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The ICANN Quilombo

Argentines use the word “quilombo” to describe “a real mess”, which is what I feared was awaiting us at the outset of ICANN’s meeting in Buenos Aires this week. Since then, ICANN President Fadi Chehade has done a good job cleaning-up the internal process quilombo he and the board created. But ICANN’s leadership has left the ICANN community struggling to answer deep and ongoing questions about the future of the Internet and the multistakeholder model.

Coming into this week’s meeting, ICANN stakeholders had a lot of questions about why and under what authority Fadi ventured aggressively into Internet governance waters, beginning with the Montevideo Statement and then the organization of a Brazilian Internet Governance conference next Spring.

Fadi answered those questions. The answers may not satisfy everyone, but they essentially close the debate over ICANN’s decision-making process over the past few months. The result of those actions, however, leaves us with substantive quilombo that makes the internal process quilombo look trivial.

The continuing globalization of ICANN and its processes, including the IANA function, is a noble goal—and one we are already achieving through the continued internationalization of ICANN participants and the rising role of governments in ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee.

But globalization means different things to different organizations. And in the wrong hands, an effort to “globalize” ICANN and IANA could undermine ICANN’s sovereignty and the future of the multistakeholder model.

ICANN’s recent push has sent the global Internet community into a hasty search for alternatives, on an issue that should be approached with the utmost caution and commitment to the Hippocratic principle “first, do no harm.”

As I mentioned in a previous post the current IANA contract has little if any practical impact on the globalized administration of the IANA function. What the IANA contract does provide is an anchor, both for the community, which knows that ICANN will be held to its own commitments through periodic contract review, and for ICANN itself, which is protected against capture by the very multilateral organizations it is now courting.

In his post on the Montevideo issue, Phil Corwin warns: “absent an acceptable replacement regime ICANN could well become a richly self-funded organization that effectively answers to no one and can wield political influence via development contracts and other means.”

As serious as that threat is, I believe there’s an even greater risk to blowing-up the IANA contract, which could aid the inexorable push to move key aspects of the ICANN function to the UN’s International Telecommunications Union.

The IANA procurement contract may be a relic, but it is a relic that serves some important purposes, and the idea of vacating those purposes to react to fickle political winds flies in the face of ICANN’s commitment to uphold the stability and security of the DNS.

Rather than rushing to change a contract that does no practical harm, and supports quite a lot of practical good, all of us in ICANN must do a better job of communicating the difference between the IANA contract and the IANA function. For all practical purposes, the IANA function is already fully globalized. Each week, ICANN is now adding about 20 new TLDs without any interference or scrutiny from the U.S. Government. And as ICANN itself becomes more global, the IANA function becomes more global.

The challenge lies in making ICANN itself more global, and there are options there that pose zero risk to the DNS, and could greatly strengthen ICANN’s accountability and transparency. One thing we can do right away is to encourage other nations to sign-on to ICANN’s own Affirmation of Commitments, and to ensure that ICANN meets its obligations for accountability, transparency, and operational excellence.

Globalization as a practical goal is laudable. But globalization as a step towards multi-governmental political control of the Internet is… mucho quilombo.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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