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ICANN chair plays chicken with internet control-halt-shift

Implies org would rather stay under gov power than accept key recommendation

The chair of domain name overseer ICANN has threatened to reject a key recommendation in the process to move control of the top level of internet from the US government to the non-profit organisation.

In a rambling and confusing speech given toward the end of a special two-day meeting, Steve Crocker appeared to say that his Board would not accept the recommendation to limit its absolute authority.

He also appeared to suggest that ICANN was prepared to stay under US government control rather than give the internet community legal standing.

Crocker told attendees:

We believe that the transition away from the contractual arrangement with the US government is in the best interest of the entire world, the entire community, not just the corporate structure of ICANN, it is something that has persisted for a long time. We wrestle with it.

We chafe under it a bit. But it has not been disastrous. So that sets a kind of threshold for what our ultimate decision process is going to be.

The two-day meeting was intended to bring together the internet community working group that has made a series of recommendations over how ICANN needs to change to improve its accountability, and the ICANN Board, which has rejected its most significant recommendations.

But the confab has not been a success, resulting in not one but two US government officials pleading with the groups to reach agreement and to do so quickly.

After 15 hours of talking around the subject, Crocker appeared to have decided to dig his heels in: "We are hoping very strongly that we are not put into a position of having to make really tough decisions or get into a 'it's that or that' sort of thing," he said.

"But, if necessary, all of us are seasoned adults and we take our responsibilities quite heavily and we don't have consequences except to our own personal reputations or conscience that we have to deal with perhaps.

"We will do what is necessary, when it's necessary. We don't want to convey that as a threat, more as a plea."

Asked to clarify what he meant in the virtual meeting chatroom after his speech, Crocker wrote:

The Board does not support the single member model. We are unified in wanting to work with the community to find practical solutions to achieve the additional levels of accountability sought by the community including the ability to remove Board members and the whole Board, requiring community approval of bylaws changes, and requiring the Board to work with the community to reach consensus on strategic plans, operating plans and budgets.

That decision – which followed a meeting of the Board earlier in the day in which its members reaffirmed rejection of the "single member model" – threatens to pitch the internet community against ICANN's Board and could potentially undermine the entire process to move the "IANA functions" contract to the organisation.

One or nothing

Earlier this month, the US government warned that it would only accept a single plan to transition the IANA contract, meaning that the Board and community needed to reach agreement on changes.

The two-day meeting went to great lengths to avoid a public showdown, actively avoiding discussion of the key sticking point of whether the internet community would be given legal standing within the organisation.

But that approach proved worthless and on the second day, the format was changed in order to produce theoretical models for how the community might challenge Board decisions.

While those talks proved fruitful, the key distinction over whether the internet community would be entitled to override a Board decision, or veto the organisation's budget, has been left untouched.

It's unlikely to be the end of the process, however, since both sides were very keen to make the IANA transition happen. But Crocker's speech will do little to build trust.

"What's the point in the group doing months of work if the Board gets to decide what happens at the last minute? Why buy a dog and bark yourselves?" asked one participant, Nigel Roberts, CEO of, the operator of Jersey and Guernsey's top-level domains.

The Board's alternative proposal of a binding arbitration process rather than a legal right offers little more than the existing accountability measures – which have been found wanting – and is unlikely to be acceptable.

Likewise, while the working group's "single member model" is simple in concept its implementation have proved problematic with different groups arguing over the number of votes they should be granted while other groups wish to espouse any voting at all.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear – things need to move fast. In just three weeks time, the entire ICANN community will be descending on Dublin, Ireland. In order to hit a critical deadline, the main details will need to be decided by the end of that particular huddle. ®

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