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The Path Forward: Accountability Through the IANA Transition

It’s clear that the US government is intent on dropping its legacy contractual role for the IANA functions. Whatever your views on the wisdom or timing of that decision, the challenge now is to ensure that the transition leaves ICANN in the best possible position to succeed.

Arriving yesterday to the island nation of Singapore felt strangely appropriate. Over the past week I’ve been one of the lonely people in the ICANN community to express concern about the US government’s decision.

The IANA decision and community reaction is a testament to the success that ICANN President Fadi Chehade has had in modernizing ICANN and the goodwill he’s built across stakeholder communities. The reaction to this news at any different time, under any previous ICANN administration, would have been far different.

Despite my concerns about the transition, I share that goodwill. Nothing in Fadi’s recent enthusiastic foray into the global Internet governance space changes my view that he’s the best CEO ICANN has ever had, and that his leadership has dramatically strengthened the organization.

But as Fadi himself will admit, ICANN is far bigger than him, and despite recent improvements, the organization retains some of the old flaws that threaten to undermine its accountability and effectiveness. Some have suggested that ending the US government’s unique role will speed ICANN’s evolution, but historically ICANN improves the most when it is driven to do so.

The US government’s unique role in ICANN has never been ideal. For more than a decade it has generated diplomatic problems and made it more difficult for ICANN to establish legitimacy as an independent multistakeholder body. But despite those challenges, the US government role has historically been the best among an array of imperfect options.

Beyond its functional role—which can be transitioned fairly easily—the IANA contractual tether has served two key functions for the ICANN community, both of which we must attempt to replace in this transition process.

First, the contract has provided a failsafe mechanism to prevent capture by any one stakeholder group, and encroachment by governments and intergovernmental organizations. Nobody thinks that UN tanks will roll-up to ICANN’s offices and take control. But real governmental encroachment is a more subtle and dangerous process.

It wouldn’t take much for the GAC (Governmental Advisory Committee) to change its operating procedures that today require consensus for GAC Advice. The GAC could instead follow the model of one-nation/one-vote and majority rule, which is the way governments work at the UN and ITU.

Whatever else is included in the transition plan, there must be rules and processes to protect against the slow erosion of the private sector, civil society, and technical community roles, and the slow encroachment of governmental control. I have no idea what that mechanism looks like, but we had better develop it as a community before this transition takes place.

Second, the current IANA contract serves to hold ICANN accountable to an entity other than itself. I cannot understand how anyone who spends any time at ICANN can accept at face value the bromide that “ICANN is accountable to the global community.” Accountability means answering to someone or something that has the power to censure or correct. No such function exists for the ICANN Board today, with the imperfect exception of the IANA contract.

Despite two Accountability and Transparency Reviews, we are not—and may never be—finished with the challenge of creating real accountability within ICANN. Whatever transition plan we develop as a community must keep the pressure on ICANN to improve, and it is very difficult for any organization to pressure itself.

On a positive note, I have enormous faith in the ICANN community. We have worked together to meet major challenges in the past, and I believe that we can develop mechanisms to replace what we are losing in the IANA transition.

It is critical that the community embrace that challenge. Working together, we have a chance to develop mechanisms that work better than proposals by outside consultants or small expert panels.

Ultimately, I think that most of us in the ICANN community want the same thing: an accountable, stable organization that maintains its commitment to private-sector-led, multistakeholder management of the DNS. If we work together to ensure that those values are preserved in this transition, then I’ll be glad to abandon my lonely island of concern.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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