ICANN needs international rescue

The US government wants to keep control of the Internet. It may not have that option

The US government wants to keep ICANN on a tight leash. After all, it paid for a lot of the research and development of the Internet. It undoubtedly feels generous in creating ICANN in the place, rather than just letting the Departments of Defense or Commerce run the Internet.

ICANN will never please all of the people all of the time. Quite the opposite. It would displease all of the people, if it didn't hide as much of the machinations as possible behind nominally open but well-hidden doors.

To be sure, ICANN does have a tough job. Domain name policy, oversight of the vital root server system, top level domain innovation and just keeping the lights on are all part of the remit.

It has to represent the interests of all Internet users and suppliers in the world, from governments through ISPs to commercial users and individuals.

An impossible task, even if it wasn't a US organisation funded by the US government. It takes a lot of flak. Unfortunately, a lot of it is justified.

Among the criticisms levelled at ICANN are that it is trying to exert too much control over other countries, and that ccNSO, the organisation set up to represent other countries, has had little take-up because of the way it's structured. More US control would be unlikely to fix this.

There are those who would call for a virtual coup d'etat — after all eight of the 13 root servers are outside the US. They can just stop listening to ICANN and listen to somebody else instead. But that is simply flag-waving without a flag, and nobody wants to be at war with the US. It can ruin your weekend.

The first step towards greater international representation and accountability of ICANN has to be a rethink of how it raises its $16m (£8.9m) annual budget. Its revival of a small domain name tax seems to many as evil now as when it was mooted five years ago — but that evil may be worth it to get free of the US government.

The US government must see that trying to retain control of global resources won't work long term. After all, the US has never controlled the international telephone system — mainly because it couldn't. Like the phone system the Internet cannot be dictated. It has to be agreed, and the US' best interests lie in maintaining that agreement rather than unilaterally overriding it.

The US says it needs to help ICANN maintain its focus and stop straying from technical coordination. That's wrong, if not actually dishonest. The ITU has been managing similar problems as a truly international organisation for more than a century. It knows how to do it: it's not always right, but it enjoys the respect and trust of constituents. That alone can guarantee long-term stability and effectiveness. Sadly, this is something that in the eyes of much of the world, no amount of the US government's guidance can imbue upon ICANN.