Last weekend C-Span, the public service network that broadcasts proceedings of the U.S. Congress and other U.S. government functions, aired a segment of its series "the Communicators" featuring ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade; C-Span describes the show as "Half-hour conversations with the leaders who shape our digital future". While the interview is actually just 28 minutes long, and appears to have been recorded on January 28th, it contains some surprising statements that raise some intriguing questions. The intervening NTIA announcement of the intent of the United States to step back from and transfer its IANA functions contract counterparty role by September 2015 makes the answers to those questions even more important — especially given the uncertainty regarding what effect that transition will have on ICANN's accountability and transparency in the future.
CEO Chehade is rather clearly on the record that ICANN's relationship with the U.S. (of which the last remaining shred is that U.S. role as IANA counterparty) is no longer sustainable and must be replaced by the "globalization" of ICANN and the IANA functions within a very narrow time frame. What drives this viewpoint are Edward Snowden's NSA revelations and the purported resulting loss of "trust" in the U.S., even though the identity of the IANA counterparty has no effect on the ability of the NSA or any other intelligence agency to conduct Internet surveillance.
As a result of that perspective, the Montevideo Statement was issued, 1Net was established, Brazil is hosting the NETmundial meeting on Internet Governance in April, and ICANN stakeholders have been reacting to all these top down developments as best they can — most recently through hurried drafting and submission of the "Contribution from the ICANN Cross Community Working Group on Internet Governance” to NETmundial's organizers (see submission #179; the author is a member of the CCWG on behalf of ICANN’s Business Constituency).
Given all this anxious frenzy, it was somewhat surprising to hear CEO Chehade reply, when asked of the consequences of a U.S. loss of control over the Internet, "'Losing control' assumes that the U.S. has control today over the Internet," adding the observation that control is "really already in the hands of the stakeholders. It is not in the hands of the U.S."
He further explained, "The function which the U.S. has today, which is a very minimal function, of oversight" will be "passed on to ICANN through its multistakeholder accountability mechanisms." Characterizing the U.S. role as one of stewardship, he observed, "It is time for the U.S. to consider that the stewardship is ready to be passed to the stakeholders, as it has always envisaged." Whatever stewardship is, it seems to be different than and subordinate to control.
The NTIA's announcement of "its intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community" does not take a clear position on whether Internet control is at stake. Intriguingly, during a March 15th conference call CEO Chehade revealed that White House staff had been involved in the timing and content of the NTIA announcement, which may raise questions about whether the decision is cut from the same cloth as the Obama Administration's "lead from behind" foreign policy stance and an implicit acceptance of the view that the NSA revelations have irrevocably eroded trust in the U.S. stewardship role vis-à-vis ICANN.
As for the NETmundial conference, Chehade sees its role as producing a document addressing "the core Internet governance principles that would define" the evolution of "governance networks", including "what's on the Internet" and "the use of the Internet".
Those views raise some important questions:
In the course of the interview CEO Chehade makes a number of other significant statements:
As the coming months bring extended debate on where the IANA counterparty status and functions should reside upon transition from the NTIA it is paramount that any solution enhance and not diminish ICANN's accountability and transparency. In this regard, Professor Milton Mueller's cogent observations on the NTIA announcement are extremely relevant:
If there is one false note in the NTIA announcement, it was the implication that ICANN itself should control the process for crafting an appropriate transition plan. One of the key principles of the IGP plan that has gained widespread support is the idea of structural separation of the root zone management functions from the policy making functions. The former is technical and operational, the latter is highly political. We need to keep those two things apart. Keeping them apart ensures that those with policy and political objectives must win public support for their ideas in an open policy process, and cannot impose them upon us by seizing control of the operational levers of the global domain name system.
Despite the impeccable logic of this separation of powers, everyone needs to understand that ICANN as an organization has a very strong interest in gaining control of both the technical-operational and the policy making functions. Controlling both makes ICANN a far more powerful, and far less accountable, entity. Like all organizations, ICANN wants to achieve autonomy and strengthen itself. Countervailing forces in the Internet community will be needed to keep it in check.
