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Will Obama Re-Nationalize ICANN?

Milton Mueller

Speaking at a Technology University of Delft conference on the internationalization of infrastructures, Professor Viktor Mayer-Schoenberger made some unique and provocative observations about the future of the ICANN tether to the U.S. government. Mayer-Schoenberger was trying to predict the position of the three main players: the EU, the US and China.

The EU, he said, was typically about 4 years behind. It was now willing to accept and confirm the American decision to privatize ICANN; moreover, it no longer has any substantive policy position but is focused entirely on structures and processes. Whereas the old EU of WSIS tried to make the end to end principle part of the Internet's global governance, or tried to stand for privacy and other substantive rights, it now has nothing to contribute but oversight structures and appeals processes. He also noted that the EU was edging away from multi-stakeholderism toward traditional multi-lateralism: a "20th Century Multilateralism redux."

But just as the Europeans come to accept a privatized ICANN the U.S., he said, is starting to question it. The Obama administration, he predicted, will "re-nationalize" ICANN. To him re-nationalize meant two things simultaneously: first, that the U.S. "doesn't give a damn" about internationalizing it; second, that the US government may be inclined to reverse the privatization and bring ICANN closer to the U.S. government to supervise and regulate. The U.S. position, like the European one, was a repeat of 20th Century ideas: a "New Deal redux."

As for China, he called their position a "Sun Tzu realism" in which Multi-lateralism replaces Multi-stakeholderism, but the multilateralism occurs on several different layers. All processes and institutions are changeable, nothing is set in stone. China, too, prefers to de-emphasize or evade talk of human rights, preferring "ethics" and "order". (He got some flak on this, as others, including myself, characterized China as basically nothing more than a pure, traditional sovereigntist.)

The bottom line, for Mayer-Schoenberger, was a rather pessimistic outlook in which the following trends can be seen:

  • Greater divergence, not convergence, among the big players on the appropriate structures and processes;
  • A tilt towards abandoning Multi-stakeholderism
  • A convergence on the irrelevance of substantive policies. There is no room for rights, no guaranteed values in the discourse, just structures.

VMS is Professor at the National University of Singapore and Director of the Center for Information and Innovation Policy there.

By Milton Mueller, Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy. More blog posts from Milton Mueller can also be read here.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance


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I dont know what you'd call nationalization .. Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  May 18, 2009 1:55 AM PDT

I think he'd see the impracticality of creating parallel governance structures, and concentrate on making ICANN's processes more open + relevant.

No US govt so far (and certainly not the Obama administration I think, based on their approach to previous situations that are security related but not igov related) has let their oversight of ICANN out of their hands, and I dont think Obama coming in is going to matter.

Look at the way he's managed to irritate both the republicans and the left wing democrats with his handling of Gitmo, prisoner abuse photos, embarassing Cheney .. I think neither China, Commissioner Reding, or the civil society caucus are going to be particularly happy with what he comes up with.

The Art of the Politically Possible Michael Roberts  –  May 18, 2009 9:43 AM PDT

Suresh is right, the various ICANN combatants aren't going to be happy with the next stage of evolution.  For the last several years, the mantra coming from NTIA has been that ICANN "isn't ready" to be independent.  As it is currently structured, ICANN will never be ready to be independent of the U.S. government.  Paul Twomey acknowledged this in his recent statement that at the end of the JPA, ICANN would not object to the continuation of the IANA agreement, which basically makes ICANN a government contractor.  Despite ten years of trying, ICANN has not established a level of accountability acceptable to the people who matter.  All important ICANN decisions are political decisions, despite the "technical coordination" label, and politics is well known as the art of the possible.  It is not possible, at this time, for ICANN to be launched untethered onto stormy international seas.

Nationalization unlikely, independence unlikely... then what, status quo? Keith Teare  –  May 18, 2009 8:54 PM PDT

Mike, Hi

I'd love to talk in depth about these issues. I'm still in Palo Alto. You around?

Keith Teare

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