Is ICANN’s Next Move Back to the Future?
I hate to say I told you so. But I told you so.
In the past six months, the caretaker of the DNS has been under attack by a host of the stakeholders it professes to protect. It has made shambles of the concept of consensus and bottom up governance. If one needs any proof of that, there is simply no way ICANN can plausibly claim it has consensus for its impending plans to introduce hundreds of new top level domains (TLDs) when virtually every constituency has objected to the plan, with the exception of a few (many of whom make money selling domain names). Objections have come from Brands. NGO’s. IGO’s. Law Enforcement. The U.S. Congress and the European Union. Editorials from leading publications and blogs have condemned it. And as Jon Leibowitz put it (Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, the primary consumer protection regulator in the United States), allowing the plan to go forward would be “disastrous” for consumers. Consumers – as in you and me. For a compendium of many of those objecting and what they’ve said, click here.
Without doubt, the biggest losers in ICANN’s plans are you and me. According to experts, we will be victims at the hands of more criminals plying their trade on the Web. More phishing. More privacy breaches. More cyberscams. More places for predators to hide. And if you want to start your own e-businesses, domain name sellers will offer you countless unneeded second level domain names, relying on your fears that your website address might be compromised by another buyer intent on stealing your ideas and business. Just witness how the domain name sellers upsell you now. Buy a second level domain name (SLD) in .com for $25 and instantly you’re upsold to buy the same SLD in fifteen or so other TLDs, increasing your costs without any return. Imagine that game when there are hundreds new TLDs.
So what is ICANN thinking of doing to respond to all this pressure? No one can be sure. But a 2007 paper entitled the “Final President’s Strategy Committee Report” may well portend the future, with the Committee’s suggestion to restructure ICANN into a private international organization. Presently, ICANN is a California not-for-profit corporation. Take close note that the Committee is not suggesting this configuration for ICANN be formed via treaty or be an inter-governmental organization. Rather, the proposal it that ICANN be a private international organization. Just like the International Olympic Committee (more on that later). What the ICANN Committee plan translates into is a global governing body accountable to no one. No oversight. And lest I be accused of being close minded, even that might be fine if one believed the resulting entity would at least be accountable to its stakeholders. But that is certainly not evident in the way ICANN is handling the new TLD plan any more than it was when it authorized .xxx and sanctioned the land rush by domain name sellers to cash in on tens of thousands of buyers (who had nothing to do with the adult industry) fearful of protecting their reputations. Indeed, the domain name sellers made no effort to hide the fact that they were selling on fears more than anything else. So if we judge ICANN by the footprints it has left rather than the promises it keeps making and breaking, letting ICANN take the next step to total autonomy as a private international organization is tantamount to putting control of global communications in the hands of sixteen people accountable to no one. Or maybe I’m simply naïve and mistaken in thinking that the sixteen people on ICANN’s Board don’t have my interests at heart.
Commenting on the Committee Report, reporter Terri Wells asked and answered in April 2007, “What exactly is being proposed here? It’s nothing short of putting ICANN out of the reach of U.S. law.” Why is that important? Because it would mean suing ICANN would be virtually impossible. The last bastion of possible oversight – the judicial system – would be trumped. In the Internet game of chess, that’s the last move ICANN needs to checkmate.
In addition, one should not miss the Committee’s suggestion that the IANA function be changed and, for all intent and purposes, wrestled from the U.S. Department of Commerce and its operating division, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. And trying to keep an open mind, perhaps that’s not a bad idea to some as well. But the suggestion that one option would be to jettison the DOC and substitute a third party auditor under contract and control of ICANN speaks volumes of ICANN’s real end game – total control of the root server functions and total self-governance. In my book, that’s a sovereign nation.
Burke Hansen, a reporter for the Register, analogized this possible change a one modeled on the International Olympic Committee, an example of a private international organization and one, as Hansen writes, is “famous for its opaqueness and arrogant lack of accountability” and like ICANN, “The IOC, too, is engaged in commerce, which is marketing the Olympics and extorting stadium facilities out of local communities.” In the case of ICANN, the local communities are you and I and the stadiums are SLDs.
Will ICANN’s Board resurrect this idea of private sovereignty and the Committee’s recommendations? Time will tell, but if I were a Monday morning quarterback, I sure bet they wished they’d done so before their June 2011 vote to open up the DNS and the resulting host of hurt from virtually everyone ICANN claims to represent. It is prophetic that Terri Wells observed in 2007 that, “In the wake of several actions that have garnered very bad press and left the organization feeling beleaguered and bullied, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is looking for a way out.” Makes you think 2012 is déjà vu all over again, doesn’t it?
In all fairness, the Committee did repeat all those important words like, “operational excellence”, “credibility and trust with all stakeholders”, “stability”, “best practices”, “clear accountability”, etc., etc. If you graded the paper on key words, it’s a clear “A”. Maybe that’s the problem; ICANN has devolved into a key work addict, unable to see through the trees. As one colleague of mine put it, “…strangle dissent and reasonable inquiry with process and procedure…” I can think of no better description of ICANN’s committee functions. If you doubt that, just attend one of its international webinars like the March 1st ICANN Policy Update Briefing. Regardless, we’ve heard all those words and promises before – over and over again – so if you grade the 2007 report on substance and the history ICANN has woven, I’m afraid it deserves no better than an “F” or, to be charitable, an “Incomplete.” Unfortunately, more recent history has shown us that ICANN is, at best, an habitual offender. Let’s hope the 2007 recommendations stay in the morass of ICANN’s committees where they belong.
Doug Wood, We Expert