Accountability missing in ICANN's new autonomy

Update: After this blog post went up, Paul Levins, ICANN's executive officer and vice president of corporate affairs, gave his response in Talkback. Do take a read.
Written by ZDNet Staff, Contributor

Update: After this blog post went up, Paul Levins, ICANN's executive officer and vice president of corporate affairs, gave his response in Talkback. Do take a read.

Before introducing the next guest blogger for Tech Podium, I thought I'd help set the stage a little to explain why this issue is relevant to the underlying infrastructure that supports the World Wide Web today.

I've been closely following the debate over whether the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) should remain under the purview of the U.S. government or be handed over to an international entity.

Established in 1998 as a nonprofit organization, under the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN oversees the infrastructure that matches URLs to their corresponding numeric IP addresses. The organization coordinates these identify-and-match tasks to enable anyone, anywhere in the world, to locate and access a site via a decipherable Web address, rather than a string of numbers.

There've been numerous calls, as early as 2005, including from the United Nations and European Union, for the U.S. government to relinquish ownership of ICANN so it can be empowered by a more global voice. On Sep. 30, 2009, the U.S. government finally did just that.

I've long supported the notion of a more global ICANN, particularly since the Internet is no longer contained within the walls of military research labs and universities.

But, while I had expected the U.S. government to eventually have to concede it can no longer hold on to ICANN, I had not anticipated this day to come so soon. As a non-U.S. citizen of the global online community, I welcome the move. However, there are still crucial issues that have yet to be properly addressed, mainly, questions related to funding and decision-making.

Now that ICANN is no longer under the care of any one specific owner, who or what will be responsible for ensuring there are sufficient funds to support the organization? Also, now that ICANN, in theory, belongs to the world's Internet community, who or what gets to have the final say in the decision-making process? ICANN's Paul Levins says that now, "everyone has an equal voice", but that also means we'll run into a deadlock if there are opposing views on what direction the organization should take.

I applaud the U.S. government for taking this necessary step to "globalize" ICANN, but I wished it had first looked to ensure the right processes were in place to better support this obviously significant change in ICANN's core organizational structure. It's almost as if the U.S. government lifted its hands, shrugged and said: "Hey, you guys said you didn't want us to have it, so here, take it."

Amid the heated debate leading up to Sep. 30, the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) had campaigned for ICANN to review its processes and provide more transparency in how the organization manages its affairs. CADNA President Josh Bourne had described ICANN as "broken" and sorely lacking in accountability, and it is a view CADNA maintains today--despite ICANN's increased autonomy.

I asked Josh to discuss his views here and highlight some of the concerns he has about ICANN's new organizational structure. He explains why the new agreement doesn't provide the necessary authority and accountability to ensure ICANN is able to fulfil its responsibility.


Two weeks ago, on Sep. 30, the Joint Project Agreement between the ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce expired. This agreement was replaced by a document titled the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC), which extends the relationship between ICANN and the U.S. government but also gives ICANN a greater degree of independence and autonomy, effective Oct. 1, 2009.

ICANN's mission, as set forth in its bylaws, is to "coordinate...the global Internet's systems of unique identifiers, and in particular to ensure the stable and secure operation of the domain name system...preserving and enhancing the operational stability, reliability, security, and global interoperability of the Internet".

Many are praising the AOC because it seems to provide more opportunities for international participation and influence over ICANN and its policies. Governments and other stakeholders from all over the world will be tasked with reviewing ICANN.

But, the truth is that no government--not the U.S. government nor any other government on the newly established panels--will be able to actually exercise any sort of oversight over ICANN under the AOC.

This is a fundamental problem with the AOC. Despite the inclusion of foreign governments and a larger number of stakeholders, this new agreement fails to create meaningful accountability for ICANN. The panels and review committees that the document calls for will not have the authority to effectively keep ICANN in check, and hold it to the promises it makes or the initiatives it undertakes. Moreover, this structure perpetuates a problem inherent in ICANN.

As a captured regulator, ICANN is incapable of admitting it is wrong, that it needs to change course or that it needs to reform. A prime example of this fact is found in the history of ICANN's plans for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs). TLDs are the last three letters in a Web address, like ".com", ".org" or ".mobi".

Expanding the number of new extensions by increasing the options for gTLDs will have frightening commercial implications, complicate the Internet for the average user, and ultimately have cybersecurity consequences. Very little has been done by ICANN to address the concerns that already have been voiced about this poorly considered policy. The public, concerned with these issues, has spoken out and asked ICANN to review its decision regarding the manner in which it thought to implement the new gTLDs.

Unfortunately, ICANN's policymaking body, which is structured to allow those with financial interests in domain name sales to dominate, essentially ignored these pleas. Rather than slowing down the process, the organization has continues to insist on a relentless march forward in order to reap profits as soon as possible.

Clearly, the AOC's failure to provide for meaningful accountability will allow ICANN to maintain the status quo--as a captured regulator, it will continue to produce policies that benefit those with financial interests to the detriment of the rest of the Internet community.

Those areas that are currently experiencing the most growth and expansion of Web use should particularly be concerned about how ICANN continues to operate in the future.

The Asia-Pacific region is one of the fastest growing regions in terms of individual Internet users and companies engaging in e-commerce and other Internet endeavors, and will have to increasingly contend with the negative effects of ICANN's policies.

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