Proposals will make Icann more accountable to the global community of Internet users

Gillian Tett | Financial Times
January 28, 2016

In the next few weeks, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is expected to announce a leadership change. Fadi Chehadé, the organisation’s Lebanon-born American chief executive, is due to step down — and he hopes that a non-American will take his place.

Outside the world of cyber geeks, such a shift is unlikely to make waves. It is a peculiar irony, and danger, of our modern world: we are ever more dependent on the net but few of us have much of an idea of how it functions or is governed. Icann is a pillar of the internet. It ensures that the domain names and IP addresses that glue together the system operate smoothly. Yet the work of Mr Chehadé and his colleagues is often overlooked.

Behind the scenes a battle is under way over who should control these protocols and domain names. This is not only relevant to technical folks: the story of Icann might give Washington a well-timed opportunity to defuse some of the anger that European and Asian governments feel about US internet policy.

The issue revolves around the question of who should oversee, monitor and assign domain names, such as .edu or .com, and IP addresses. Icann has handled this work since it was established by the US government in 1998. It operates as a non-profit group with a licence from the US Department of Commerce, and it does its work by organising a vast community of volunteers to perform functions such as ensuring that IP addresses do not clash.

When the internet was a cottage industry this relaxed structure made sense. No longer. Countries such as China and India now generate vast quantities of internet traffic — and IP addresses.

Meanwhile, domain names have become so commercially valuable that companies, governments and even celebrities have been scrambling to claim “their” tags, often citing trademark laws and other legal precedents.

Icann has not always sided with American corporate interests. Three years ago the retail giant Amazon failed to take control of the .amazon domain when Brazil and Peru successfully argued that a private company should not acquire a name denoting a geographical area spanning their countries.

Still, the fact that Icann operates under a US licence has fostered growing resentment among non-Americans, some of whom are threatening to create rival groups. And the faster the internet grows, the more anachronistic this situation appears to be. Reform is overdue; or as Mr Chehadé says: “The status quo is just not sustainable.” Happily, the US government agrees. Two years ago, the department of commerce, with the backing of President Barack Obama, floated the idea of turning Icann into an independent body, accountable to multilateral public and private sector stakeholders.

Mr Chehadé will shortly submit a plan to the Obama administration to put this reform into place once the US licence expires this September.

It looks a laudable move. The proposals for the governance structure of Icann are not perfect yet. However, many large companies, such as Google and Intel, have been consulted and the plans are being honed in a fairly open manner.

“[These] proposals will make Icann more accountable to the global community of internet users that it serves,” Aparna Sridhar, Google counsel, wrote in a submission, backing the reform move.

The potential stumbling block, as so often in Washington, is Congress. Before the commerce department can set Icann free it needs to put the proposals to Congress. Some Republican politicians hate the idea of Icann slipping out of US control, fearing that it would be a betrayal of American interests. Or as Newt Gingrich, a former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, tweeted: “What is the global internet community that Obama wants to turn the internet over to? This risks foreign dictatorships defining the internet.”

This creates a risk that the pending reforms may be at best delayed or at worst rejected. The latter would be a pity. Ceding control of Icann would not mean that America loses any particularly strategic technology, but if the measures are blocked, the symbolism would further fuel resentment in Asia and Europe, and may eventually splinter the internet.

If Washington moves now to create a multilateral platform for Icann, it could help quell some of the bubbling anger. Internet users, in other words, had better hope that Mr Chehadé wins the day . . . and keep a very close eye on who his (non-American) successor might be.