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Costa Rica, ICANN, and Nonviolent Governance

There’s a peaceful feeling in the air at ICANN’s meeting this week, and I think it has something to do with being here in Costa Rica.

Speaking at today’s opening ceremony, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla described how, back in 1948, her country became the first to willingly go without any kind of armed forces for national defense. In that respect, Costa Rica is a lot like ICANN: alone in a hostile world with only its constituents and allies for protection.

Costa Rica has proven that this nonviolent approach can work, but only if you keep your own house in order. If ICANN takes nothing else away from this week’s meeting, we can at least hope it takes a page from its host nation’s playbook.

Everyone here at ICANN 43 has heard the mounting calls by governments and the United Nations to assert more power over the Internet, and by extension, ICANN itself.

Since ICANN doesn’t have a standing army (or maybe THAT’S what all the new gTLD fees are for?) to repel these challenges to its authority, it needs to be creative about protecting itself from growing threats.

Part of ICANN’s defensive strategy seems to have been “the best defense is a good offense.” Its aggressive new gTLD program promises to dramatically increase the global reach of the Internet, thereby growing the community of stakeholders committed to the ICANN model.

It’s a bold strategy that carries some big risks. Even as ICANN increases its global footprint with new gTLDs, it increases its exposure to external threats. ICANN has never been more in the public eye, and that increased scrutiny means increased pressure to get things right.

ICANN’s growing global audience now expects the organization to meet the promises made for its ambitious TLD expansion plan. And a powerful army of detractors is poised to pounce on the slightest slip as evidence of ICANN’s inadequacy.

Meanwhile, governments that have always been uneasy about ICANN’s bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model are anxious about fraud, abuse, and challenges to law enforcement that could be exacerbated in new gTLDs. Still, many of the issues important to governments remain unresolved.

It’s against that backdrop that I’ve been thinking about the U.S. Commerce Department’s declaration that ICANN isn’t quite ready for a renewal of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) contract. Maybe Commerce was showing its “tough love” for ICANN, signaling the need for more safeguards against controversial new TLDs that could alienate the governments now defending ICANN.

ICANN can either heed that message, or else start assembling that army…

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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