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ICANN and GAC: A New Role Needed?

Syracuse University professor Milton Mueller published a blog under the title “Will the GAC go away if the Board doesn’t follow its advice?”. Having been to a number of (very limited) ICANN meetings on behalf of law enforcement cooperation, I would like to share a few — probably thought provoking — observations. The GAC should not leave ICANN but it may be more efficient if its role changed and its efforts were aimed at a different form of output.

Governments and direct influence

I know that I should explain here what ICANN and the GAC is, but this article is only of interest if you already have some background.

Over the past few years the role of the GAC, Government Advisory Committee, within ICANN, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, seems to have changed. Having started as an advisory board, giving an advice to the ICANN board, which can be ignored or only taken to heed in parts, GAC operates more forceful. From advice to orders it seems.

As ICANN is multi stakeholder all the way and, as most internet related organs work, bottom up and through consensus only. Perhaps the most stifling form of democracy, but democracy it is. Show up or participate remotely and your voice is heard.

In this environment governments are seeking attention for their needs and concerns over the internet. Shouldn’t they ask themselves: Is this the correct place to have direct influence?

Why are governments concerned?

The internet as we know it was created outside the view and influence of governments and by the time of the commercial boom, let’s say, since 1998, most western countries had liberalised the telecommunication markets. If anything was regulated it was the old telephony and access fees, not the internet.

With the rise of commercial opportunities also other opportunities arose for criminal actors, hacktivists, activists, free speech advocates, state actors, etc. The results of these opportunities concern governments (of all sorts, for different reasons) as all sorts of national interest from public safety to economic are at stake. By the time governments seriously started to look around for enforcement matters and regulations they faced a global challenge. Hence the drive to have more say on internet related policy discussions. Hence more interest in ICANN, ITU, IGF, etc., but mostly ICANN it seems. But again is ICANN the right places to have direct influence?


What also surprises me, is that governments put all this effort into ICANN. In the end this organisation handles only one aspect of what makes the internet work. Is this because it is the best organised one? There are so much more topics and equally important ones, where there seems less involvement. The RIRs, technical internet bodies, CERT meetings, etc., are less government attended. So again is ICANN the right place to have influence?

National laws

If a government wants real influence it has to write law that is binding within its own country. It would be advisable that (several) governments coordinate on laws and regulations, e.g. the E.U., perhaps even beyond. The three times a year GAC meeting could be great for coordination. Why go national?

The internet is only as stateless as the first cable coming on/into land somewhere. Everything behind that is within a nation state. This is where influence starts or could start should a government wish to have influence.

Let’s say that a government wants a ruling on:

1) a validation of (a domain name registration by) registrars and registries and resellers. It can lobby with ICANN and hope for self-regulation or it can write it in the national law;

2) abused IP addresses revocation. It can lobby with the RIRs (Regional Internet Registries) or write a regulation into national law;

3) revocation of abused domain names? Idem;

4) National organisations implementing best practices developed at the IETF, it can lobby there or oblige national organisations, e.g. ISPs, to respond and implement within six months through national law;

5) etc., etc., etc.

A national regulation, whether directly enforced or through mandatory self-regulation, would be much more effective from a government’s perspective than lobbying within multi-stakeholder groups and hope for the best. Does this mean governments have to leave these groups?

A new role

I’m not claiming that governments should leave ICANN. I’m not even propagating regulatory regimes here. To the contrary, but I do think the present effort could be bettered. Governments should use ICANN meetings, and all others around the internet, to understand which topics are important, what issues are at stake, inform themselves as good as possible from all sides by asking all the right questions and to have a true understand of it all. From this understanding they can build their policies, using all that acquired information.

Policy that on the one hand aids the development of the internet and the economy while on the other assists in making it more secure. There is a fine line to walk here, but a line governments need to walk to be most effective on both sides. And, without the aid of industry it will never come about.


So, governments, lay down your ears and give your advice, but then go home and act on it in the best way possible. Preferably coordinated.

By Wout de Natris, Consultant internet governance

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