In the midst of the overseeing the biggest change in the history of the Internet's global addressing system, ICANN President Fadi Chehade has inexplicably embarked on a high-stakes battle over the very future of his organization and its relationship to world governments — at the expense of the private sector's historical role in Internet governance.
Worse, Fadi's global government gambit could have serious repercussions for the future of the Internet.
Fadi is not the first ICANN president who sought to break ICANN's legacy links to the USA. But where previous ICANN leaders restrained themselves to rhetoric, Fadi is now neck-deep in a geo-political current where non-US governments are pushing for an end to the US role in assigning the IANA contract for allocating addresses and managing the DNS root.
What's not clear is where Fadi found the authority for this move, or whether he has fully explored the potential consequences of the changes he now embraces.
Earlier this month, Fadi joined with standards groups and nongovernmental organizations to release the Montevideo Declaration, calling for "accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing."
Then earlier this week at the Internet Governance Forum in Indonesia, Fadi joined with Brazilian Minister of Communications Paolo Bernado Silva to announce an upcoming "Summit" in Brazil to develop a more "democratic and inclusive" model of Internet governance.
All of this might sound pretty reasonable — to anyone who's been living under a rock for the past decade.
Brazil is no fan of an Internet governance model that lets non-governments have a say. Brazil is the first initial in BRIC, the alliance of nations led by Brazil, Russia, India and China that has campaigned for years to move authority over Internet functions from ICANN to the United Nations and the ITU.
So when Brazil stands shoulder-to-shoulder with ICANN and calls for "accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions" it is pretty clear that these would-be allies have two distinct, non-compatible ends in mind.
Governments leading the call for increased "globalization" have no use for an independent ICANN. For more than a decade, leaders of those states and their allies have made it clear that they don't trust a multistakeholder upstart to make the sorts of decisions that have been traditionally made by governments.
Standing against those efforts have been many of the same people who have made ICANN into the successful model that Fadi inherited a year ago. The businesses, academics, advocates, and technologists who have opposed governmental takeover of ICANN don't agree on many things, but we all agree that the private sector shouldn't be cut-out of a decision-making process that affects all of us.
Yet this is precisely the threat that Brazil and its allies pose. Once the ITU or some other intergovernmental body gets its hands on the ICANN keys, private sector interests will find themselves in the back of the room, with no votes to cast.
Either Fadi believes that Brazil's quest for government control of ICANN will ease when the US hands over IANA, or he's positioning ICANN to survive under intergovernmental rule. Neither option is encouraging for those of us in the private sector.
One also has to wonder where ICANN's vaunted "community input" is in all of this. I am an officer of ICANN's Business Constituency, but I don't recall any discussion of the "Montevideo Declaration", nor can I find any record of a Board vote on the move. Perhaps Fadi's renovation of ICANN has already underway, and the first thing to go was the multistakeholder model.
If I had the chance to comment as a member of the ICANN community, I'd have argued that the IANA functions contract should continue as something ICANN "earns" through periodic reviews. Why? Because while IANA functions don't add much administrative burden, they are absolutely vital in two ways.
First, the IANA contractor has to maintain security, stability, and resiliency (SSR) of the DNS root, even while expanding that root for lots of new gTLDs. ICANN has to balance its SSR responsibility against its need to quickly launch new TLDs that will fund its ballooning budget.
Second, the need to re-earn IANA every few years is all that keeps ICANN from walking away from the Affirmation of Commitments — the only document holding ICANN accountable to the community it serves, including users, governments, the private sector, and civil society. Reviews for the IANA Contract are a powerful reminder that ICANN serves at the pleasure of global stakeholders and has no permanent lock on managing the Internet's name and address system.
So the question remains, why is Fadi making these moves at this time? ICANN sits at a critical inflection point as it adds hundreds of new top-level domains to the Internet. The eyes of the world are on ICANN as never before, and the stakes for "controlling" the DNS grow with every new TLD that is delegated.
Also, If ICANN's first responsibility remains, as it should, ensuring the security and stability of the DNS, how do we justify this dangerously destabilizing foray into the shark-tank of politics known as the United Nations?
ICANN is not a typical company, and its CEO does not have a typical role. Fadi is the steward of a global trust, not the leader of the global Internet. "Re-thinking" the fundamental structure of ICANN is not — and should not be — in his job description. If we're going to make changes that affect the stability of the DNS upon which we all rely, we should do it as a community.
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