Under the leadership of Fadi Chehade and Steve Crocker, ICANN finally runs like an organization that has grown up. When it comes to process, accountability, and transparency, this is excellent news for the Internet. But it also raises a new question: how far will we let ICANN grow "out" of the limited technical mission for which it was created?
In his opening remarks here in Durban, Chehade announced the expansion of local engagement centers and significant expansion of ICANN staff — for the second straight year.
One can understand such dynamic expansion if ICANN is, as Chehade called it, "the greatest governance engine in the transnational sphere today." But one can't help but wonder whether it may be overkill for the humble technical manager of the DNS.
To be fair, the launch of hundreds of new gTLDs necessitates some level of ICANN staff growth, if only to serve a massive influx of new contracted partners. But ICANN's growth and Chehade's vision for the organization appear to be targeted far beyond simply scaling-up to meet new compliance demands.
Since its inception, ICANN has been both a pawn and a lightning rod in global governance debates that extend far beyond its established role as a technical management body. With today's announcement of a new ICANN Engagement Center in Geneva, and intimations of a new relationship with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Chehade has clearly decided to meet that challenge head-on. But this approach is not without risk.
To kick off this week's meeting, ICANN gave valuable stage time to ITU Secretary General Hamadoun Toure, who said that the time was ripe for a "more formal partnership" between the ITU and ICANN. And while a lion may think the time is right for a "more formal partnership" with a gazelle, such an arrangement may not be ideal for all parties involved.
Those of us in the ICANN community who have opposed ITU encroachment into DNS management have maintained that each organization should stay within its own swim lane. Telecommunications treaty-making and DNS management certainly impact one another, but they do not need to be co-mingled from an organizational standpoint.
Chehade may take Toure at his word that he is not interested in co-opting ICANN, but Toure's history in the space does not engender the greatest trust. ICANN should be very careful about enhancing its engagement with the ITU, because such enhancement goes two ways, and could lead both to an expanded scope for ICANN and greater ITU involvement in DNS management.
And the ITU partnership isn't the only threat to a lean, focused ICANN. While the all-star strategy panels Chehade announced this week are certainly intriguing, it is hard to imagine that teams of high-profile outside experts will confine their recommendations to stay within the bounds of ICANN's clearly defined role to coordinate the DNS.
As an organization, ICANN has never had more competent, visionary leadership than it does today, but that that vision must be reconciled with ICANN's long-standing commitment to stay true to its limited technical mission.
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