The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will hold a meeting next week in Los Angeles. The meeting, the 51st of its kind (hence the name “ICANN 51”), comes at an important cusp in the development of a new model for governing the Internet.
Major issues that should merit public attention are how to ensure that ICANN will be accountable if the U.S. ends its supervisory role, how to keep ICANN focused on its core mission as revenues rush in from the sale of domain names, and how to protect ICANN from interference from governments—many of which are hostile to a free Internet. If the meeting goes well, we may look back and see it as a positive turning point; if it goes poorly we may reflect on the opportunities that were missed.
ICANN 51 comes against the backdrop of a recent announcement by the U.S. government that it plans to end its contractual relationship with ICANN to manage policy and technical features of the Internet’s domain name system (DNS), which is the function that matches website addresses like www.heritage.org to unique numerical IP addresses. Before the U.S. ends its current oversight relationship with ICANN, however, the organization must meet with “global stakeholders” and negotiate an acceptable alternative to the role played by the U.S. government. The current contract expires on September 30, 2015, and this date is widely assumed to be the target date for the transition.
There are a number of critical issues that should receive intense consideration at ICANN 51 and should be appropriately resolved before that proposed transition proceeds.
First, there are core questions about the transition itself: How will it proceed? Who will be responsible for fulfilling the role of oversight currently filled by the U.S. government? More to the point, how will ICANN become more accountable and transparent in a way that fosters trust in its judgment in the absence of American oversight? It is critical that the accountability mechanisms put in place map appropriately to ICANN’s authority. If, for example, the transition process determines that ICANN’s legal authority is limited to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) role—the creation and assignment of names and numbers—then the accountability and transparency mechanisms would appropriately be limited to those functions as well. If ICANN is granted broader authority, as ICANN executives seemingly desire, then accountability measures must also be broader and more robust. How to adequately address these concerns is difficult, and ICANN has convened two parallel consultations to get them right. One issue should be clear: It is imperative that new accountability mechanisms be substantially determined and in place before the transition occurs, or there will no longer be any leverage to insure their adoption. ICANN 51 meetings should confirm that principle.
Another issue is what to do with all the money. As Erin Mershon of Politico reported on October 1 in a story titled “Tech Giants Ante Up in Domain Name Game,” ICANN recently earned over $14 million from four domain name auctions and stands to make tens of millions more in the near future. That’s a lot more than ICANN needs to administer the IANA function. According to ICANN, they’ll let the global community decide what to do with that money, but Politico says that they may want to spend it on improving internet connectivity around the globe. A noble goal to be sure, but generally outside ICANN’s remit. Allocation of these resources will be contentious, divert ICANN from core concerns, and invite mismanagement, favoritism, and rent-seeking. ICANN 51 should reiterate that ICANN is a nonprofit corporation, reject extraneous expansion of ICANN’s role and activities, and explore options for adjusting fees to ensure that ICANN revenues track closely with expenses.
Finally, ICANN faces a question about the role of governments in its own hierarchy. At ICANN 51, the Board will consider a controversial proposal to, in effect, give governments greater authority over ICANN’s operations. Currently, governments provide advice to the ICANN board through a Governmental Advisory Committee (the “GAC”). But the advice is just advice and can be rejected by a majority of the ICANN Board of Directors. Under consideration, however, is a bylaw amendment that would require a two-thirds majority of the board to reject GAC advice. The amendment itself is ill-considered and has drawn near-universal opposition. When they meet at ICANN 51, the board would be wise to heed that counsel and forego the bylaw amendment.
ICANN 51 will be very consequential. Moving forward on implementing accountability measures prior to the transition, limiting ICANN’s role and refunding the excess fees to users, and rejecting government control will put ICANN on a positive path toward a sustainable future. Failing to do so may drive it off the cliff. The world will wait and watch.