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Parallel Processes: ICANN Accountability and the IANA Transition

ICANN President Fadi Chehade gave Internet stakeholders a welcome surprise last week when he announced ICANN would launch a community-driven process to strengthen its accountability, and that this process would be “interdependent” with the transition of IANA functions away from U.S. Government oversight.

It was fitting that Fadi announced the accountability process at NETmundial in Sao Paolo, where Internet stakeholders from around the world gathered to discuss the evolution of the global Internet governance. With the announcement, ICANN management signals that it understands the IANA transition is more than the sum of its technical functions, and that the accountability vacuum left by the U.S Government’s departure must be filled in order for this transition to be successful.

One of Fadi’s leadership talents is making mid-course corrections in response to stakeholder feedback. On the dais in Sao Paolo, he said:

“These two processes are very interrelated. I may have used the word in the past ‘separate’. I take that word back. They are related processes. They will run in parallel but they will inform each other. They are interdependent, they’re interrelated, and if we are successful, we should get these processes to work on the same timeline.”

Some members of the audience in Brazil took Fadi’s announcement a step further, suggesting that the IANA transition should be dependent on a workable accountability re-set, rather than just parallel processes.

I would agree. An ICANN accountability update will be critical in determining how ICANN maintains and expands its global legitimacy in a post-transition world.

If accountability means being accountable to someone, for something, then both parts of that equation must be addressed. Today, the “something” of accountability is mostly the Affirmation of Commitments, which continues to enjoy broad support from the ICANN community. And the “someone”, for better or worse, has been the U.S. Government, which countersigned the Affirmation and maintains some discipline over ICANN through its ability to award (or withhold) the IANA contract.

The process Fadi just announced provides an opportunity to update and expand the Affirmation, since it’s likely to be a key ICANN accountability mechanism after transition, too. It’s also an opportunity to think about what “someone” means in a truly multistakeholder context.

As I testified at a U.S. Congressional hearing on the IANA transition, replacing the U.S. Government role means replacing not just the technical functions oversight, but also the “symbolic” role noted by NTIA chief Larry Strickling.

It seems clear that the vague concept of being accountable “to the community” may not satisfy enough stakeholders, but determining who and how to enforce ICANN accountability is a more challenging question.

Milton Mueller has written thoughtfully about the concept of structural separation between the technical and policy aspects of the IANA function. Milton’s on to something here, but I’m still trying to understand how IANA structural separation alone would help us to hold ICANN accountable to its commitments and hold it to a limited technical mission.

The key for ICANN the organization (as opposed to the global community) is to facilitate a process that keeps the door open for a wide range of approaches. In Sao Paolo, ICANN management strongly (and successfully) opposed the concept of structural separation in the outcome document, arguing that it was overly prescriptive.

I get why ICANN management would feel that way. But then ICANN management should itself avoid being overly prescriptive in dictating the framework and scope of the transition processes for IANA and ICANN accountability. Some draft transition documents coming out of ICANN’s Singapore meeting artificially narrowed the scope of the transition discussion. To ICANN’s credit, those documents were revised, but management should avoid limited scope and preconceived outcomes if this transition is going to reflect a bottom-up process.

If success is measured in progress, NETmundial should probably be counted as a success, since it moved us closer to a workable approach for the next stage of Internet governance. The challenge now is to ensure that the accountability processes and frameworks we develop are stronger and better than the ones they are replacing.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice

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