Why Accountability Matters at ICANN

Posted August 7th, 2014


The ICANN circus rolled into London in June. Over 3,000 delegates signed up for a seven day festival of all things domain related held in the less than glamorous setting of the Hilton Metropol on the Edgware Road (known to Londoners as Little Beirut). First on the bill was the Commonwealth Internet Governance Forum which focussed on “investments, partnerships and security”. Next came a High Level Government Meeting attended by ministers from 77 countries and apparatchiks from 11 IGOs. The future of internet governance was the main topic of debate. By the time the ICANN meeting started, delegates from within the domain industry, including a strong representation of brand owners including at least a dozen MARQUES members, were exhausted by talk of the impact of Edward Snowden and the digital divide and turned to matters they were more accustomed to such as the launch of the new gTLDs.

The hottest topic to emerge was ICANN’s accountability. As a result of its efforts to develop a process for the transition of the IANA stewardship from the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to the global multi-stakeholder community, the spotlight has been thrown on ICANN itself. Can this not-for-profit corporation incorporated in California be entrusted to police itself if given responsibility for the IANA function of adding strings to the world root? The community lined up at the microphone in the Public Forum on the last day of the meeting to voice concerns. To the amazement of everyone, including 20 rather startled Board Members arranged in a horseshoe at the front of the packed assembly room, all seven constituencies that make up ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO) which creates policy, spoke with one voice. In an unprecedented development they called unanimously for the creation of an “independent accountability mechanism that provides meaningful review and adequate redress for those harmed by ICANN action or inaction in contravention of an agreed upon compact with the community”. Although ICANN, currently, has a number of redress mechanisms these are widely seen as ineffective, non-transparent, time consuming and expensive.

Why is this important? ICANN operates through bottom-up consensus. The views of four main stakeholder groups – registry operators, registrars, non-commercial interests and commercial interests – are weighed against each other as policy is created. Generally everyone is pleased or disappointed in equal measure. However, in recent months the ICANN staff under the leadership of President and CEO Fadi Chehade has blurred the line between implementation and policy. Issues which don’t belong inside ICANN have been allowed to surface – for example whether the .wine and .vin new gTLD applications should proceed without additional safeguards for wine producers. When this topic emerged in London, we were treated to the Belgium government representative calling the Chair of the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) a liar, the Spanish government demanding “a change not only of the GAC but of ICANN itself” and European Commission declaring it will “not at all hesitate to take legal actions”.

Brand owners need ICANN to rise above governmental politics. ICANN must be transparent and accountable if it is to fulfil its stewardship role for the internet. We need a stable and secure internet addressing system, where rights protection and the rule of law prevail. The next 12 months are critical. When the ICANN community gathers again in Los Angeles in October 2014 there may be more to report on the replacement directory services for whois that are being mooted or the success of the URS rapid suspension scheme but for the time being, all eyes are on governance.

nickwood1

 Nick Wood

Nick is Managing Director of accredited registrar Com Laude. Nick.wood@comlaude.com

 

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