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Quo Vadis ICANN?

This article was co-authored with Prof Emeritus & Senior Scholar, York University, Sam Lanfranco.

The short history of Internet Governance is full of errors, failures, and—mainly—omissions. Despite the shortcomings, we also must acknowledge the achievements of past and present internet governance efforts. In particular, ICANN and its stakeholder constituencies have delivered on the mandate of a stable, secure and resilient Internet. Working with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the operational functions of IP addresses, and the Protocol Assignment and Domain Names System (DNS), must be seen as an unqualified success. On the other hand, ICANNs multi-stakeholder governance model has on occasion been hampered to a standstill by stakeholder specific interests. Instead of the dialogue and consensus building envisioned in multistakeholderism, progress in key areas is hampered by attempts to forward the interests of one Stakeholder group as a multi-stakeholder consensus.

From an engineering point of view, the Internet Protocol (IP) is the heart of the Internet ecosystem. While the DNS is not strictly necessary to exchange digital data, it’s the circulatory system that brings the Internet with all its digital spaces, opportunities and uses to life. Without DNS, in the words of Jon Postel, there is not enough “there there,” to make a viable Internet ecosystem full of interacting processes and structures. It is the necessary basis for building an Internet governance system. Scott Bradner put it to the point in his keynote at NANOG 68:

“IANA dealt with three topics
But the DNS was the only one of interest to most people
It was where the money was
It was where the Trademark issues were
It was where the lawyers were
It was where the politicians were
It was where the policy wonk wanabees were
Its all the news media could grok (or think they did)”

The Internet as we know it is in danger, but not because of technical reasons, but to date, there has been a failure to create a viable, effective and—most of all—legitimate multi-layered system of Internet Governance. Undesirable practices have persisted. Internet Governance got distracted from its real tasks. Inexperience, naivety, explosive growth, abuse, lust for power and the pursuit of profit without defined “rules of engagement” have left much of the Internet ecosystem a digital “Wild West” frontier area. Much of Internet governance today is the unaccountable preserve of (too frequently) self-appointed stakeholders served by retained lobbyists.

The current threats to both the safety and security of the Internet ecosystem and the privacy, safety and security of the residency of the Internet’s global digital citizens, should cause broad stakeholder engagement. We should, and can, build on what we have learned, and what we have missed so far, in order to make Internet Governance work. All efforts at governance should take the engagement of digital citizens as the key for legitimate and effective Internet Governance. Like any truly democratic governments, Internet Governance should not seek to empower governance itself, but to enable its citizens to empower themselves and to become integral parts of the governmental processes.

So far Internet Governance has mainly empowered itself and the interests of privileged stakeholders, and not the digital citizens it pretends to represent. Internet Governance even managed to cloak itself from the average Internet user who is ignorant of any internet governance organizations or mechanisms. We need to implement ways to rectify the failings of the past and implement ways to make Multistakeholderism workable again. We can’t avoid empowering the Internet ecosystem’s digital citizens to create their own internet Governance structures. To do so, we must be guided by three main steps:

  1. Awareness building of all digital citizenship about digital citizenship, the rights and duties that are embodied in it, and the integrity and dignity that result from it.
  2. Capacity building. We need to create the capacities of digital citizens to exercise their citizenship fully.
  3. Empowered digital citizens must work together in legitimate multi-stakeholder structures to create participatory, accountable, democratic and inclusive global internet Governance mechanisms. Engaged digital citizenship by multiple stakeholder groups will require dialogue and consultation to design the appropriate, online and literal, structures and processes.

Empowered digital citizenship engages users in policies and strategies designed to support: pursue of opportunities; control of personal data; prevention of digital exploitation; preservation of digital integrity; privacy and security and to preserve the Internet ecosystem for social and economic progress. Explicit attention to digital citizenship enables the private sector to establish a digital integrity-based business culture.
Academia has a key role to play in building awareness of, and movement toward empowered Digital Citizenship, which itself is the foundation for good Internet governance. This needs to be done via curricular content for learning and training, and via research and dissemination.

Empowered Digital Citizenship, (EDC), initiatives must come from the digital citizens themselves and cannot initiated by ICANN.org as an organization and will not likely come from the ICANN stakeholder community, at least as it is constituted within ICANN where it is seen as frequently too busy and self-absorbed protecting its respective self-interests in isolated ICANN silos. EDC initiatives, such as the Center for empowered digital Citizenship, (C4EDC), initiative, are created when stakeholders understand that it is in their self-interest as digital users to collaborate and not to rule.

The actual workings of the ICANN multi-stakeholder community mirror much of how private business is being practiced in the Internet’s cyberspaces. Proclamations speak of openness, freedom, and the common good, but the reality is best described as policies and practices governed by the hegemonic power of surveillance capitalism and accommodating governments. Practices that effectively disenfranchise other stakeholders.

While participation in the ICANN community is open to all, the offer is mainly taken by those with a commercial interest in the Internet, and self-election outsiders. Neophytes are required to learn how ICANN community is structured, what works and what doesn’t, and become proficient in ICANN’s acronym-rich language. It takes years of observation and participation before newcomers can participate effectively. Participation is a full-time job, which occupies the time of stakeholders and their agents who are paid by their constituencies. Participating members are expected to prepare for and participate many hours a week in ICANN’s policy development working groups and related teleconferences. Participation in constituency work adds more hours. The workload discriminates against civil society stakeholders, and is a principal factor keeping ordinary users from policymaking. Unlike the private and governmental sector participants that make up the majority of participants, volunteers do not get paid. As a result, the weak civil society participation is either made up by academics, individuals with private means or, more often, through consultancies, representations and research grants that effectively make ICANN community participation the basis of one’s own personal business. As such, they are front persons for other interests, their livelihood depends on them being active in ICANN community and having ICANN positions of influence. One “slight of hand” is for civil society representatives to say, “We do not speak on behalf of civil society, we speak to the concerns of civil society”. The result, other than gainful employment for the stakeholders, is to push ICANN work toward aspects of its remit that are of a second order of importance or could be best handled outside ICANN’s DNS-focused policy remit. These shortcomings in ICANN multi-stakeholder engagement compromise the efficiency of decision making, and the legitimacy of stakeholder engagement and policy outcomes.

