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Threats to Internet Oversight Mount as Key Protection Expires

Before the US Government abdicates its oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) it should take a long, hard look at the mounting efforts by world governments to assume greater power over the Internet’s addressing system. If those efforts meet no further resistance, the once-theoretical threat of "capture" could become a reality.

At the end of September, the Joint Project Agreement (JPA) between ICANN and the US Government is set to expire. The JPA is part of a decade-long agreement where the US transitions control of Internet addressing to ICANN.  In addition to being a roadmap for ICANN’s eventual independence, the JPA has also helped to shield ICANN against efforts by governments to control the private-sector-led organization.

Now that the JPA is winding down, multi-governmental groups are cranking up the volume of calls to assume greater power over ICANN’s duties as soon as the US relinquishes its legacy role.

Starting with the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society, governments have sought more direct control over ICANN. Early on, countries like Brazil and Russia led the charge to create a new layer of government bureaucracy charged with overseeing global Internet policy.

Today it is the European Commission and the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) leading the charge to either take-over ICANN’s duties or take control of ICANN.

In June, the European Commission issued a statement calling on the U.S. Government to end not only the JPA, but also its administration of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract, effectively ending the productive and beneficial relationship it has had with ICANN.

In place of U.S. Government management, the Commission recommends the creation of a multi-governmental tribunal with authority over ICANN. The European Commission posits that this new bureaucratic structure would not involve itself in "day-to-day" activities, but the distinction between "day-to-day" and other activities is utterly meaningless from a policy standpoint. Also, given the activism of the countries involved in such an effort, it would be ludicrous to expect such an entity to use its newfound power sparingly. 

Speaking of overreaching international bureaucracies, there is one already in existence that has expressed a clear desire to add "ICANN overseer" to its bloated scope of work.

At the November 2008 ICANN meeting in Cairo, ITU Secretary-General Hamadoun Toure admonished ICANN to work more closely with his organization.   Toure was joined by the government representative from Brazil, who insisted on a stronger role for governments and “observance by the board of ICANN of any public policy advice” coming from governments.

Smelling blood in the water as the JPA end draws near, the ITU was bolder in its recent recommendations to the UN Secretary General:

An improved governance framework could be formed within which all countries would have an equal say in Internet-related public policy issues and in the management of critical Internet resources. 

An intergovernmental organization such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has the necessary mandate and hence could play a leading role in the creation of such a governance structure.

Not so fast.  ICANN’s founding documents envision a transition from US government oversight into full private sector management–not a transition from US government oversight into multi-governmental control.

The ultimate solution will need to come from those of us in the ICANN community. For several years, participants in the ICANN process have been calling on the organization to establish concrete mechanisms to prevent capture by governments or governmental cartels. Although ICANN has acknowledged those calls, it has yet to develop an effective response.

In my comments to the Commerce Department, I suggested that extending the JPA another year or so could give ICANN the time it needs.  Moreover, the Department received similar requests from two Senators and from ten Representatives on the House Commerce Committee.

While the Commerce Department cannot unilaterally extend the JPA, it should be working with ICANN to retain the protective aspects of the JPA while ICANN develops permanent mechanisms to prevent external capture.

Given their public statements, ICANN’s board and management won’t embrace the idea of extending the JPA. In that case, we believe the Commerce Department and Congress should evaluate this transition in light of the original commitment made back in 1998:

In particular, the Department of Commerce committed that it would not conclude its role in DNS management if doing so would cause instability in the DNS.

Instability in the DNS would become a significant risk if external forces destabilize ICANN itself.  And stability will be impossible to maintain if a prematurely independent ICANN lost the confidence of its private sector stakeholders at the same time that government organizations were asserting more control over ICANN’s current roles.

–Steve DelBianco