Whenever I attend meetings like today’s Congressional Internet Caucus Conference and hear all the talk about how ICANN is on a "collision course" with national governments, I’m reminded again of how even the most thoughtful observers often misunderstand the fundamental difference between Internet governance and technical management of the Internet infrastructure.
ICANN is a private sector organization, responsible for managing the DNS and making sure the Internet works smoothly for everyone. Governments have a different responsibility. They make and enforce the laws that govern how their citizens do business on the Internet-laws dealing with consumer protection, spam, privacy, and censorship. The political considerations that go into making laws have no place in ICANN. And governments should resist the temptation to make politics a part of technical management.
Unfortunately, the US government has not always respected this difference between management and governance. And that has tempted governments critical of the US to consider ICANN as some sort of international governing body, one they believe should be controlled by a multinational organization like the UN.
Businesses that depend on the Internet have good reason to be concerned about multinational Internet governance. The Internet was built by the private sector at a cost upwards of a trillion dollars, but the private sector has no vote at the UN. For its part, ICANN treats government as just one of its many constituencies.
There are, of course, genuine cultural differences and political disagreements about the proper role of government in an interconnected world. We have different ideas about what to do when something is deemed critical. In the Anglo-American world, we have this notion that if something is highly critical we should leave it alone. In Europe and elsewhere, there’s a belief that if something is critical, then of course the government should be running it.
Tensions started building when governments sought a more prominent role in governing something as critical as the internet, whereas ICANN treats governments as one stakeholder among many – business, NGO’s, and civil society.
But experience shows that Internet deployment increases when and where business is free to invest and compete with minimal regulation. Just look at the many less developed countries where Internet deployment has been slow because telecom infrastructure is so heavily regulated.
We’re also seeing collisions when it comes to censorship and political speech. But it’s not constructive to punish US businesses who engage in these countries, since experience shows that change happens more thru engagement than exhortation.
If the Internet is to reach its full global potential, governance and technical management can’t be on a collision course. They have to roll down parallel lanes heading for the same ultimate goal: Internet integrity and availability for all.