Larry Strickling, who runs the NTIA (the part of the U.S. Department of Commerce that handles ICANN), yesterday gave an important and remarkable speech to the Practicing Law Institute about Internet governance. His speech, timed to coincide with an orchestrated ICANN-bashing across town in the Senate, was a striking defense of the ICANN model and a repudiation of special pleading outside the process.
Meanwhile, across town, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), who a few months ago decided to become the public face of opposition to new gTLDs after years of only desultory interest, had managed to convince the Senate Commerce Committee to hold a hearing on the matter. It was supposed to be a great party, but nobody came. The most powerful group of public-opinion changers in the United States barely got a quorum at their public event on how awful new gTLDs would be for the 1%.
Space in People's Heads
The Senators that did appear were somewhat cool to the New Luddite message being peddled by the ANA and Esther Dyson, ANA's star performer. Esther, fully inhabiting her new role of grumpy ex-Chair of ICANN, said:
"The rationale is that there's a shortage of domain names… but actually, there's a shortage of space in people's heads… So was that Marriott.com or Marriott.hotel, or dyson.com or dyson.hotel if I decide to rent out my apartment?"
Of course Esther doesn't own dyson.com, that's owned by a vacuum cleaner company in the UK. And ".com" doesn't indicate whether the site is about renting your apartment or sucking up loose dirt — but never mind....
Apparently there was enough space in the head of Senator Rockefeller, Chair of the Commerce Committee. He said,
I think we have to get used to .hotel.... I think we have to get used to .auto… I start from that position, but I listen.... I think a surge of new names and addresses can create opportunities: whether they will or not, I do not yet know...
A Principled Defense
Larry Strickling's speech was the opposite of the low comedy in the Senate. His principled and passionate defense of ICANN's model of Internet governance is worth quoting at some length (emphases mine):
First is trust. It is imperative for the sustainability and continued growth of the Internet that we preserve the trust of all actors on the Internet. For example, if users do not trust that their personal information is safe on the Internet, they may not use it to its full potential. If content providers do not trust that their content will be protected, they may be reluctant to put it online.
Second, as we find ways to address Internet policy challenges, we want to preserve the flexibility companies need to innovate. Our view at NTIA is that multistakeholder processes are best suited for striking this balance. By engaging all interested parties, multistakeholder processes encourage broader and more creative problem solving, which is essential when markets and technology are changing as rapidly as they are. They promote speedier, more flexible decision making than is common under traditional, top-down regulatory models which can too easily fall prey to rigid procedures, bureaucracy, and stalemate.
The United States strongly supports the use of a multistakeholder process as the preferred means of addressing Internet policy issues. We have been active in promoting the multistakeholder model in the international arena through our work at ICANN and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
...we are now seeing parties that did not like the outcome of that multistakeholder process trying to collaterally attack the outcome and seek unilateral action by the U.S. government to overturn or delay the product of a six-year multistakeholder process that engaged folks from all over the world. The multistakeholder process does not guarantee that everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. But it is critical to preserving the model of Internet governance that has been so successful to date that all parties respect and work through the process and accept the outcome once a decision is reached. When parties ask us to overturn the outcomes of these processes, no matter how well-intentioned the request, they are providing "ammunition" to other countries who attempt to justify their unilateral actions to deny their citizens the free flow of information on the Internet. This we will not do. There is too much at stake here.
We all know the Internet for its technological achievements. What is less understood, but possibly just as important, is that it has pioneered a global decision-making model that involves the people who are interested in and affected by the decisions, irrespective of status or geography, and de-emphasizes the power of moneyed interests. Going forward, if the ANA or some other group cares about an issue, they may have to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi, listen to other viewpoints, and reach a compromise that can attract wide acceptance.
With the speech by Larry Strickling (and, in a different context, similar remarks by Hillary Clinton), the U.S. government has now stated unequivocally that it won't open a new door to censorship in order to placate the ANA, and for this defense of the right of free speech they should be applauded. With rights come responsibilities: now it's up to the operators of top-level domains, and ICANN, to vindicate this faith in consensus decision-making.
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