Internet readies plan for final transition of power to dun-dun-derr... ICANN

Progress made, but bad compromises bake in dysfunctional org

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A final transition plan for the top level of the internet away from the US government to non-profit California corporation ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) will be published next month.

After a two-year process, the internet community will meet in Marrakech between 5 and 10 March, and is expected to approve the plan by its close.

Almost all the plan's final details are known following an extensive two-year process, and as such, it will represent a successful result of the so-called "multi-stakeholder model" that allows everyone, not just business and government, to make critical decisions about the internet's future functioning.

Unfortunately, the final plan will also bring forward many of the flaws and idiosyncrasies of ICANN and effectively bake them into governance of the internet, creating what may become a future FIFA of the internet: lacking in accountability and with untrammeled money and resources.

Among the key changes in the final plan [PDF] will be a careful compromise of the role of governments in the organization through its Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).

Efforts to recognize the enormous power and importance of governments while not allowing them to dictate ICANN's decisions has led to a complex balance of powers and restrictions that are basically best guesses. Their effectiveness will only be known with time.

Governments will be obliged to reach a consensus before they are allowed to impose their significant influence on ICANN, and they will form a part of the effort to force ICANN to be more accountable by giving the broader internet community a right to overrule ICANN's board and get rid of board members. The GAC will also not be allowed to force through its own recommendations.

IETF influence

In a win for the internet, the domain names and intellectual property associated with the IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) contract will be held not by ICANN, but by a trust set up by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force). That means that it is in theory much easier to shift management of the internet's technical functions to a different group if ICANN starts abusing its powerful position.

And in another win, the policy and implementation of the IANA functions will be kept separate; ie, ICANN won't be able to use its own processes to both develop and decide changes in how it manages domain names, IP addresses and internet protocols. ICANN fought hard to remove that separation during the two-year process and lost.

However, there are two fundamental flaws with the plan that will be presented. First, the process to move the IANA contract away from ICANN is so convoluted that it will almost certainly never happen.

Rather than run a two-step process that allows the internet community to decide once whether to put the IANA contract up for tender and then run a contest to decide who should run it, the current plan – which has not been revised despite its obvious flaws being repeatedly pointed out – is a four-step process.

In two of those four steps, ICANN's own board is able to effectively halt the process – something that it would almost certainly do. And in moving to each new step, the entire internet community has to reach almost unanimous agreement.

For an organization that has become famous for its divide-and-conquer approach to stewardship, the process is nothing less than a guarantee of continued control.


The second major flaw comes from the fact that ICANN's board and staff successfully pushed the internet community into accepting a "sole designator" model over its plans to introduce actual members to the member organization.

The member model would have given the internet community a legal right to force change and to see the organization's inner workings – including where it is spending its tens of millions of dollars.

Instead, efforts to force ICANN to change its behavior, habits or decisions will have to go through another set of convoluted processes [PDF] that seem certain to reinforce the organization's culture of obfuscation and delay rather than bring in a new culture of openness and transparency.

The internet community should have known better than to have fallen for the same trick a third time: twice before, when faced with an insistence that ICANN improve its accountability, it has introduced new mechanisms and then slowly turned them into largely worthless exercises that are then discarded or "improved" in the next accountability review several years later.

In this case, it is revision of the Independent Review Process (IRP), which has proved overly expensive and limited in what it can say and do, that has been held up as the mechanism that will force greater accountability on the organization. If history is anything to go by, in several years' time it will have been found to have largely failed in its goals.


On the plus side, the plan will represent a significant shift of power from a government to an organization that is nominally controlled by the internet community.

The US government will continue to have an over-sized influence on the future development of the internet, but it will no longer have contractual control – and that can only be a good thing for such an important, global resource.

The process itself has taken a year longer than originally anticipated but it is still on course to be completed by September, when the US government's current contract ends.

Although the Department of Commerce noted in its most recent summary [PDF] of discussions that it can extend its contract if necessary, the hope of almost all parties is to finish the process before the presidential elections in November. ®


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