As I mentioned in my blog a few weeks ago, Rod Beckstrom, President and CEO of ICANN, started off the December 2010 ICANN meeting in Cartagena, Colombia with a scripted response to a letter (.PDF) to ICANN’s Board from Larry Strickland, the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information with the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC). The letter criticizes several elements of ICANN’s proposed launch of new gTLDs.
Overall, Strickland sees a lack of improvement in ICANN’s transparency, accountability and fact-based policy development. Specifically, the DOC criticizes the lack of a proper economic analysis evaluating the benefits of expanding the gTLD space. Coincidentally, a couple of days after the posting of the DOC’s comments, ICANN published the second phase of its New gTLD Economic Study.
Additionally, the letter mentions concerns about ICANN’s Board adopting a resolution in November 2010 allowing cross ownership between registries and Registrars under the new gTLD program (in other words, eliminating vertical separation). Until that decision was made, the vertical separation debate was raging for years. A good summary of the positions ICANN has been considering can be found on ICANN’s website. What concerns the DOC is that the ICANN Board made this dramatic reversal of policy without explaining the reasons behind it, in particular because it’s been so hotly debated by various factions of the Internet community for such a long time.
Interestingly, although the DOC letter and Beckstrom’s response appear quite straightforward, I heard three totally different takes while at the Cartagena ICANN meeting in December 2010.
First, I heard the take that the DOC letter is merely a symptom of the growing pains facing ICANN, as ICANN matures into an “adolescent” corporation, becoming a little more independent and doing things its own way, away from the clutches of the “parent” Department of Commerce. As every parent of teenagers knows, there will be times when the parent has some discomfort with their teen’s choices and behaviours, but it’s all part of growing up. With this in mind, while a nod to the US government’s view is important, it should be given no more weight than any other submitted through the public comment process. In fact, the DOC should be okay with ICANN acting independently.
Second, the conspiracy theory: certain key ICANN players expressed concern that the DOC letter is simply channeling the voices of pro-vertical integration Washington lobbyists and those who stand to gain from the change in policy. With this view come worries that lobbyist-run Washington is attempting to have too much influence over ICANN’s operations, channeled through the DOC.
Finally, there was the more straightforward take that Larry Strickland of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the author of the letter, not known for political dances, wrote exactly what he meant – no need to decipher or read between the lines. It is, after all, remarkably blunt for a diplomatic letter. The DOC and ICANN have an agreement (the Affirmation of Commitments) of which Strickland is the signatory and which he takes very seriously, and there are concerns that ICANN is not living up to its obligations. Those who hold this view worry about the possibility of the termination of the Affirmation of Commitments and ICANN’s role in global Internet governance.
I lean towards the third view. From my interaction with Strickland, he strikes me as a plain spoken, no-nonsense straight shooter. Several stakeholders, not just the DOC, have expressed concern and even alarm at some of ICANN’s decisions and processes. While I’m not sure the DOC would go so far as terminating the Affirmation of Commitment and shutting ICANN out of the web of Internet governance, I think ICANN should sit up and listen to the numerous voices expressing concern about the execution of its obligations.
What do you think? Is ICANN just being sent to its room? Are Washington lobbyists taking over Internet governance? Or are we seeing symptoms of a perceived lack of accountability and transparency?