In this regard, handing the oversight function over to the technical groups that immediately welcomed the NTIA announcement and signaled their intent and desire to become its stewards — "The Internet technical community is strong enough to continue its role, while assuming the stewardship function as it transitions from the US Government." — could be a very large mistake (many of these groups were also signatories of the Montevideo Statement last October which called for globalization of ICANN and the IANA functions). ICANN dominates these groups in terms of functions, staffing, and monetary resources, and therefore such a handoff could be equivalent to handing ICANN's oversight function to itself and result in a serious diminishment of accountability.
Homeland security consultant Paul Rosenzweig has also pointed out the many concerns that must be addressed as ICANN's relationship to the world evolves:
Boiled down to its simplest form, the announcement yesterday was a statement by NTIA that it was not going to enter into another contract — that, instead, it would let ICANN have the responsibility of running the IANA function on its own. The only condition that NTIA set for the transition was that ICANN develop an internal mechanism for oversight and win the trust of crucial stakeholders around the world...ICANN may not necessarily be in a good position to take over this responsibility (as anxious as it is to do so)… ICANN is often thought of as unaccountable. It's [sic] multi-stakeholder model of governance attempts to bring all parties to the table. But that's an awfully big table. In the end, the ICANN executive group usually takes the initiative and drives the agenda — and without the check of the NTIA (however modest it has been in the past) they may have greater leeway to do as they please. More worryingly, from my perspective, is the question of technical expertise. It is far from clear to me that ICANN is ready and able to take over the implementation role of root zone management. The worst possible result would be a broken DNS system. The move by the United States to start this transition now is either very canny or panicked. The optimist in me wants to think that the transition to ICANN management is an effort to forestall an even worse result from takeover of network administration by the ITU...The pessimist, however, sees this as a reaction to the Snowden disclosures. All of a sudden American stewardship of the network is suspect. Some, hoping to defuse the anger, may have chosen to rush to give up that stewardship, without thinking through the consequences.
This author recently wrote in great detail "a wide range of concerns and questions regarding ICANN's current operations and future plans. Central to all of them is the issue of whether ICANN is currently operating with sufficient accountability and transparency, through a bottom-up consensus process, and in the interest of the global Internet-using public. The answers to these questions will determine the future stability and security of the domain name system and the growing global e-commerce that it supports."
That analysis also contemplated a potential transfer of the IANA counterparty function, stating, "it is incumbent that the U.S. government engage in an open and public discussion of the legal requirements for and implications of such action. Given the likelihood that any such transfer may require implementing legislation, and in any event should only be undertaken by the Executive Branch with the unmistakable backing of Congress, there is a clear and present need for all of the Congressional committees with jurisdictions and responsibilities related to this critical issue to begin to engage in focused oversight, investigation, analysis and decision-making. Given the history of the development of the DNS this responsibility falls upon the U.S. and should not be shirked." It is unclear whether NTIA and the White House engaged in any dialogue with Congressional leaders prior to making the transition announcement, but the need for Congressional scrutiny has just increased exponentially. The results of a botched handover are so potentially consequential to economic and national security that Congress should wade in soon to scrutinize the implications of and the legal basis for the NTIA's action.
Whether the results of NETmundial are good, bad, or indifferent, it will be a meeting that ICANN asked Brazil to host on the premise that, as CEO Chehade stated in October, "the trust in the global Internet has been punctured, and now it's time to restore this trust through leadership and through institutions that can make that happen". But if the U.S. has already ceded control of the Internet to its stakeholders why is the issue of its trustworthiness even relevant, and why is the NTIA announcement front page news?
As we initiate what will almost certainly be a contentious global debate, it is worth pausing a moment to ask whether it is an inevitable stage of Internet governance evolution or a manufactured crisis designed to enhance autonomy and diminish accountability. ICANN has played a hyperactive role in bringing events to this point, and it remains to be seen when the dust finally settles whether it will regret trading the rather benign scrutiny of the U.S. for an oversight regime that may well be far more complicated and politicized.
By Philip S. Corwin, Founding Principal of Virtualaw LLC, a Washington, DC Law and Public Policy Firm. He also serves as Of Counsel to the IP-centric law firm of Greenberg & Lieberman. Views expressed in this article are solely his own.
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