Councilor: US power over ICANN merely 'moral'

Despite inking the Affirmation of Commitments with U.S. marking ICANN as independent entity, it remains under U.S. purview but power country exerts is limited, says ICANN councilor.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Over a year into the signing of the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC) pact with the United States, which positions the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) as a private sector entity, questions over its autonomy remain. Shedding light into the matter, an ICANN councilor noted that while the organization remained under U.S. purview, that power is "moral" and will be lost once exercised.

Edmon Chung, CEO of DotAsia and a councilor on ICANN's GNSO (generic names supporting organization) committee, said the California-based organization can appear "very weird" to external parties which are not aware of its internal workings. This is particularly so when the issues of autonomy and accountability are raised, he noted.

Speaking to ZDNet Asia in an interview Thursday, the councilor explained that while the AOC allowed for participation from governments around the world, the pact was signed with the U.S. government. Furthermore, the organization is subject to Californian law as it is based there, he pointed out. The executive was in town to attend ICANN's 41st Public Meeting which will take place on Jun. 20.

An example of U.S. involvement within ICANN is the approval of the .XXX top-level domain (TLD) which was given the green light in March this year, Chung pointed out. He said that before the TLD can be imputed into the root server, it will have to first be reviewed by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Chung's comments appear to contradict what the former ICANN executive officer and vice president of corporate affairs, Paul Levins, said in 2009 after the AOC was announced. At that time, Levins explained that with the pact, ICANN would become a resource free from control--"not being directed by any one entity but…coordinated by stakeholders for all Internet users everywhere".

Levin's assertions of autonomy were backed by ICANN's rejection of America's proposal to allow governments to veto controversial domain names such as .gay. ICANN will continue to accept governments' or other stakeholders' "nonbinding advice" though, the organization said in March.

Chung stressed, however, that whatever powers the U.S. are seen to have are primarily "moral" and once used, will be lost "the next day".

Additionally, not all root server operators have signed agreements with ICANN, so even if the U.S. decides to block a TLD, these operators need not abide by the same rules, the councilor added.

With regard to its agreement with the U.S. to manage the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) which is up for renewal in September, the councilor said ICANN hopes to continue overseeing the central repository for protocol name and number registries. He noted that the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is another organization said to be interested in taking over the IANA, but questioned its suitability as ITU meetings are "not open" and only "telcos and governments" have access to internal discussions.

The IANA is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, Internet Protocol (IP) addressing, and other IP resource, according to its Web site.

A "human experiment"
Chung acknowledged that ICANN is "not perfect" and its decision-making processes are still in their "very early forms", but pointed out that it is a relatively young organization despite being around for the past 12 years.

"ICANN is a human experiment that allows dialogue between diverse communities that have a stake in the online world, and in order to judge it, people should just come and participate in the discussions which are mostly open for all," he said. This stems from the "multi-stakeholder approach" adopted by the organization.

Asked if ICANN will eventually cut all ties with the U.S. and become fully autonomous, Chung said this was an issue raised annually.

He added that it is "not possible" to create a body that everyone has an equal say in because "society has not evolved enough to allow for such an organization". Besides, governments are still the main channel for international discussions and the law enforcing authority, he noted.

Chung also pointed out that Asia is losing ground on playing its part in shaping the development of the Internet and Web governance through democratic debates. Attributing this to a reticence to speak up and people here being  generally more used to "authoritarian" rather than democratic governmental systems, he said individuals in the region need to "step up to break the current dominance of its U.S. and European counterparts".

"Most people here, particularly the older generation, don't really care about the Internet as long as it works and take it for granted," he noted.

The region's youths show more enthusiasm in issues such as Internet governance, though, and this gives him hope that the state of indifference in Asia will be reversed in time. He pointed out that the younger generation care more about the Web as they have "grown up with it" and is more interested in issues relating to its development.

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