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In Praise of ICANN

ICANN comes in for a lot of criticism. That’s because people care very deeply about it. The multi-stakeholder model, of which ICANN is the exemplar, is such a radical and revolutionary departure from how global affairs have been managed in the past that many of us are constantly on guard lest ICANN degrade into the command-and-control structure that characterizes other global regulatory bodies. At ICANN, it’s the volunteers, those who care (as well as, yes, those who are paid to pretend to care) who set policy. Governments, corporations, and the rest of the usual movers and shakers are given an important but not a fundamental role. That’s worth protecting.

Until recently, I’d been watching Fadi Chehadé, ICANN’s CEO, with growing bemusement. Because I’m trying to start a new gTLD registry, I’ve been frustrated by delays in the ICANN new gTLD program. But with new gTLD contracts being signed almost daily, with pre-delegation testing taking much less time than expected, and with IANA doing the actual delegations with such efficiency that I’m beginning to think I actually work on the Internet, things have definitely improved. The act of introducing new gTLDs, instead of talking about introducing them, seems to have enlivened ICANN, and the recent lack of major snafus from their hard-working staff must be recognized and applauded.

Still I wondered: what the hell is Fadi doing? Globe-trotting and hobnobbing with high-ranking governmental officials, celebrating new offices in every corner of the world? Why isn’t he in his office, making ICANN more efficient and more true to its values? But the more I think about what’s happening in the world, and what it means to the Internet, the more I think that Mr. Chehadé has his priorities exactly right.

We have not even begun to understand how far-reaching the consequences of Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA spying are for the Internet. Until these revelations, most of the world was mostly going along with the US Government line about how we need one interoperable Internet—so long as they had a say in how it was run. And ICANN was the solution that the US offered in response to that need for control: a multi-stakeholder model that belonged to the world’s people and its important institutions and communities of interest, which anyone could influence if they could get consensus on their point of view. Delegations from potentates, emissaries from mighty-acronymed organizations, nuncios of the righteous, heralds of oligarchs, plenipotentiaries of privilege—all these dispensers of patronage and their procurators, from anywhere in the world, were welcome to join in and see if anyone would take them seriously. Some came, some adapted, some stormed off in high dudgeon. For a while, it seemed like a good plan.

Now, no-one can take at face value any US assurances about a level Internet playing field. The NSA spying has inspired such a feeling of betrayal that basic trust, even from friends of the US, is seriously corroded. ICANN itself is viewed with suspicion—incorrectly, in my opinion—because of the US Government’s historical role as its overseer and because of its legal status as a California corporation. ICANN’s motto “One World, One Internet” has suddenly acquired Orwellian, “new-speak” overtones. To the world’s other governments, the idea of setting up their own Internet, without American control or interference, has a definite appeal. On the other side, some old Internet hands don’t give all this political drama-drama-talk-talk much heed, because they think they’ve heard it all before; and if governments get too greedy, they reason, or too oppressive, they think, they’ll just create a new Internet—which might be possible, but it is glib and naive to imagine that the process would be anything but harrowing, or the desired end assured. I’m convinced that the Snowden revelations have changed the calculus, and the rumblings we hear today are just the overture to a shitstorm that will last a generation.

In the face of this Fadi Chehadé has been racking up the frequent flyer miles. It is in this light that we should view his moves to create satellite offices around the world, to re-open the discussion about ICANN’s US base, to distance ICANN the institution from its US ties. I’ve been around ICANN long enough to appreciate that the US government doesn’t control ICANN policy, even if it does try to put its thumb on the scale from time to time. But I may not be in the majority: ICANN conspiracy theories are as common as ICANN acronyms. I know that the multi-stakeholder model is messy, but it has a real chance at being successful. Mr. Chehadé‘s initiatives and travels, which once seemed to me to be quixotic, I now believe to be vital.

I have friends who criticize Fadi’s priorities. If he cared so much about the multi-stakeholder model, they say, he would make sure that its principles were put into practice within ICANN itself. I tend to this view myself, and ICANN should not treat those who remind it of its values as a menace: in many cases the critics are its truest friends. But for all that I complain, I think we are lucky that at this particular moment ICANN has a CEO who immediately understood the gravity of the breach of trust caused by NSA spying and is doing what he must to promote the multi-stakeholder model to those whom we have reason to fear—powerful people who want to control the Internet but whose idea of email is to ask their secretary to print it out. The NSA spy revelations have created a power vacuum, and Fadi has rushed to the breach, trying to fill it before some heinous quango does. I fully support him in these efforts.

Now, if he could only do something about this annoying name-collision FUD.

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>Now, if he could only do something Andrew Gardner  –  Nov 16, 2013 10:15 PM

>Now, if he could only do something about this annoying name-collision FUD.

Wait until the public forum and ask him why CNN and BBC will be permitted to register their brands in .???? but Al Jazeera won’t.

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