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Can ICANN Survive Today’s Global Geo-Political Challenges Under Its Existing Narrow Mandate?

Khaled Fattal

Recently, the Presidents of four Latin American countries slammed ICANN over its .amazon domain name decision. This added to a long list of geo-politically infused challenges which ICANN needed to render final decisions on after all delay tactics or deferments had already been fully exhausted.

It is clear that ICANN is facing unprecedented challenges as it tackles issues that go beyond its current narrow mandate. A mandate that was originally granted to it by the US government thru its NTIA, but who no longer oversees it.

Moving forward 'as is' appears unsustainable and may damage it as a legitimate international names and numbers regulator mandated to serving not just the ICANN community but most importantly, the international community above all.

So the stakeholders all over the world will want to know if ICANN board and leadership feel/believe staying 'as is' is fine or not, or whether additional mandates are needed and will be sought, and if so, where would ICANN go to ensure these added mandates do carry 'legitimacy'?

The reality is that future decisions which ICANN and its board must decide on will continue to be highly infused politically, so this great challenge will not go away. In fact, it will get worse, and it cannot be avoided or deferred.

Therefore, the pressing questions the international community and its global stakeholders will be asking are:

  1. "Can ICANN survive today's global Geo-Political challenges unscathed under its existing narrow mandate of being the mere 'Technical Coordinator of the Domain Name System (DNS) & IP Numbers?
  2. Can it continue 'as is' while being constantly challenged by heads of states and others after decisions it makes that go beyond its narrow mandate?

So as a mere stakeholder who contributed to making ICANN what it is today since its birth and who wants it to remain and become even more relevant, let me put these questions directly to the ICANN board and its leadership in this transparent and public format so they are given the opportunity to not just answer me but also answer them for the benefit of the ICANN and international community alike, and do so publicly and transparently.

  1. Can ICANN survive without a new mandate? If Yes, how? If No, then who is authorized to grant ICANN such a new mandate with legitimacy?
  2. Can the 'authorizer' be the US government who only recently relinquished its control of IANA to ICANN itself? How?
  3. Can the 'authorizer' be the International community? Would it be willing to do this without significant ICANN reforms?
  4. Can the 'authorizer' be the UN? ("God forbid" some ICANN insiders might whisper, and others scream aloud)?
  5. Can the 'authorizer' be ICANN to itself, i.e. by putting it down to the ICANN community? If so, overseen by whom? ICANN itself?
  6. Will punting it to the ICANN community secure international legitimacy?

I hope many inside the ICANN 'club' resist thinking that (5) & (6) can be managed (choreographed) to secure the desired outcome, once again.

Not easy questions, but answered they must be, especially when you add to this mix the likelihood and consequences of the birth of a new and government legitimatized parallel internet universe root which I warned about since 2003 and which today may end up being born as a consequence of recent unprecedented and still unfolding local, regional and global geo-political events and Geo-Poli-Cyber hacks and developments showcased recently by the Trump administration's Huawei narrative and recent news media reported stories about Chinese and Russian Internets.

It will be fascinating to observe if and how ICANN's board and its top execs exhibit the true leadership needed by not pretending this time that this white elephant does not exist but stepping up to the plate in front of the global community.

I look forward to their public responses to show they are aware of the problem and that they have a plan to address it transparently and legitimately and that they can be trusted to navigate these unchartered waters to keep ICANN relevant in this new Era of the Unprecedented events where the unexpected seems to always surprise so many when it somehow happens.

By Khaled Fattal, Group Chairman, MLi Group & Producer "Era of the Unprecedented
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Let me respond to your six questions... Karl Auerbach  –  Jun 11, 2019 7:23 PM PDT

Let me deal with your six questions.  But let me begin by asking an even larger question: Is there any reason why ICANN should continue to exist at all?

I ask that question because ICANN's original obligation was to assure the technical stability of certain internet functions - I repeat that word "technical".

Some to this day deny that "technical" was part of ICANN's goal.  Such a denial runs contrary to my own experience - and I was very much an active part in the creation of ICANN.

Has ICANN met that metric?  To some degree yes, but largely only with considerable dragging of feet.  Perhaps the greatest change - anycast of root and TLD servers was done not only without ICANN's participation, but largely without ICANN even being aware.  ICANN certainly helped with internationalized domain names, but it seemed to me that the IETF did most of the heavy lifting.  And ICANN's registry contracts have lots of performance requirements for name registration but are comparatively light when it comes to measuring performance obligations of the actual critical task of DNS: resolving names.

It seems that much of your complaint about ICANN is that it has reached political decisions that run contrary to what certain regional interests desire - such as Amazon (which I might mention is based on a legend of Greek, not South American, origins.)

But isn't the fact of such political choices a necessary, and quite predictable, result of ICANN's hewing to "stakeholder-ism", the belief that certain pre-selected groups ought to have a greater voice and weight in the process of making decisions that other, not-selected groups?

And given that the most common - especially within ICANN - mode of designating "stakeholders" is by measuring the financial interest in the outcome - is it not surprising that ICANN leans strongly in favor of commercial interests?

ICANN's institutional/structural bias in favor of commercial interests is perhaps nowhere greater than in ICANN's UDRP and WHOIS policies.  The former is a weapon that can only be used by trademark owners, raising the question why other kinds of names - such as your example of Amazon - do not have the ability to trigger UDRP actions?  And ICANN's rolling disaster of WHOIS policy is roundly repudiated every time a registrant makes use of "privacy protection" services of an accommodating registrar.

(I personally find the stakeholder concept to be a slap in the face of the idea that people are the root of governmental authority; rather it is a throwback to the old system of Guilds, rather than citizens, being seated in the halls of government.  For example see my note at Stakeholderism – The Wrong Road For Internet Governance

But to get back to your questions, which are essentially all questions asking "what is the source of ICANN's authority" let me give the answer that I have been giving for the last 20+ years:  That absent a clearly legitimate delegation from superior, and recognized body, authority and legitimacy accrete, slowly, to a body that does a narrow job well.

Can one say that over the last 20+ years of ICANN's existence that it has done a narrow job? Or that it it has done that job well?

ICANN has become an expensive boat anchor of the internet.  ICANN's policies of fiat, unaudited registry fees appear to be sucking well more than a $Billion (USD) out of the pockets of domain name registrants each and every year.  And ICANN's arbitrary and capricious policies about registration terms - one year terms to a ten year maximum - have created a lot of unnecessary grief, not to mention a side industry of companies who manage domain names so that people don't forget to renew them.

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