Yesterday was a major milestone in the development of the Internet, a day which I would argue is a major positive step forward in its evolution.
The newly minted CEO of ICANN announced that the organization has entered into a long term agreement with the United States Department of Commerce (DoC), an “Affirmation of Commitments” (the 4 minute video segment is worth watching). This agreement basically sets out the rules of engagement for US oversight of ICANN including the fact that the organization will remain headquartered in America, that the DoC will have a permanent seat on the new top-of-the-foodchain “Accountability and Transparency” committee, as well as the notion that the introduction of new gTLDs is not a foregone conclusion, that their consumer benefit must outweigh the costs. Of course there are numerous other details, but these are several of the major ones.
Why would I think the US having some oversight of ICANN is a good idea? A bit of historical perspective is required.
To begin with, the new agreement is replacing the existing Joint Project Agreement which expired September 30, 2009. The original goal, roughly a decade ago when all this began, was that ICANN would be set free of US oversight at the conclusion of the JPA and its predecessor Memorandum of Understandings, so it certainly has a precedent.
But what does the global Internet community get in return for this? As it turns out, quite a bit. The fact is that until today, ICANN was responsible to only one entity, the DoC. Given that the Internet is a global resource, there were and are many, many critics of this arrangement. Let’s be fair, if you are China, India, Russia – let alone numerous other less friendly countries – would you want all your Internet traffic coordinated through an organization that was fundamentally beholden only to the US? The new “Affirmation” now makes ICANN responsible to all countries in the Internet community, not just the US. It certainly addresses a number of the comments CIRA made during the DoC request for comments on this issue.
That’s great for countries, but what do we, ordinary Internet users, get? Turns out we get a fair amount too. Many individual citizens are pleased that the US has stepped back into a more equal, rather than preeminent role. But I would say that far more importantly, the “Affirmation” ensures a far higher degree of transparency and accountability than has previously been the case. This is very important for a private corporation that is coordinating the Internet on behalf of the world!
There is also a significantly more robust commitment to the security, stability, and resiliency of the domain name system (DNS). This is incredibly important for the functioning of the Internet and something that often gets lost in all the policy, money, and political squabbling. Of course, I am a little biased because that is what we do at CIRA , since it is the critical function for all of us who actually have a hand in operating the Internet.
There is an explicit nod to the fact that both the interests of consumers and competition must be served. This is very important for all those who make their livelihood as a result of the net as well as the general user, but I think it is especially important for those in less developed countries whose interests must now be truly taken into account. Finally, the DoC has effectively demanded that Internationalized Domain Names (IDN) must be implemented ASAP, a key requirement for the next billion people to come online!
Is the “Affirmation” perfect? No. But is it a significant step in the right direction? Absolutely. Ask yourself this question, and be honest…If some country is to have some degree of oversight to ensure ICANN stays upright, who would you want…really? I’ll tell you one thing, I know a lot of these people and they are smart, hard working, and committed. I am not naïve about it, but I am certainly okay with it.
Are there going to be bitter critics and unhappy countries? Of course. It’s always easy to take potshots from the sidelines, but I think Rod Beckstrom did a remarkable job of threading the needle on a very complicated, highly political and deeply controversial issue.