ICANN Accountability Goes Multinational
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the US Department of Commerce (DoC) have formally affirmed ICANN’s accountability to a larger group of participants. The Affirmation of Commitments, signed late in September, is effective immediately. The DoC's review of ICANN every three years will move to an ICANN-internal accountability review committee (ARC), whose size has yet to be determined.
"This new affirmation marks an exciting new stage in ICANN's development as a truly international entity," said Rod Beckstrom, ICANN chief executive officer in a statement. "And it confirms, once and for all, that the ICANN model of public participation works — and works effectively."
A Mandate Fulfilled
ICANN was formed 11 years ago to introduce competition into the domain name space. At that time, a US government contractor, Network Solutions, had a monopoly on selling domain names for US$50–80 each. Now there are more than 950 registrars, which has driven the cost of domain names down to as little as $5–10 each.
ICANN's day-to-day operations and policy-setting processes have always been somewhat independent from the DoC, noted Paul Levins, ICANN's vice president of corporate affairs. Its operations have been funded through an 18-cent surcharge on each domain. As part of the original contract, the DoC reviewed ICANN operations every three years to ensure that it was carrying out its original goals of balancing the Internet's growth while maintaining the domain name system.
The affirmation expands the means for holding ICANN accountable so that all stakeholders—not just the US government—will regularly review it.
Before ICANN, the entire root naming system was managed by Jon Postel, a founding member of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and director of the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA) from its inception. On 28 January 1998, he instructed root-name-server operators to change from Network Solutions' root zone server to IANA's. This initiated a controversy, in which the US government asserted its authority over the root zone server. Postel was ordered to change it back, which he did.
At issue was the need to privatize the name service in a way that would help the Internet grow while still serving the public interest. "When the Internet was commercialized 15 years ago, people realized that it was an incredibly powerful resource," said Levins. "The US government was a catalyst for a discussion on how to make sure this was not captured by any one government or organization."
ICANN became the means of delivering on this vision. The DoC reserved the right to review the ICANN process every three years to ensure that it was meeting the initial goals. ICANN and the DoC have revised their agreement six times to improve the model under which the Internet is administered. The last memorandum of understanding was set to expire September 30. Last April, the DoC asked for comments on ICANN's current model. The affirmation indicates that the model is working as intended.
"It's not like they're going to come back in three years with a question mark over the ICANN model," said Levins. ICANN has committed to adding ARC accountability reviews of its management processes, a committee chosen in part by ICANN's existing multinational Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). The newly formed ARC will take over the reviewing role from the DoC.
This isn't expected to significantly change ICANN's regular operations, which consist of several different advisory groups. The ICANN board has 21 members, 15 of whom vote on new decisions. It holds meetings 12 times a year, three of which are open to the public.
ICANN decisions are enforced through contractual arrangements with registrars — domain name wholesalers, such as VeriSign — and registries — domain name retailers, such as Go Daddy. There are 16 registries, and about 950 registrars.
The GAC has about 85 members and provides ICANN advice on issues that relate to sovereign interests. The GAC will work with ICANN's chief executive officer in selecting new members for the ARC. The US has been called out as a specific member for the ARC as well. The first review is expected to be completed by December 2010. The US DoC has reserved the right to withdraw support for this affirmation with 120 days notice.
"This is not independence day," Levins said. "Many people were concerned that the only review mechanism for ICANN — the only external accountability review mechanism — was the US DoC. This affirmation expands those accountabilities."
Organizations expressing concern about the original arrangement's granting the US government sole oversight of ICANN included the European Union, the Internet Society, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the United States Council for International Business, and the International Chamber of Commerce, among others.
The main concern was the perceived lack of accountability to the global community. In response to the DoC's request for comment, Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Information Society and Media, called for greater transparency and accountability in Internet governance. In a statement, she described ICANN accountability as "a must." She praised the Clinton administration's decision to "progressively privatize the Internet's domain name and addressing system. "In the long run, it is not defendable that the government department of only one country has oversight of an internet function which is used by hundreds of millions of people in countries all over the world."
The shift in accountability has been well received by many critics of the original arrangement. "Internet users worldwide can now anticipate that ICANN's decisions on domain names and addresses will be more independent and more accountable, taking into account everyone's interests," wrote Reding. But she feels that this reform still requires more work from governments, business, and civil society. "The challenge now is to make the GAC, with its enhanced role, more effective in its work and to further strengthen the dialogue between governments, businesses, and civil society."
Under a separate existing contract for IANA, the DoC will continue to review decisions related to provisioning new root names. This separate contract still gives the DoC oversight of domain name administration through 2011. The recent affirmation changes only ICANN's role in setting guidelines and polices.
The Affirmation of Commitments can be read in its entirety at http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/domainname/Affirmation_of_Commitments_2009.pdf.