ICANN, the US, and the Panda in the Room

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Younger readers probably don't remember the painful birth of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the body that oversees the global domain name system, in 1998. But the passage from a system run by engineers to an organisation that seems to be rather more interested in money than Mbits was contentious at the time, and remains problematic ten years later. One particularly tricky aspect is the relationship between ICANN and the US government.

Initially, it was only natural that the US-based ARPANET/Internet technology should be under the control of the US engineers that built it. But as it has become more and more international, so the tensions have increased between the country that first developed it and the rest of the world that has now adopted it and made it truly global.

Unfortunately, this latest move by some US congressional members is not going to help things:

A group of US congressional members have sent a letter to US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke calling for a temporary arrangement between the Department of Commerce (DOC) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (which manages technical aspects of the internet domain name system) to be made permanent.

It is quite understandable why they might see it as darn handy if the US retains a special role in the management of domain names, but this completely fails to take into account what the other 200 countries around the globe who are also online might think. Indeed, some of these have expressed their view that the time has come to remove ICANN from the direct control of the US Department of Commerce, and to make it into a truly international, independent body, serving all nations equally:

Viviane Reding, the EU's Commissioner for Information Society and Media said: "The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is approaching a historic point in its development. Will it become a fully independent organisation, accountable to the global internet community? Europeans would expect so, and this is what we will push for. I call on the United States to work together with the European Union to achieve this."

With the expiry of the bilateral Joint Project Agreement between ICANN and the US government due in September 2009, the Commission said today that this private sector initiative should continue its leadership, but should operate within clear guidelines defined through an international dialogue. For example, if ICANN is to oversee the introduction of customised domain names (which will allow a website to replace ".com" with ".anything"), it should set clear guidelines and operate openly. The EU also believes that future internet governance arrangements should comply with key principles, in particular, the respect for human rights and freedom of expression as well as the need to preserve stability and security of the internet.

The Commission today, in a Communication called 'Internet governance: the next steps', made proposals for the governance of the internet to be more open, transparent and inclusive. A key objective is that of accountability – including both internal (the decision-making bodies and general organisation of ICANN) and external accountability (multilateral accountability involving all countries of the world). This also means that those affected by decisions of governance bodies should have the possibility to lodge an appeal with an independent tribunal. The Commission also proposed that the network should be managed by private bodies within principles agreed upon by public authorities but without government interference in day-to-day operations.

The US government is the only body to have had formal oversight of ICANN's policies and activities since its inception in 1998. As the Joint Project Agreement is ending now, the Commission believes that ICANN should become universally accountable, not just to one government but to the global internet community. This is particularly relevant given that the next billion of internet users will mainly come from the developing world. The Commission today said that the EU should initiate discussions with international partners on these issues, in particular on how to enhance the internet's resilience against accidental failure or deliberate attack.

Now, the US might point out that it currently has control over key aspects of the Internet domain infrastructure, and that it can therefore jolly well do what it likes, but this would be misguided. After all, independent of the rights and the wrongs of this viewpoint, there is also what might be called the panda in the room: the emergence of China as the world's leading Internet nation.

If it chose to do so, China is perfectly capable of unilaterally declaring that it will no longer follow the edicts of ICANN, and set up its own, parallel organisation. Although this kind of fork would be a disaster for the Internet in the short term, there can be little doubt that many countries, particularly in the developing world, would choose to follow China's organisation, ignoring ICANN, especially given the current power of the Chinese economy.

The best the US can hope for is to be first among equals here, by ceding power gracefully: if it foolishly tries to resists moves to make ICANN more accountable and representative, it will simply find itself splitting the Internet, and losing even more power in the process.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter and identi.ca.

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