A journalist friend just emailed me some questions about Friday’s announcement by the US Dept. of Commerce NTIA that it will work towards internationalising the oversight of some of what ICANN does. The IANA function has long been a source of international grumbling, particularly amongst middle income countries that don’t feel they have any influence over a service the global Internet depends on. Some of this grumbling is purely opportunistic, especially in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations, but the bulk of it is of long standing. Ahead of an international meeting convened by Brazil next month to work on principles for Internet governance, the NTIA has made its play to get back in control of the process and the story. It’s asked ICANN to bring people together to come up with a transition plan to internationalise IANA.
If this hadn’t been a weekend when Russia annexed a province of a neighbouring country, the premise of the TV series ‘Lost’ became a serious contender for explaining current events in, or perhaps far away from, the Indian Ocean, and my husband’s best man made headlines saying he is ashamed of toeing the Ministry of Defence’s line that UK military kit in Afghanistan was a-ok, I expect the news that the United States is to renounce its exclusive hold on part of the Internet would have been front page news.
But it hasn’t been all that much in the news, and I am too jammed to blog anything comprehensive about the topic, so here are some hastily typed responses to the questions I was asked:
NB Questions are so much easier to stimulate thoughts than sitting with the blank page, but they do direct matters in certain directions. I probably sound more sanguine than I am about what kind of transition plan ICANN might come up with. The NTIA basically told ICANN to consult DNS operators and ‘others’, which does not leave me full of confidence for how the civil society organisations I represent will be included, or indeed the US business interests who currently dominate matters.
Will the “Internet community” will be able to come up with a plan acceptable to commercial interests?
The key to success is for commercial interests to remember that they, too are part of the ‘Internet community’, and to start acting like it. That means actively participating in all the discussions, even if that means holding their nose about who they’re talking to, and taking responsibility for decisions they are part of. It also means not running back to Capitol Hill every time they don’t get exactly what they want. A lot of the reason behind international disquiet about how the Internet is run is that a small group of Washington business lobbyists have an inappropriate amount of influence over how the global Internet is run. That has done a lot more damage over time than the Snowden revelations, because it undermines the whole reason for other interests and countries to take part in the US-created multi-stakeholder model of ICANN.
The one concern I share with US commercial interests is their fear that an internationalised IANA will somehow un-tether ICANN from direct accountability. That is a real worry and one we all need to work on.There are a lot of proposals on how to achieve accountability, but it is very much a work in progress.
But let’s keep in mind that for most of the planet, the ability to call ICANN executives in front of a Congressional committee does not mean transparency! Most of us will never be consulted in such a process because we are not Americans, and we don’t get a vote. That is why US commercial interests need to look more broadly than their own lobbying efforts as channels of accountability, and get themselves into the mindset of people from around the rest of the planet. How confident do you think a global German telecoms operator, or an Indian software multinational, or a South Asian human rights NGO can be that their concerns will be treated seriously in Washington? Remember, we, too, have a big stake in how the Internet is run, and it can be quite frightening to think it is all down to a friendly US Congress person or Senator being sufficiently informed and caffeinated to ask the right questions at a hearing on Capitol Hill.
Do you think governments will stand by while control of the Internet is decided by the “Internet community”?
That is not what’s happening. Specific and far-reaching changes in control of the Internet are being spearheaded by governments – the NTIA, Brazil, the European Commission – in response to some quite broad concerns voiced by the technical community six months ago. (the Montevideo statement) Governments are most definitely in the driving seat now. That’s why we are suddenly moving so fast.
But governments need to remember that they, too, are part of the Internet community! The headline news in the past couple of years about how the Internet is governed has been that governments are rightly taking a more prominent and responsible role in it. However, governments will destroy the innovation and generativity of the Internet if they tear up the rule book for ‘multi-stakeholderism’, the idea that everyone has a place at the table.
Do you think ICANN itself will be in charge of this effort?
ICANN has been very smart and politically courageous. The gap between ICANN’s global responsibilities and its purely US-national legal accountability has been a painful one for a very long time. It was politically unsustainable. ICANN, led by Fadi Chehade, spotted an immediate opportunity late last summer to finally progress on a historic problem, and was both smart enough and brave enough to act on it. He has taken a lot of flak for that, but I believe he is on the right side of history. A lot of us in the immediate ICANN-community might have liked more consultation in advance and as we move along, but international politics moves fast, and we have to realise there is more at stake than our egos. I expect to see ICANN’s leadership remain at the fore of political developments, working closely with the key governments.
Let’s not forget that ICANN was always intended to transition to a more international oversight model, right from the process that created the MoU in 1999. And the 2009 Affirmation of Commitments was originally designed to allow it to be endorsed by other governments, not just the US. So internationalisation of responsibility and accountability have been in ICANN’s DNA from the start.
Any predictions/concerns about GAC’s role in this and its apparent rise in influence? (The GAC is the Governmental Advisory Committee to the ICANN Board.)
The GAC has a long way to go in matching its belief in its supremacy over other stakeholders with an ability to take part in the policy-making process in real time. ICANN makes policy all year round, not just at our face to face meetings, and the Internet moves too fast to be run by overworked officials who don’t have time to check their email. As the role of governments increases, GAC member countries need to put their money where their claims of legitimacy are, by devoting realtime and senior level staff to engage with the policy process as it happens. While I personally would dislike such a model, the notion of a functional and engaged GAC as a ‘primus inter pares’ isn’t unthinkable.
Do you have any general comments on this development you wish to share, especially with your background at ICANN?
The truth is the Internet has long enjoyed the backstop of a single government, the USG. Americans seem strangely blind to that, almost like it doesn’t count if it’s your own government. Well that’s not how it feels for the rest of the world. We need to cut through the fear-mongering about Russia and China and recognise that the vast majority of ‘middle of the road’ countries – democracies and America’s allies – believe it is time to move on. Countries like Brazil, India, most of Europe and Latin America are the US’s friends and have been urging this change.
In a narrow respect, the Internet is government-run – it’s just that the government in question is the American federal one. US commercial interests have been very comfortable with that because it gives them a special status. Much of the fear, uncertainty and doubt I’ve heard so far has been from Beltway lobbyists worried about losing their privileged access in a more open regime. I would like to see them engaging with the world outside of Washington and outside of the US, where the next two billion Internet users and most of our opportunities for economic growth are coming from. I really applaud the NTIA’s far-sighted stance. They are doing what a government should do, and engaging with their international peers to envisage the next generation of leadership and innovation on the Internet, not the previous one.