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.XXX Exposes the Naked Truth for ICANN

Steve DelBianco

Internet governance can be a little on the dry side. So when tech policy reporters get a chance to write an ICANN story that features porn stars on picket lines, it's hard to blame them when they run with it.

But all the media hype about ICANN's .xxx decision at last week's meeting in San Francisco exposed the real dilemma facing ICANN: how to engage governments in a multi-stakeholder model that's led by the private sector.

A year ago, after the ICANN meeting in Brussels, I warned ICANN against "mooning the giant," by failing to adequately respond to concerns raised by governments — in particular those that participate on the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). As I wrote last June, "alienating nongovernmental stakeholders is one thing, but ICANN is risking its very existence if influential governments feel alienated or ignored."

Apparently, ICANN's Board and management didn't heed my warning, because their interaction with the GAC over the weeks leading up to and including the San Francisco meeting looked a lot like "mooning the giant."

While the current face-off between the GAC and Board is about the expansion of top-level domains, the underlying tension comes from more than just one policy decision — even one as big as new gTLDs. Even if the Board were 100 percent right on new gTLDs and the GAC were 100 percent wrong, ICANN's failure to adequately cultivate its relationship with governments seems like self-destructive behavior.

Let's remind ourselves for a moment why governments and the GAC are so important to ICANN.

Support for the ICANN model among world governments is hardly universal. Many governments have been working through the United Nations to exert greater control over the Internet's addressing system. And as I described in "A Tale of Two Governance Models”, the UN makes policies through political horse-trading and there's no role whatsoever for the private sector.

Last month, the UN's International Telecommunications Union decided it would set its own technical standard — quitting a joint project with the Internet Engineering Task Force. And last week, UN reps met in Geneva — without private sector participation — to design new decision making powers for the Internet Governance Forum.

Meanwhile, many members of the GAC are actively participating in ICANN's multi-stakeholder process while asking their home governments to protect ICANN from UN encroachment. GAC members have the potential to be ICANN's best advocates in the ongoing global debate over Internet governance, but first ICANN must adapt its processes to engage the GAC — and perhaps even more importantly — to make sure governments know that they have been heard.

In a way, the strained face-to-face meetings last week in San Francisco were a good start. ICANN will also make major repairs to its GAC relationship by implementing recommendations of the Accountability & Transparency Review, as I discussed last week. I also think the GAC should have a full-time advocate to carry its suggested principles directly into ICANN's bottom-up policymaking process.

But ultimately, we need a change of attitude for any of this to work. The ICANN community needs to recognize that governments are stakeholders, too. And ICANN's Board needs to engage with the GAC in ways that build trust and confidence in the ICANN model.

The loss of government support is the largest threat to ICANN's future — far more dangerous than any lawsuits the Board is worried about. On the other hand, the GAC can be a giant ally for ICANN if they're treated right.

So when ICANN issues its "final" guide for new gTLDs next month, let's be sure not to moon the giant.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice. More blog posts from Steve DelBianco can also be read here.

Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, Top-Level Domains

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