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US Government Statement on ICANN: new dawn or spoiler?

Media current
Larry Strickling, US Government, issues statement on ICANN

Last Friday, the US Government released a surprise statement, apparently giving up control over the domain name root database – a highly contentious internet asset that many argue should not be under the sole administration of the US Government. Over the weekend, a series of statements were rushed out. ICANN’s President said it shows the US is “trusting ICANN”; the EU Commission “warmly welcomed” the move.

But is everything as it seems? Is the United States dramatically relinquishing its responsibility over the domain name system? Or is the US Government statement a carefully positioned spoiler ahead of the Net Mundial Summit in Brazil next month? I think it’s the latter.

Controversy over US Government’s role in domain name system

Ever since the World Summit on the Information Society back in 2005, there has been international unease about the United States’ role in overseeing the domain name system root. Over the years, many solutions have been proposed, like handing the whole thing to the United Nations – as advocated by Brazil, China, Iran, Russia and India. All countries not one country

From within the Internet governance community, others have tried to articulate a better system. Well known Internet policy insiders Marilyn Cade and Becky Burr published a proposal in 2005. Recently, the academic Milton Mueller has had a go. The Tunis Agenda (one of the negotiated outcomes of the World Summit) contained a highly contentious passage about “enhanced cooperation”, taken by many as meaning a solution to the “one government” problem.

But none of these proposed solutions has so far captured the public imagination or produced its own momentum. Enhanced cooperation, which had a difficult birth, as so far failed to thrive. There have been a lot of meetings about it over the years. Most founder on what “enhanced cooperation” actually means. For some, it means listing all the ways that different groups are working together on Internet policy issues; for others, it was meant to be an inter-governmental process – and they believe they are being fobbed off.

So, what to make of the US Government statement in this context? While apparently a dramatic concession in the face of world opinion, it’s actually passing the buck firmly to the newly-enriched ICANN to fund a proper process to figure this baby out.

This is a calculated risk on the part of the US Government. Both Larry Strickling and his key officials have been around for long enough to know this will all take years, and may even fail to reach a conclusion through the standard ICANN bottom-up process. Some reports have said that the US Government statement promises that the US Government will step out of its contract in 2015. It doesn’t. The US Government statement merely states a fact – that contract ends in 2015.

Nestling below the fold, stuck at the end of a paragraph is a clear veto: the US Government “will not accept a proposal that replaces the US Government role with a government-led or and inter-governmental organisation solution”. In other words “Brazil, what you’re planning for next month’s meeting ain’t gonna happen. Period”

Deja vu: an earlier US Government statement

This is no different from the veto published by the Bush administration in the run up to the World Summit in Tunis back in 2005. The timing also has parallels, as the Bush statement came just before a key ICANN meeting when a UN process (the Working Group on Internet Governance) published its report. This time, the US Government statement is more cleverly positioned, as it appears to be about something else. It’s a wonder of double-speak, straight from the school of Yes Minister.

On the bright side, the US Government statement should re-energise this debate, and begin a more structured process to consider what next. But ICANN’s policy making to date has lacked global participation or stakeholder balance; another hand-picked President’s strategy committee might do it – but will it have bottom up credentials? Whatever happens, we should not delude ourselves that it will be quick or easy to replace the legitimacy offered by a sovereign government with a multistakeholder equivalent.

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