by Mark MacCarthy

Keeping the Internet free means letting go of ICANN

Jan 15, 20154 mins
GovernmentInternetTechnology Industry

Why the U.S. Dept. of Commerce needs to move ahead with the ICANN transition

Efforts by the U.S. Department of Commerce to cede control of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) — the nonprofit which manages Internet names and addresses and their functionality — have lately drawn intense, yet misguided, criticism. Opponents in Congress and in the media are calling for the Department of Commerce to abandon plans for a transition.

We Americans see ourselves as the defenders of Internet freedom, regulating the Internet where necessary, but preserving its openness for speech and commerce. This vision of an open Internet — under the rule of law, but lightly regulated — stands in sharp contrast to the authoritarian governments that have imposed a more closed Internet system in their own countries.

But for the sake of a truly open Internet, the Department of Commerce needs to move ahead with this ICANN transition. The Department’s priority with this transition should be to build a reliable and independent governance structure.

ICANN’s renewable contract with the U. S. Department of Commerce causes many countries to see the U.S. as having ultimate control over Internet architecture.

This perception of U.S. leverage over ICANN is actually harmful to our ultimate goal of making certain the Internet remains free. It adds weight to an argument from authoritarian countries that technical and policy issues relating to global Internet governance should be handled by treaty-based inter-governmental organizations like the International Telecommunications Union, a unit of the United Nations.

The U.S. rightly rejects this approach. Inter-governmental organizations could be too easily swayed to impose a more closed vision on the Internet. For instance, at a meeting of the International Telecommunications Union in December 2012, 89 countries signed a new set of regulations that the United States strongly opposed as a threat to a free and open Internet. The U.S. was able to bring along only 55 countries, including most of Western Europe, Japan, Canada, and India.

The main concern with ceding U.S. control over ICANN is that it would give other countries an opportunity to use the ICANN mechanism to implement authoritarian control of Internet content and activity on a global basis.

To prevent a governmental takeover of ICANN, the U.S. requested that ICANN convene stakeholders, including engineers, academics, businesses, civil society and governments, to develop a plan for non-governmental governance that involves all these parties. The Commerce Department has said that the new governance structure must not “interfere with the exercise of free expression or the free flow of information” and must not replace the U.S. role “with a government-led or an inter-governmental organization solution.”  

Various ICANN working groups are putting together a new governance plan that will increase ICANN accountability without government control. But there is no reason that the U.S. has to accept a faulty governance structure. The Commerce Department would like to complete a transition by September 2015, but if an acceptable plan is not ready by then, the Department can and should extend its ICANN contract in order to finish the work. It is more important to get the new governance structure right than to do it quickly.

While we have a trump card to renew the contract if necessary, the U.S. should not aim to perpetuate the status quo. ICANN should not remain under contract to the Commerce Department indefinitely. The announcement that the U.S. intended to move ahead with an ICANN transfer contributed to the success of Netmundial, an international conference on Internet governance held in Brazil last year that sided with the U.S. vision of an open Internet.

Without a successful transition of ICANN to a non-governmental governance structure, the U.S. will lose momentum in its fight for an open Internet and face increasing diplomatic pressure, even from influential non-authoritarian countries, to adopt intergovernmental control. The vote at the ITU in 2012 is only one sign that the U.S. needs to adjust to new international realities.

Achieving a free and open global Internet demands that the U.S. move forward with the hard work of devising and implementing a non-governmental governance structure for ICANN’s key Internet responsibilities.