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FIFA Scandal is Bad News for Obama Administration and U.S. Proponents of ICANN Internet Transfer

The headlines surrounding bribes and corruption within FIFA are an ominous sign for those in the United States, especially the White House, who are advocating for the transfer of control of the main root zone of the Internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (“ICANN”). Specifically, these charges against FIFA are undermining the public’s trust in quasi-government organizations like FIFA, ICANN, the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee (“IOC”) (to name a few), that operate outside the purview of a national government.

In the case of FIFA, news of the bribery scandal is probably not news at all to anyone that has read about the process of how the World Cup is awarded to bidding countries. In 2012 the New York Times reported on kickbacks within FIFA under the headline “Kickback Report Was No Surprise to World of Soccer”, stating that:

“Various newspapers, including the International Herald Tribune, have for decades reported about top soccer officials helping their business partners obtain contracts while enriching themselves in the process. Havelange, Teixeira, Jack Warner and Nicolás Leoz are just some of those who have spent years denying what courts, in New York as well as in Switzerland, have established as a culture of administrators abusing their positions of privilege.”

In ICANN’s case, allegations about a lack of transparency and oversight are also nothing new, though they appear to mostly originate from disgruntled applicants (and their home nations) that do not agree with specific ICANN decisions. A recent Hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives provided an opportunity for House Reps and some business leaders to rail against ICANN. As reported in PC Magazine:

“The U.S. government is ceding more of its control over the Internet to the loosely defined collection of governments, corporations, academics, civil agencies, small businesses and private citizens represented by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. [...] At a House hearing Wednesday by witnesses from business and advocacy groups, however, the California nonprofit was accused of all sorts of bad behavior, from giving preferential treatment to foreign governments to lacking in overall transparency.”

Interestingly, the allegations of bad behavior in the article were mostly directed to the decision by ICANN not to allow Amazon, Inc. to register the .AMAZON domain registry. That refusal was made because of objections by government entities with interests in the Amazon River Basin in South America, who are also a party to the Amazon Cooperation Treaty. It is further worth noting that no ICANN members were invited to speak at the Hearing—which would have made for a much more interesting debate—but perhaps obviated the real purpose of the Hearing: teeing up the transfer issue as a political football.

Whatever the motivation, as faith continues to erode in organizations like FIFA—and scandals are the top news of the day and not scores/highlights—ICANN will come under increasing political scrutiny in the U.S. as a result. Internet oversight is a national security issue in the U.S. and while the optics of “ceding control of the Internet” might be acceptable for a sitting 2nd term President to take on, it might not be a tenable position for candidates of either stripe to take if they don’t want to appear “weak” on national security issues or open themselves up to attacks that they are willing to “give the Internet” to some loose alliance of countries that might abuse it and use it to line their pockets like FIFA officials. The merits of the arguments for/against won’t matter much if the public associates ICANN with corrupt foreign organizations (ala FIFA) and a transfer of Internet governance becomes an issue no candidate or party can support.

By David Mitnick, President DomainSkate LLC

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