment to consumer trust and the global public interest.


To truly institutionalize a commitment to consumer trust and the global public interest, it seems the last thing we need is yet another constituency group housed in one of ICANN’s supporting organizations.


There has to be a better way to institutionalize values across an institution. Give this a try:


We in the Internet community can develop definitions of “consumer trust” and the “public interest” in the context of ICANN. They won’t be the same definitions used by institutions that work in other fields, such as food safety or global warming. But with some focused attention, we can indeed define specific elements of consumer trust and public interest in the Internet context.


Next, we design metrics to assess how ICANN is affecting our definitions of consumer trust and serving the public interest. As Peter Dengate Thrush has often said, “what get’s measured, gets done,” so ICANN’s management can be measured and held accountable for minimum metrics and for year-over-year improvements.


For my part, I’ll start the conversation with a definition that fits the global public interest commitment in ICANN’s Bylaws and the Affirmation of Commitments. For an institution that coordinates the Internet domain name system, Public Interest means: availability and integrity of registrations and resolutions.


Availability of the DNS is critical for global users who increasingly rely on the Internet for information, communications, and commerce. Domain name resolutions need to be available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, from anywhere on the globe. Availability also means being able to use any language and any script for both generic and country-code domains and email addresses.


Availability also applies to domain names sought by registrants: will domains in new gTLDs be available to the public, or will they be captured by insiders? That kind of availability should also be part of the public interest test for ICANN decisions.


Integrity of the DNS is vital to businesses and end-users of the Internet. Businesses rely upon the integrity of domain name registration to ensure that their brands are not misrepresented or misappropriated. E-commerce and Internet financial transactions absolutely require integrity in resolution of domain names and secure delivery of encrypted data.


Internet users depend upon the integrity of domain name services to provide accurate and authentic results when they look up a website or send an email. Integrity is undermined by deceptive practices such as redirecting users to fraudulent websites or providing false information about the true owner of a domain.


I think Availability and Integrity really do capture the essence of serving the global public interest in the ICANN context. I’m eager to see what the ICANN community can do to improve on that definition, and to come up with similar definition for building and measuring consumer trust.


–Steve DelBianco