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Evolving ICANN Carries Great Promise for Internet Users

The headlines out of ICANN’s meeting in Beijing may be all about new domains, but it is the quiet, systemic evolution of ICANN itself that holds the greatest promise for Internet users globally.

ICANN President Fadi Chehadé opened the meeting by announcing that it was ICANN’s “season to evolve,” and setting forth a series of programs, restructuring efforts and policy initiatives intended to make ICANN more responsive to the needs of its stakeholders, and by extension, to the needs of all Internet users, everywhere in the world.

Mr. Chehadé‘s ambitious agenda provides a unique opportunity for ICANN to holistically review and strengthen its role in upholding the safety of Internet users.

Historically, ICANN’s focus has been on Internet security almost to the exclusion of Internet safety. During the early stages of ICANN’s evolution this narrow focus on security was both natural and likely necessary, given the organization’s resources and scope.

The threats against the Internet’s core technical infrastructure are significant, and ICANN’s work in mitigating them is critical. But as ICANN’s scope and resources expand, so to does its obligation to address the more granular threats to Internet users that arise from systemic abuse and exploitation of the Domain Name System.

Global cybercrime is at an all-time high, and shows no signs of abating. An independent study conducted by eight researchers for the U.S., UK, Germany, and the Netherlands presented at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security (WEIS) 2012 placed the global cost of cybercrime at just over $225 Billion per year. And it could get much worse—a 2012 survey by the National Cyber Security Alliance (NCSA) and digital security firm Symantec showed the 83 percent of U.S.-based small businesses have no formal cybersecurity plan, even though the 2011 NCSA/Symantec survey showed that cyberattacks cost small and medium-sized business an average of $188,242. Almost two-thirds of the victims were shut down within six months after the attack.

The vast majority of the fraud and scams conducted by international cyber-syndicates shares a common characteristic of gaming the openness and accessibility of the Internet’s addressing system to exploit the most vulnerable users.

Within its existing technical scope, ICANN has a tremendous platform to address these significant safety challenges. Simply enforcing existing contract terms with registrars and registries could have a dramatic global impact on cybercrime. Strengthening those contracts, and their enforcement mechanisms, would only magnify that effect.

ICANN is already making significant strides in the right direction. The new registrar accreditation agreement seems to hold great promise for Internet users globally, as does the registrants “bill of rights and responsibilities” that Chehadé discussed in his speech.

But part of ICANN’s evolution should be systematizing these efforts so that Internet safety is not addressed piecemeal, but as part of a broader effort to address the safety needs of Internet users, including the millions who lack the wherewithal to participate in ICANN’s policymaking process.

When the ICANN community sets its will to something, history demonstrates that it can be remarkably effective at accomplishing it. We’ve seen that in its strides on Internet security, and will likely have another demonstration soon in the form of new gTLDs.

If the community can embrace the Internet safety challenge with the same vigor with which they approached new gTLDs, we will look back years from now and mark the critical importance of ICANN’s “season to evolve.”

By Tom Galvin, Executive Director at Digital Citizens Alliance

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