Global Commission on Internet Governance wobbles into IANA debate

Bland statement and weak paper puts question mark over value of elite group

The Global Commission on Internet Governance (GCIG) has waded into the debate over the critical IANA contract with a formal statement and position paper. Rather than making a splash, however, the result is somewhat of a soggy mess.

The elite group has spent two days in closed meetings in Canada and on Wednesday morning held a press conference to discuss the upshot of its discussions. The result appears to show that the group was simply getting up to speed on the past six months' of discussions.

Its "communiqué" is focused on the ongoing transition of the internet's "address book" from the US government to an as-yet-unidentified body.

It offers its support to the process and (rather pointlessly) "endorses" its key aspects, announced months ago. It also lists a series of principles that have been repeatedly stated in the process and which has already been superseded by principles developed by the group actually charged with developing solutions.

Further highlighting how far behind current discussions the GCIG appears to be, the statement notes that the transition should happen in the announced timeline i.e. before September 2015, because domestic US politics may cause it to stall otherwise.

The group's chair, former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt, reiterated this message in the press conference, seemingly unaware that the same message had been delivered by the US government itself back in March and has become an acknowledged truth in the groups working on actual solutions.

The only thing of value in the GCIG's statement was derived from a paper developed by former ICANN CEO Paul Twomey over how the IANA contract could be transitioned and additional mechanisms that would make the current IANA contract holder, ICANN, more accountable.

Back to the future

Unfortunately that paper [PDF] appears to have been written back in 2009 when Twomey was still head of the organization and dusted off.

In it, he and the two co-authors (research fellows at the think-tank that the GCIC resides under) propose two changes, both of which fail to account for the intervening five years and the intense discussions that have been happening since March.

The paper suggests that rather than create an IANA oversight body of some type - which is the mechanism likely to be proposed by the working group in charge - that the contract be handed to ICANN and all of those that use the services under the contract form individual and separate contracts with IANA.

This is the same course of action that Twomey pursued while he was CEO at ICANN but which proved to be spectacularly unpopular. ICANN's effort to pressure the managers of country code top-level domains to become contractually bound to it led to open conflict and severely damaged the relationship between them and IANA. It has only recently been patched up.

The second main proposal put forward by the paper is that ICANN's existing Independent Review Process (IRP) be expanded to include issues of "public interest" and that its judges be selected independently (as opposed to by ICANN itself).

These "modest internal accountability revisions" would "increase legitimacy within the broader Internet community and to enhance existing corporate governance", the paper argues.

Again, though, the proposal is painfully out of date and the suggested revisions are taken directly from a review that Twomey himself oversaw back in 2008. The IRP process has been subject to numerous criticisms in the intervening years, not least its extremely high cost, unilateral changes made by ICANN's lawyers in the organization's favor when they lost the first case, and the fact that decisions are not binding on the ICANN Board.

Current discussions on improving ICANN's accountability are centered around how to introduce a body that is much more lightweight than the IRP and whose decisions will be binding on ICANN - thereby providing a degree of real accountability.

A bad start

This communiqué and paper is the first proper effort by the GCIG to influence internet governance events since its creation in January this year. It intends to publish a final report with recommendations in Spring 2016.

As a first attempt, it is not impressive. In fact, it is mildly embarrassing and serves to highlight the fact that internet governance is a fast-moving topic that does not wait on the preponderances of elite decision-makers (the Commission includes Bildt and also former Canadian deputy foreign minister Gordon Brown, McKinsey managing director Dominic Barton, former US Homeland Security minister Michael Chertoff, former head of GCHQ David Omand and a number of other similar VIPs.)

It is some irony that while enthusing about the "multi-stakeholder process" the GCIG has no idea that its key advantage is that there is no need to listen to pronouncements from ivory towers. It is the internet's way of disrupting traditional policymaking - let's hope the GCIG figures that out in its remaining 18 months. ®

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