The French government has slammed the agreement to move the domain name system out from under US control and hand it to Californian non-profit ICANN.
The French believe the move hands too much control to internet giants like Google and Amazon.
Axelle Lemaire, minister for the digital economy, put out a statement on Thursday which complained: "Despite the continued efforts of civil society and many governments to reach a balanced compromise, elements of this reform project will marginalize States in the decision-making processes of ICANN, especially compared to the role of the private sector."
Unnamed foreign ministry officials also told Le Monde they were unhappy with the end result, saying: "This is an unsatisfactory condition. The consensus requirement only produces warm water. And that does not put the GAC [ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee] on the same footing as the other committees of ICANN."
At the heart of the concerns are last-minute compromises reached at ICANN's meeting in Marrakesh earlier this month regarding how much influence governments should collectively have over ICANN's decision-making process.
One of the main conditions that the US government put on the transition of the critical contract to run IANA was that its role would not be replaced with "a government-led or intergovernmental organization."
Some governments feel that pre-condition led to the internet community unduly restricting the role of governments as a group and, by extension, giving too much power to "GAFA" – Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.
Unusual role of GAC
Governments, through the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), have always had an unusual role within ICANN. They remain an advisory body only and do not have a vote. They are also not on the committee which elects a significant number of the board members. As such, governments' influence on the body that makes the final judgments is strictly limited.
That said, following a decade of international conferences where the world's governments have discussed taking more control of the internet's naming and addressing systems, ICANN has agreed that GAC "advice" comes with the expectation that it will be followed unless the board holds a specific vote otherwise.
The board is also obligated to explain its reasoning if it does reject that advice, and to embark on a mediation process with the GAC in an effort to resolve the issue.
During the IANA transition process, however, the internet community played around with both what constituted "advice" from the GAC (it decided: an agreement with no objections), and the size of the vote required at the ICANN board level to reject it.
What the internet community feels was a fair balance, however, the French government (and a number of others including Brazil, Argentina and some African countries) felt was a dangerous watering-down of their influence.
Ultimately, with a deadline hard on their heels, the GAC as a whole agreed not to block the plan, while noting that a number of members were not able to approve it.
The French government is unhappy with how that process played out, claiming in the article that the US government wrongly pressured other governments into agreeing to the plan by over-emphasizing the risk that authoritarian governments like China and Russia would pose if the GAC did not agree to a reduced role.
It also noted that the US government still retains significant control over ICANN, since it remains a non-profit organization based in California under US law, as opposed to an international organization like the United Nations or Red Cross, which operate under international law.
As to the plan itself, the US government has selected Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society to carry out an assessment of it and report back. A contract shows the Center being engaged for five months to do the job.
The Berkman Center has a good working knowledge of ICANN, having been one of the original groups that helped set it up back in 1999 and having been selected to carry out an accountability review into ICANN in 2010.
It is worth noting that the main ICANN staff member in charge of that review was caught trying to block the selection of the Berkman Center. Its final report [PDF] highlighted and reflected many of the long-standing problems with ICANN as an organization, but recommendations that built on its observations have still yet to be fully implemented six years later. ®