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Rewiring Internet Governance: Choice and Control (Part 2)

It is tempting to write off ICANN as a U.S. foreign policy lackey and that’s all there is to say about ICANN. However, if the mantra for rewiring governance means “lets get ICANN” we risk missing forest for trees. ICANN is merely the symptom of a dysfunctional governance predicament that somehow (despite best efforts) skews oversight. Shapiro, for example, regards oversight as a “game” (1994). His “delegation dilemma” or “agency problem” stems from two options, neither of which are attractive vis-á-vis governance.

For Shapiro, delegating oversight to “agents” produces uneven regulatory results, especially where the governance debate is “ongoing”; in other words, not yet clear, as is the case with NTIA and in fact the U.S. Government. Contrarily, as with insufficient oversight, the opposite tack generates a zero sum game where two separate entities “compete to control regulatory policy”. Either way governance loses out.

The resulting policy riddle reduces policy to politics and therefore “who gets what”. That said, Lowi’s definition of the “power and purpose” behind policy reminds us that ICANN’s version of pluralist governance, meaning who gets the spoils, turns on a policy delusion where the concept of community actually means business interests first and foremost: a version of reality that conceals and contorts power by cloaking governance in weasel-word phrases like “multi-stakeholder groups” or, better yet, “constituencies”.

In ICANN’s case oversight in reality is top-down governance driven by imaginary consensus derived from subordinate groups. It states that its purpose is “managing the policy process efficiently and effectively to benefit the global Internet community”. But policy actions, as distinct from rhetoric, disclose the sham. Policy transforms into gibberish. I will explore why this is the case.

It’s About Choice

Governance writ large, or small, reduces to choice. In the real world democracy is messy and disruptive. Without appropriate oversight choices become arbitrary and, worse still, degenerative. A better alternative is equilibrium, which I use here to reflect Karl Deutsch and the idea that the utility of a policy derives from evidence-based feedback. Feedback distinguishes negative policies from its opposite by the contrast between institutional words and deeds. Bad decisions, when left unchecked, dissolve into chaos which sooner or later spirals into systemic collapse.

So where is the evidence about words versus deeds? ICANN’s gTLD policy has already created layer upon layer of legal, technical, semantic and other logistical headaches, all of which stem from its deranged new mission that apparently scaled in one blush to a thousand and more gTLD “dough nuts”. Nearly all of them reflect ICANN’s high flown version of an internet world awash in the glory of uncounted domains, each one of which serves to safeguard communications freedom against government control. In reality the vast majority of the applicants view right-of-the-dot TLDs as money-making schemes. Some of them will fail. Others, which means all the corporate and closed dot brand top-level fortresses, will create information silos, meaning monopolies.

Such is the zero sum legacy this leaves for others to sort out when governance grows up. ICANN chose its policy path which in reality is a function of the deeper the pockets, the greater the spoils, as in auctioning off top-level domains without any regard whatsoever as to their relative promise as information resources. If anyone doubts this they will perhaps check out the fate of former environmental applicant Dot Green (.Green). So much for substance versus rhetoric.

There are unyielding constraints. And therein lies ICANN’s danger to “the community”, especially the governance community which means peer institutions. It will be difficult to undo ICANN’s policy blunders, although in fairness the policy choices left open to it were constrained by its master. Namely: (1) “t is the policy of the United States to preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet”; (2) “Currently, an important aspect of the Internet is governed by a private sector, international organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN); (3) “There is no universally agreed-upon definition of “Internet governance.”

What does one conclude when a government document (here) states in the same breath that internet governance has no universal definition, but ICANN nonetheless “governs” Internet through a “successful” multi-stakeholder model? A reasonable person will deduce that government policy itself is either half-baked; or, at any rate something is not right; and the reason for that is because U.S. plans for Internet do not square with some of the rest of the world in connection with privatization, otherwise called “openness”.

Internet is global. But ICANN’s governance model is provincial. The governance puzzle has two heads.I pointed this out in a previous post. Head number one, the rhetoric, slants to “fundamental values” (Breton, 1977) which universally means “the community”. But head number two is about cowboy capitalism run amok. According to Mueller, there’s a “clash between two models of global governance; one based on agreements among sovereign territorial states; the other based on private contracting among transnational non-state actors, but relying in some respects on the global hegemony of a single state [meaning USA]”.

It’s Also About Control

The surface account for the “clash” is the stuff of domestic political drama, delineated by authors Goldsmith and Wu (2008) as well as in a formal historical sense by Mueller (2002). The former chronicles the political shenanigans of Postel, Cerf, Crocker, Internet Society, and their antagonist, Ira Magaziner, meaning U.S. Government, in an informative and entertaining narrative, but with a serious purpose behind the antics, which was control of the so-called root. Those initial skirmishes fueled by ideology have had real world consequence.

By looking back on the antics one gets a sense of the antecedent template that might partially explain ICANN. The concept of “control” is key. Policy and politics go hand-in-glove. Control denotes power, and primacy, however defined. For example, The Economist newspaper (23 November 2013) attributes to Walter Russell Mead four kinds of U.S. power: military, economy, values, and hegemony. The fourth definition, hegemony, is not well understood, especially in terms of governance. Hegemony is a large scale phenomenon running alongside history which requires consent, not only from those who are directly governed, but also from peer institutions, including other governments.

