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Radical Shift of Power Proposed at ICANN Putting Govts in Primary Decision Making Role

ICANN has proposed a major change to its bylaws that would require the organization to adopt all policy “advice” issued by the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) unless 2/3 of ICANN’s non-conflicted board members vote to oppose the adoption of that governmental rule. This draconian proposal to change ICANN’s bylaws would fundamentally transform ICANN away from being a “bottom-up” and “private-sector-led” organization and into a governmental regulatory agency by changing the GAC’s role from “advisory” into “primary decision maker” by essentially creating a “governmental veto” on all key organizational decisions. This would mark a truly significant change in the overall power structure at ICANN that would dramatically empower national governments (some democratic, some authoritarian) over the management of critical Internet resources at the expense of those who participate in the bottom-up policy development process.

This extreme proposal undermines any hope of a bottom-up process for policy development at ICANN and kills the incentive for volunteers to participate in ICANN since governments will be empowered to veto the bottom-up policy that was developed by years of hard work and painful compromises on the part of all stakeholders.

Ironically, it is often ICANN’s own board and staff who do the most to undermine the “multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance”, and this proposal, if passed, would be a prime illustration of that fact. By making additional concessions to GAC that give governments more power at ICANN, the board would be relinquishing its responsibility to provide oversight of the organization’s operations. And since so many non-GAC board members are “conflicted” on issues that are of greatest significance to the org’s work, in reality, it will take far more than 2/3 of the board to resist the mandatory imposition of GAC “advice” by ICANN. There is nothing to prevent GAC from becoming a voting body that imposes its majority will on the entire Internet via the ICANN board; and this bylaws change would certainly incentivize such a reaction from GAC. Since ICANN claimed in its recent determination of the BGC Reconsideration Request 14-35 (which refused to release any information about GAC policy deliberations) that GAC is not a part of ICANN, it is inexplicable why ICANN would choose to give what it claimed in its determination is NOT a part of ICANN the predominate decision making position on the ICANN Board of Directors. That is quite a quiet transfer of power and resources “away from ICANN” to a non-accountable, non-transparent, non-bottom-up, non-private-sector-led organization over the management of critical Internet resources.

It should not be forgotten that many of the governments who participate within the GAC are not democratically elected; meaning citizens in those countries do not have free and fair elections in which people govern themselves; meaning those governments are not bottom-up; meaning those non-democratic governments are illegitimate in their authority and have no right to demand a decision making role over anyone, let alone the entire world via the ICANN board.

Why ICANN would voluntarily choose to empower non-democratic governments with an even greater say over global Internet policies as this bylaws change would do is anyone’s guess.

One of the most precious aspects of the Internet is the ability of activists and the disenfranchised to communicate with the world outside from an authoritarian government’s control by using the Internet. This bylaws proposal, if passed, will ultimately stifle use of the Internet for both disenfranchised people and those who live in democracies but will still be governed by the GAC via this ICANN Board “veto”. Unfortunately many governments view the Internet either as a threat to their control of their citizens, or as a powerful tool that enables their control of their citizens - this is true in both democracies and non-democracies, and that stifling view will be recklessly empowered by the adoption of this bylaws change.

This is a truly dangerous proposal that would send the Internet back towards the dark ages when the Crown controlled access to printing presses and what information was allowed to spread. For the ICANN Board to empower non-democratic governments by approving this bylaws change would be among the worst damage done to the health and growth of the free and open Internet since it was created. The ICANN Board should recognize its obligation to promote democracy and protect everyone’s use of the Internet, but especially the disenfranchised by not empowering authoritarian governments’ control of the Internet with the adoption of this draconian bylaws change.

ICANN is accepting public comments on this proposal until 14 September and reply comments until 6 October 2014 via the email address
[email protected].

By Robin Gross, Founder and Executive Director of IP Justice

I am also former Chair of ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG).

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