Internet governance in transition: What's the destination?

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The U.S. government's decision to relinquish its historic role in Internet governance has set in motion a transition with no clear resolution. The Department of Commerce has asked the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to "convene stakeholders across the global Internet community to craft an appropriate transition plan," but where this will lead is anyone's guess. What is clear is that the transition provides both the opportunity for, and the necessity of, undertaking a fundamental reevaluation of ICANN's accountability mechanisms.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is the relatively obscure nonprofit organization that is responsible for the essential Internet governance functions, without which the Internet would not work. It administers the Domain Name System (DNS) — the system of Internet addresses that allows us to access web pages and to communicate through email. It performs these functions under a contract between the U.S. Department of Commerce and the ICANN-operated Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA). The Commerce Department is now proposing to relinquish its key role in awarding the IANA contract, without any replacement mechanism in sight.

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In the 16 years of its existence, ICANN has taken seriously its responsibilities. The Internet has flourished and ICANN has made no major missteps. However, the loss of external accountability that is implied by the proposed transition represents a major crossroads. It cannot be assumed that the system will work as well once the U.S. gives up its role.

Moreover, the diminished U.S. role will create a void that other governments are anxious to fill. After all, international pressure — exacerbated by the Snowden NSA revelations, even though they have nothing to do with ICANN — is a major reason that the U.S. is giving up its role. Although the Department of Commerce has stated that it will not accept a transition plan that replaces the department's role with "a government led or intergovernmental solution," once the cord is cut, U.S. influence will be limited.

With the decision to transition away from U.S. control, addressing ICANN's longstanding accountability and "legitimacy" issues becomes even more pressing. If ICANN is not accountable to the U.S. government or to other governments, to whom will it be accountable? Although ICANN has established a number of accountability procedures, they largely reflect internal policies, which can be changed internally. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers places a great deal of emphasis on obtaining input from the Internet "community," but in the end, it is ICANN's board that makes the decisions. That board has no external entities to which it is accountable.

Meaningful accountability requires meaningful external checks, and virtually all major organizations are structured so as to be externally accountable. For example, corporations are accountable to their customers, who can go elsewhere, as well as to their shareholders who elect boards of directors, who in turn can replace management if the company is not performing. Nonprofits are accountable to their members and donors and, when applicable, customers. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has no shareholders, members, or donors. Its customers cannot go elsewhere, because ICANN has a monopoly on generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs), which provides it with an assured and rapidly growing source of revenue.

The most direct way for ICANN to be externally accountable is to modify its governance structure so that board members, or at least a significant number of them, are accountable to external groups.

Our research shows that many organizations with coordination functions that are similar to ICANN's are governed by their direct users, who have a strong interest in the organization doing its job effectively. The direct users of ICANN include:

  • "Registries," which are companies that coordinate gTLDs, such as .com, .edu and .org;
  • "Registrars,” which register the second-level domain names that we all use, such as aol.com; and
  • Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), which are responsible for distributing numeric Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that are needed for the Internet to work.

As a starting point to enhancing external accountability, there should be increased representation of these groups on the ICANN board. These groups have a strong incentive and the ability to see that the DNS works smoothly and apolitically and that ICANN focuses on the technical functions that are involved in administering the DNS, avoids mission creep, and addresses problems affecting the DNS (such as trademark issues) as they arise. This benefits all users.

A modified board structure might also allow for representation by other constituencies. However, given the longstanding goal that Internet governance should be private, we do not envision formal ties between governments and ICANN; seats on ICANN's board should not be allotted to representatives of governments. Although U.S. oversight of ICANN has been quite light-handed, we fear that formal governmental representation on ICANN's board could lead to an unfortunate politicization of ICANN's actions — to the detriment of the openness and flexibility of the Internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has functioned reasonably well, but we cannot assume that an organization that is essentially accountable to itself, with no meaningful external controls, will continue to do so indefinitely. Indeed, the vacuum of no meaningful external accountability is likely to be seen as an invitation — perhaps even a mandate — for governments to assert that role, with the negative consequences to follow.

In sum, as part of this transition, the issue of ICANN external accountability urgently needs to be addressed. We believe that our suggested system of accountability to ICANN's direct users would be the best way to move to the next phase of Internet governance.

Lenard is president and senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute. White is a professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business.

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