While control in ICANN’s domestic arena amounts to struggles between those with claims to entitlement, or privilege derived from money, the hegemony concept provides a tool to pinpoint via feedback governance models that presume to speak for civil society, but actually reflect the voice of the hegemon. That voice, even at this relatively early stage, is already a control intimation derived from the marketing jingles and double-talk which discloses the ambitions of economic elites.

Those intimations are real and possibly determinative. In the realm of real politik large canvas hegemony can be readily viewed on television in the form of daily domestic altercations in various countries, mindful of Strindberg’s allegorical Dance of Death. Reduce that to discord about fundamental values against the politics of control and it is feasible to start making sense of ICANN.

The struggle isn’t really about economic fabulism or libertarian delusions that Internet sooner or later will eliminate sovereign statehood and therefore openness trumps whatever imaginary enemies are out there waiting to slip intrusive government into the mix. Those particular intimations are real, but they are side shows. The drama behind the struggle as applied to ICANN is survival. ICANN is trapped. American internet policy was not born from principled compromise. The historical evidence points to the ideology of the empire of business which is America’s gift to the world and therefore the hegemon’s principal advocate. This obtains even while government claims that U.S. policy is “to preserve and advance the successful multi-stakeholder model that governs the Internet”.

Therein roots the dilemma. ICANN could not and can not reconcile the public interest with the self-serving proclivities of business. If, as Goldsmith and Wu observe, that government knows: a) privatizing Internet eliminates accountability; and b) that government control is anathema, at least in its own mind; it follows c) that ICANN does not know to whom it belongs and, thus, the key to the kingdom is financial independence from both ideologies, arrived at through a lemming like leap into an ocean of privately owned gTLDs.

It is as if previous wars about governance, (meaning gTLD-MoU, ISOC, CORE and the rest of it described by Goldsmith and Wu as an “attempt to take root [zone] authority”), have predisposed ICANN to its survival mentality. And, if so, this mirrors the dysfunctional governance predicament that seems to emerge from the U.S. in the three (above-mentioned) policy objectives.


Accordingly, it is time for non-state entities, regardless of affiliation, to begin thinking about internet governance mindful of the age of new network thinking and new governance models. ICANN’s present model mirrors survival. It chose to be guided by laissez faire, the best and perhaps only road to its own endurance. That particular blunder, although tactically understandable, sharply contradicts ICANN’s stated “policy process [which aims to] efficiently and effectively to benefit the global Internet community”.

No reasonable person will conclude that the monopolistic marketing capers of the gTLD beneficiaries are aimed at anything other than lining their own pockets, and by default ICANN’s pockets, through generic TLD and domain fees, amounts to reasonable governance. What an alternative model (and perhaps many other alternatives from different sources) can do is highlight and compare ICANN-style governance with a peered networking model where lateral governance replaces the bottom-up delusion by testing on a small scale the efficacy of ICANN governance against a more progressive oversight model. At the minimum this will expose the smoke screen that deflects our attention from the present framework that drifts somewhere between state sponsored hegemony and hell bent profiteering.

To begin that exposure I intend in Part 3 to start looking at the little and sometimes seemingly insignificant “intimations” that disclose the predisposed character of governance in ICANN.

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Nice try but.... Antony Van Couvering  –  Dec 8, 2013 6:46 PM

Anyone who has been a business within the ICANN context, or actually participated at ICANN in any role, can only guffaw at Mr Harris’ claim that: “ICANN’s version of pluralist governance… turns on a policy delusion where the concept of community actually means business interests first and foremost.”  It is a very poor capitalist indeed who thinks that participating in ICANN working groups for ten years, often as a small minority compared to righteous denunciators of whatever issue was at hand, only to then be offered the privilege to pay a vast sum to ICANN in order to take risks that had venture capitalists running for the hills, can in any way be qualified as a good return on investment.  I can think of nothing more hilarious than taking Mr Harris with me on a fund-raising meeting and have him explain to stony-faced investors that ICANN was in the pocket of entrepreneurs such as myself. 

I applaud Circle ID’s open platform where anyone can say anything relating to Internet governance.  In order to avoid being accused of “multi-stakeholderism”, however, perhaps Circle ID should consider banning anyone who can be shown ever to have profited from the domain name business—which may include Mr Harris, since people who have never participated in ICANN might actually pay attention to him and offer him a consulting gig. 

There are serious Internet governance critics and academics who participate at ICANN and criticize it and other governance venues, often with withering effect.  They do not make up fantastical stories about ICANN being the lackey of the US Gov’t, or business interests, or whatever other monster-of-the-moment is frightening armchair observers.  I invite Mr Harris to actually attend an ICANN meeting to understand this complex and fascinating organization.

Improvements André Rebentisch  –  Dec 10, 2013 9:21 AM

In terms of real politique ICANN is an US-dominated cartel. The actual question is not if the ICANN bureaucracy is good or bad but if it is the best of all worlds.

The “progressive oversight model” alternative of Harris does not convince me.

For Europeans the simple concern is how to get a larger share of the pie that reflects our weight on the market.

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