The problem begins with the acronym, especially a consonant that sits in the centre of it. For all the talk about making it more like the United Nations, the “c” in ICANN stands for corporation, and anyone interested in the regulator’s autonomy should never forget it.
U.S. authorities announced a new partnership recently that will loosen its relationship to the non-profit that governs the dot-com domain name system as well as the global addressing system. It was called by ICANN’s CEO a “great step forward,” which as always was a euphemism for a timid slouch towards progress. The U.S. is not about to walk away from its role as Internet authority, and the industry should think seriously about what kind of structure should be established before it ever does.
Under the terms of the new agreement, ICANN will no longer have to send a report to the U.S. Department of Commerce every six months, but it will still have to submit something (probably more substantial) every year. Department of Commerce officials will only meet with ICANN staff “from time to time,” reports said, as opposed to the constant looking over the shoulder that goes on today. ICANN said it will now take orders not directly from the U.S. but in conjunction with the global community. Too bad no one offered any details as to how that collaboration would take place.
Critics have sometimes dreamed of a U.N.-style regulator for the domain name system without apparently taking any look at how the U.N. is regarded by the international community. The U.S.’s size, military strength and economic performance practically guarantees it a stronger-than-usual influence over the U.N., and recent events in the last three years have demonstrated its capacity for unilateral action. Does it really make sense to assume the U.S. would invade Iraq in defiance of its global neighbours but will leave the Internet alone?
It doesn’t matter whether the ties to the Department of Commerce are loosening. More relevant is why it was reporting to the Department of Commerce at all. Such a set-up might have seemed logical in 1998, when the Internet was just beginning to grow and the discussion was primarily about commercial prospects. The Internet, and the domain name messaging system ICANN controls, is now a high- value asset that connects communities as well as businesses. The transactions routed through it have an impact on the security of citizens in many parts of the world, not to mention governments.
ICANN has proven itself toothless in dealing with some of the more questionable practices that have been discovered among registrars such as VeriSign, which makes you wonder how well it will enforce its autonomy once it is supposedly free of U.S. constraints.
VeriSign sent out fake invoices to companies that weren’t their clients and said that if they didn’t “renew” right away their service would be over. If they renewed, they would actually be switching accounts to VeriSign. ICANN basically slapped them on the wrist.
Given it is a private entity, to what members of the global community will ICANN be reporting - businesses, nations or individuals? There is no consensus on the accountability and governance that should be tied to ICANN’s processes, so how will standing on its own, even if that happens, improve its performance?
The best thing about the old agreement between the U.S. and ICANN is that we all knew who was really in charge. Replacing clarity with ambiguity is not a precursor to autonomy. There’s no point in making a declaration of independence if everyone’s wondering about what you’re leaving out.