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Ahead of the expiration, ICANN itself has been invited to issue a new plan for governance, subject to Commerce Department review, that takes into consideration such stakeholders. Maintaining the free flow of information on the Internet is crucial for U.S. economic and national security and necessary to bypass information blackouts arbitrarily imposed by foreign governments. Shifting control may contribute to those ends, but Commerce must make ICANN’s future clear and ensure that any transition to new governance serves U.S. interests.
The United States faced a global backlash after the Snowden revelations detailing the extent of U.S. electronic eavesdropping. The disclosures prompted the UN and other global organizations to resurrect earlier proposals to give other countries a greater say in how the Internet is governed. The demands to decrease U.S. control were not new, but Snowden’s leaks poured gasoline on the fire.
Looked at in one light, the ICANN announcement is a potentially clever concession aimed at demonstrating U.S. goodwill and assuring the world that the United States does not desire to maintain unfair domination of the Internet forever. If the gesture steals ammunition from those autocracies bent on getting some level of jurisdiction over the Internet for the ITU, as a prelude to allowing complete government domination of the Internet in those countries, loosening up ICANN governance may be a smart strategic move to demonstrate the United States can play well with others on Internet governance.
The move doesn’t take effect until late 2015, and the decision to allow the move is contingent on the Commerce Department accepting a plan from ICANN that proves the Internet authority will not be controlled by a government or governmental body such as the ITU. Until Commerce approves ICANN’s plan, the announcement to open up ICANN governance amounts to little more than a low-cost gesture, revocable at will, if Commerce decides ICANN’s plan is not aligned with the U.S. goal of maintaining free information flow online.
The problem is that Commerce has set few limits on what ICANN’s new governance structure can look like, other than to keep ICANN out of the hands of America’s adversaries. The Auerbach lawsuit demonstrated ICANN’s management can be insular and combative when it wants to be.
In written remarks in 2006, Auerbach said of efforts to reform ICANN since he won his lawsuit: “Looking back to the aspirations for this transition – better innovation, lower costs, public accountability, open and transparent processes – we can see that we have almost completely missed the target.”
Remarks from Auerbach in 2008 on the same topic were also quite negative, although they offered threads of hope. “ICANN’s more recent directors are showing signs that they are more than mere rubber stamps. And ICANN’s new chairman has already made the organization far more transparent and appears to be re-establishing the board of directors as the fount of policy and placing ICANN’s staff into the proper role as executors of that policy rather than its authors.
“Yet, despite these hopeful signs, ICANN remains a mixed bag containing many empty promises. And ICANN continues to cost the community of Internet users dearly in money and lost innovation.”
When a recognized authority on ICANN such as Auerbach states that ICANN is slow to reform and is still broken in many ways, critics are likely to question the wisdom of Commerce’s move to place the responsibility for planning the transition to a “multinational stakeholder” administration in ICANN’s hands.
If the U.S. announcement that it will open up governance of ICANN to more stakeholders deflects the push to drag the Internet under the authority of the ITU, it may prove to be a canny strategic move. Critics would never forgive the United States if it forces ICANN to accept a poorly crafted transition plan from an insular bureaucracy.
As September 2015 draws nearer, representatives of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration will no doubt be asked to testify before Congress on whether and how ICANN’s mysterious transition plan protects U.S. interests. If ICANN’s plan does not meet that goal, the NTIA can always revoke its offer to open up ICANN’s governance to multinational stakeholders.”