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September Deadline: Can The ICANN Model Be Revised?

On September 30, 2002, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the US Department of Commerce (DOC) and the corporation created to privatize the infrastructure of the Internet will expire. This corporation, known as ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has had a very contentious existence from its earliest days. On July 10, 2002, a US Department of Commerce official, Nancy Victory, sent a letter to ICANN. She wrote that the agreement between ICANN and the DOC "will expire on September 30, 2002 and in the coming weeks, the Department of Commerce will assess whether to renew, extend, or modify this agreement. To assist in this review process," Victory asked, "I request that you provide me with a report detailing ICANN's efforts in these areas, as well as any other information that might inform the Department in its decision-making with respect to this agreement." Victory said that the response to her letter should be sent no later than August 15, 2002.

ICANN's response was a document, "Fourth Status Report to the US Department of Commerce" dated August 15, 2002. The document acknowledges, though subtly, how inadequately ICANN has performed in carrying out the functions for which it was established. The report notes that ICANN had not been able to establish agreements with most of the country code administrators, or with the regional address registries (RIRs). ICANN admits it also had difficulty acquiring funds for its operation. Despite the funding problems, ICANN proposes to create several new positions for paid staff members.

ICANN asks that the DOC revise the functions, which it set up ICANN to perform. It blames its own poor performance on the lack of models. ICANN writes:

"The development of a private sector entity capable of overseeing the management of the Domain Name System (DNS) and of developing consensus-based policies applicable to the DNS, is a uniquely difficult undertaking. No comparable undertaking exists to be used as a model, and the diversity of the interests, economic and other, that must be accommodated in such a body make the effort to create a broadly acceptable organization and processes extremely challenging."

The goal, which ICANN accepts, is to create "a private sector entity capable of overseeing the management of the DNS...." Is the problem, as ICANN contends, that the goal is admirable but that no models exist to achieve it? Or is there a problem with the nature of the goal being sought, and the difficulty of achieving it, a sign of the problem?

None of the various contending factions within ICANN acknowledge that there might be a difference between the goal of creating a private corporation to manage the Internet and the public and scientific origins of the Internet. Originally, ICANN was to provide a management form for the Internet community. Indicative of how ICANN as a private entity has narrowed its focus away from the broad and diverse nature of the Internet community, is how in its report ICANN frequently refers to an "ICANN community" while only once referring to the Internet community.

A proposal submitted before ICANN was in place, identified what it saw as the problem that needed to be solved. The proposal is titled "The Internet: An International Public Treasure" (the Public Treasure proposal). The proposal explains that the "Internet has become international but . . . the systems that allow there to be an Internet are under the administration and control of one nation." The proposal predicted that the creation of a private entity could not solve such a problem but instead "will magnify many thousand fold the commercial and political pressures and prevent solving the genuine problem of having an internationally shared protection and administration of the DNS, including the root server system; IP number allocations, Internet protocols, etc."

Only if one recognizes the nature of the Internet and the public and scientific origins of its development, can it become possible to create an appropriate entity for the international administration of the Internet's infrastructure. It is not that there are no models for creating such an entity. Throughout the thirty-year development of the Internet, collaborative processes were created which provide numerous helpful models. The Public Treasure proposal to the DOC included a set of principles and recommendations. It warned, "the private organization that the U.S. government is asking to be formed is the opposite of protecting the Internet. It is encouraging the take over by a private non-accountable corporate entity of the key Internet functions and of this international public resource."1

When there is a difficult problem confronting government, there is a need to support alternative proposals. However, to solve the problem of how to create an international management form for the Internet's infrastructure, the US Executive branch only considered the creation of a private sector corporate entity. An international entity requires the consent and agreement of different nations. Collaborative processes like those used to develop the Internet are needed to foster international agreement. The early development benefited from protection from commercial and political pressures. A private sector entity like ICANN is the embodiment of commercial and political pressures, rather than the means of determining how to continue to shield the public Internet from these pressures.

In a talk given at the 1976 International Conference on Computer Communication (ICCC'76) in Toronto, Canada, Peter Kirstein, an Internet pioneer from Great Britain, recognized this challenge for the future development of the Internet. He wrote that the technical problems are solvable. It is predominantly the management problems, which present the continuing difficulty. He writes:

"It used to be thought that the serious questions of computer networks were technical. It is now clear that most of the technical problems can be resolved, the difficult ones are managerial. Computer networks permit technically the connection of different geographical locations, different organizations and different countries. In principle, they permit separate groups to collaborate on the same problems. In practice, the very flexibility which becomes possible is combated by administrative restraints...."2

There have been protests around the world against the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These have occurred because commercial pressure on governments has led to policies that only benefit a narrow set of interests.3 The Public Treasure proposal presents the US government and the international Internet community with the goal of creating an international and collaborative prototype process. Such a prototype could encourage the participation rather than disenfranchisement of the Internet community around the world.

The September 30, 2002 deadline is approaching for renewal of the Memorandum of Understanding between ICANN and the U.S. government. No revision of the model for ICANN can solve the problem ICANN represents for the Internet community. A more appropriate goal is required. The public and international nature of the Internet sets the foundation for open, collaborative processes. A private sector entity like ICANN cannot foster such processes.

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[1] It could be argued that ICANN is not a private entity, but a camouflaged government entity created by agreement between the US State Department and similar agencies of other governments. Camouflaged government entities are in violation of the need for citizen oversight of government.
[2] P.T. Kirstein, "Management Questions in Relationship to the University College London Node of the ARPA Computer Network", ICCC'76, Toronto, p.279.
[3] Joseph E. Stiglitz, "Globalization and its Discontents", New York, 2002, p 79-88. 

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher
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