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Senate Letter to ICANN Board Showcases Critical Misunderstanding of What ICANN Is

Christian Dawson

Today's new U.S. Senate letter to ICANN — the latest in a series of letters on the work of the ICANN technical communities — is disturbingly well crafted. If taken at face value, it even seems to lend credence to the idea that ICANN is potentially a perpetuator of the limiting of free speech, and it could be seen as a break in the narrative that i2Coalition perpetuates, that the IANA transition is a positive step in strengthening multistakeholderism over dangerous multilateralism when it comes to Internet governance. There is, however, a fundamental false premise at its heart.

The letter's assumption is that ICANN shouldn't be doing business with the Chinese, because China curbs free speech. Everything in the letter lines up to attempt to show poor decision making on the part of ICANN. The intention seems to be calling into question ICANN's fitness as an organization to accept the responsibility of Internet governance outside of the 'watchful eye' of the United States. However, this core narrative is flawed. If you stop to take a look at what ICANN is chartered to do, their expanding relationship in China is not only within their remit but is squarely their duty, to both the global Internet community and the U.S. government.

ICANN maintains the global DNS root, which maps names to numbers on the Internet, and maintains contracts with Internet registries and registrars that create the infrastructure to provide names to Internet registrants and then guide them to the right places around the Internet. The IANA function is the part that decides which 'third level' domains - the parts to the right of the dot - are allowed to go into the global root.

ICANN is responsible for meeting the growth needs of the Internet's naming and numbering community, but doesn't just serve those companies. It also actively engages anybody who has a stake in the Internet to be a part of the discussion to help steer how the Internet's DNS is allowed to grow and change. That includes engaging governments, civil society, businesses and Internet users around the world. As a California based nonprofit, ICANN needs to obey OFAC sanction requirements when it comes to the collection of funds, which it does as it takes a cut out of every domain name sold. Beyond that, most of what ICANN is responsible for is the contracts it holds with its Internet registries and registrars, as well as the root DNS server operators that keep global Internet traffic flowing fast. It does so under the watchful eye of just about everybody, and part of the oversight includes the administration of something called the UDRP, which is the universal method of handling domain level Internet takedowns. This is, as it name implies, a standard that is universally applied.

As countries come online and their needs grow, registries and registrars turn to ICANN to sign new contracts, and as they do they are required to obey the standard contracts outlining their responsibilities to the global Internet community. The Chinese market is growing like crazy. ICANN has no option to deny China the core technical or contractual Internet functions that they provide. No sanctions exist that would allow them to do so. Moreover, the idea of ICANN NOT setting up an office in China to meet those growing needs is ridiculous. For ICANN to not invest in local Chinese resources would be to purposefully make inefficient business decisions, and likely waste time and money.

ICANN is not the arbiter of all things Internet, and shouldn't be. It does simple technical tasks, and does it for the world, which operates on one global Internet. Having one global Internet whose naming and numbering function operates on global stakeholder consensus is good for global commerce and ultimately good for Internet freedom. That's the status quo that exists today. Censorship generally doesn't and shouldn't operate at the domain level. Most censorship is happening at the level of networks, which ICANN doesn't touch. The group that's supposed to match names to numbers on the Internet around the world is doing that in China a lot, because China is big and growing. End of story.

We need to understand that it's good for Internet freedom to bring more Chinese people into the global multistakeholder community. If China and Russia, and frankly the United Kingdom to a lesser extent, are going to become more open with their content restrictions, it is going to come from the demand of their populace. Chinese people who seek a more open Chinese Internet can find a community that values Internet openness and transparency at ICANN, and they can bring those ideals back to their communities. It's a positive force for Internet openness that has ICANN opening its doors to China, and it is more likely to facilitate change and openness on the part of the Chinese over time than the reverse. However, even if that doesn't end up being the case, we're just talking about names and numbers, which has little to nothing to do with the Senators' concerns.

Fadi Chehadé opened the door to this line of questioning when he made the politically tone-deaf decision to agree to co-chair the WIC. The decision was bad because he should have had enough foresight to see how this fact would be used against not only him but the entire ICANN community. He knew we are at a critical time in our goal of strengthening multistakeholderism and the Internet through the transition of IANA to the global community. China and Russia are repressive regimes when it comes to Internet censorship, but 'China' and 'Russia' are also boogeymen used to politicize the transition. There remains little strength in the argument that the United States should continue to operate the IANA contracting function because the U.S. is best equipped to protect global free speech. However, that flawed perspective remains, and Chehadé has admittedly given us bad optics for the presentation of the IANA transition to the U.S. government.

It's been nearly two years of extremely hard work by a global community of volunteers to build a plan to transfer the IANA function to the global community that gives us a better, stronger Internet governance system. IANA is a small technical function, but giving it to the global community makes it easier to fight calls for multinational, government-directed, UN-led control of the Internet, which is a much bigger risk to the openness of the Internet than ICANN opening a satellite office in China. If the United States tries to hold onto this technical IANA function, and thinks they're winning a battle for Internet freedom, they risk losing the war in the process.

In summary, here is what we know:

  • ICANN is required to provide technical services to China
  • China is a growing market that needs increasing resources
  • ICANN obeys U.S. government sanctions, which don't exist here
  • The United States doesn't 'own' the Internet and it's not theirs to give away
  • Fadi Chehadé made an optics mistake, and has made the right path harder for all of us
  • The IANA transition is still the best path forward for preserving and protecting global Internet freedom

The U.S. government is a strong voice in the global multistakeholder community at ICANN today, and it doesn't leverage the IANA function to wield it. Slowing the transition over misinterpretations of what ICANN does causes more harm than good. With Fadi Chehadé's misstep, certain member of the U.S. Congress have a good opportunity to spin misunderstanding and paint ICANN's involvement in China as something it isn't. Continuing to do so would be dangerous, and harmful to the Internet openness we all support.

By Christian Dawson, Executive Director, i2Coalition
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Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance, UDRP
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