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But ICANN Can’t

Don’t lose sleep over international ‘control’ of the Internet.

Mar 31, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 28 • By ARIEL RABKIN and JEREMY RABKIN
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ICANN already has a whole series of councils and conferences offering a sense of “participation” to an open-ended set of “stakeholders”—basically, whoever wants to send representatives to attend periodic meetings in exotic locales (the next ICANN conference will be in Singapore). But as with other corporations, voting members of ICANN’s board have the last word on its policy. A plurality of board members are selected by the existing board. Others are selected by particular constituencies, like the “Country Code Names Supporting Organization.” Once selected, these board members can’t be removed by the constituencies that sent them. As a nonprofit corporation, ICANN has no stockholders. However loosely or tightly organized, the “stakeholders” have no authority to override any decision of ICANN’s actual directors.

There is legitimate concern about ICANN profiteering. ICANN derives the bulk of its income from fees it charges to register new domain names. Left to itself, its incentive is to continue handing out new top-level domains, regardless of consequences. There is already concern that ICANN has been shamelessly promiscuous in embracing new top-level domains—dot this and dot that.

Established websites on traditional domains (like “.com”) worry that their names will reappear in new domains (“.biz” or “.fun” or “.rec”) and divert confused customers to competing sites—or to scams. Squatters often rush to register established website names in the new domains, so they can sell the rights to the original owners (of the same names, in older domains) for a hefty fee. There is no reason to trust an unaccountable ICANN to strike the right balance here.

There are more serious concerns down the road. The Obama administration has denied that its current policy is an effort to mollify foreign governments, upset at disclosures of NSA spying on their leaders. And it’s true that cutting U.S. government ties to ICANN has been under discussion since the beginning of the Obama administration—long before Snowden’s disclosures began last summer.

Still, foreign governments—and foreign voters—are upset about NSA spying. So it is hard not to read the Commerce Department’s announcement as a placating gesture. But it’s a gesture with no relevance at all to actual spying by NSA or anyone else, any more than your vulnerability to telephone wiretaps turns on who controls that North American Numbering Plan for area codes.

The thing about phony gestures is that they risk whetting the appetite for real gestures. By throwing ICANN to some hoped-for-future-development in international “accountability,” the Obama administration has shrugged off any serious discussion about the kind of international control scheme we should want. China, Russia, and a supporting chorus of developing countries demand open-ended international controls through the U.N.’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU). EU countries have resisted this idea but offered no clear alternative.

What the Obama administration has done with its latest announcement is give up at the start a main element of U.S. leverage in negotiations about Internet governance in the future. The administration says it will end its formal ties with ICANN next year—just as it will withdraw troops from Afghanistan. And now that we’ve settled that, can we talk about the future?

Even here, the consequences won’t be disastrous. If Russia and China and a hundred developing countries manage to vote new regulatory authority to the ITU, American and European Internet service providers can refuse to cooperate. With the Internet, as with more conventional trade, poor countries want access to rich countries more than the rich want to engage with the poor. But if we want common standards on the Internet—on policing crime or protecting trademarks or defining what content should be excluded (such as child pornography)—we would find it easier to develop them with some sort of agreed forum for negotiation.

Contrary to dark speculations by various conservative commentators, ICANN really can’t facilitate Internet censorship in China and Iran to please those governments. ICANN can’t stop them from doing that now. Nor is there a plausible scenario in which ICANN imposes censorship on U.S. websites. Actual websites operate through thirteen root servers—some still directly run by U.S. government agencies, some by U.S. universities, some by U.S. private companies. It would be no technical challenge for them to bypass ICANN and coordinate among themselves. Politically, it’s really unimaginable that they would all bow to Chinese pressure for censorship because ICANN told them they should.

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