At one level questions regarding digital rights and responsibilities are not being addressed by ICANN.org, as it states that they are outside its remit. However, support for EDC can and should come from ICANN.org as part of its core mission. The Internet ecosystem has reached a stage (adolescence? early maturity?) where there are numerous issues and problems that call for treatment by some sort of governance structures, and the global nature of the Internet places some of those governance issues above the domain and remit of independent nation-state governance.

ICANN.org, for its part, eschews responsibility for the consequences of the structures and processes build upon the DNS system. If digital tools and platforms are monetized, or politicized, in ways contrary to the public good, accountability rests with the creators. However, the core issue here is not whether ICANN.org is correct or wrong. The core issue (or issues) are: (a) the Internet ecosystem has rapidly grown beyond the scope of existing governance procedures, and (b) while problems are outside ICANN.org’s remit as ICANN, they are not outside ICANN’s rights and obligations as an engaged stakeholder/citizen of the global Internet ecosystem. In fact, ICANN.org can play a leadership role in shaping engaged digital citizenship around Internet governance. To be clear, this is ICANN.org’s obligation as a stakeholder as a result of being the holder of the DNS remit. It is not an obligation of the DNS remit itself.

Even a purely technical tool or function, like the Doman Name System, always has implications that impinge on society and the human condition. For example, the issue is not whether the DNS has any ethics or ethical obligations, but does it have ethical consequences. Every time a digital tool goes online there must be a process for assuming responsibility for the consequences, intended or not. We must see every digital tool, every Internet structure or process as potentially having an ethical impact on stakeholder entities, and on their rights and responsibilities as engaged digital citizens. It might be convenient (and even profitable) to separate technologies from ethics at one level, but within a broader stakeholder governance remit, the resulting ethical questions and conflicts must be addressed with a governance process, and its laws, rules and regulations. Failure to do so will ultimately make the Internet ecosystem itself unsustainable.

The DNS might be separate from predatory business practices like surveillance capitalism, (SC), but direct connections cannot be denied, in that SC requires the DNS as its fundamental tool, and that the predatory practices of the SC endanger the usability and viability of the DNS itself. ICANN and its contracted parties in the domain name industry cannot be held in any way responsible for SC, nor can they be made solely responsible to combat it, but nurturing and enabling empowered digital citizenship of all Internet users is an act of self-preservation and defense as it is doing the right thing.

Taking the example of ICANN, if ICANN wants to secure the stability and safety of the DNS, it also has a self-interested stakeholder interest in engaging in education, research and governance processes that engender policies and behavior that preserve the digital dignity and integrity of the processes across all stakeholder groups. While it is clear that ICANN.org must understand that the future of the Internet ecosystem is not just about names and numbers, it’s about names, numbers and people, it also has to understand that it needs to address this challenge as ICANN.org, one engaged stakeholder among many, and not see it as an “in-house” task to be added to a “to do” scorecard.

It is equally important for many in ICANN’s stakeholder community to understand that it is a mistake to try to expand ICANN’s remit to include these areas. It is also a mistake to ignore the wider area of Internet governance initiatives where many such areas and issues will be at the core of their remit. Just as ICANN has to understand its role as a stakeholder in wider governance discussion, ICANN’s stakeholder communities have to see themselves as stakeholders in that wider governance discussion. One obstacle to that change is the fact that ICANN underwrites stakeholder travel and accommodation costs for such dialogue when it is included in ICANN conference venues. All stakeholder groups should be able to fund their IG engagement independently. When we learn to see the members of the stakeholder groups as digital citizens that engage in valuable policy-making processes, we will value this engagement much more than we currently do, and will find ways, as the global digital citizenship, to adequately fund it. That does not negate the fact that ICANN conferences and working groups are frequently the wrong venues for dealing with such issues.

The how, what, why, and with whom of Internet governance are much broader, and more important even in the medium run, and require much more immediate attention than struggles to “shoe horn” new issues into ICANN’s focused DNS remit. A similar argument could be made about some of the focus on other ICANN in-house processes (ombudsperson office, diversity issues, charter revisions, etc.) that have consumed inordinate amounts of ICANN time and resources.

A simple way of thinking about this is the following sequence:

Education promotes inclusion
Inclusion results in understanding
Understanding results in capacity
Capacity results in participation
Participation results in policies
Policies result in trust
Trust results in innovation

The “innovation” being sought here is appropriate stakeholder/citizen engagement in the development of proper regimes of Internet governance.

We are in the midst of a battle around the DNS, a battle that is best treated as an early skirmish within the Internet ecosystem. This is not a skirmish that can be settled within ICANN, and ICANN is not where ICANN’s stakeholders will ultimately have to take a stand. Preserving the engineering beauty, simplicity, and ethical integrity of the original DNS must be anchored in the digital citizenship of its users, within ICANN but more importantly with ICANN and its stakeholders engaged in broader governance discussions and efforts.

ICANN and the domain name industries need to engage with other stakeholders to promote the values and implementation of empowered digital citizenship as an alternative government backed and surveillance capitalism driven takeover of the Internet, and as a path toward accountable governance process for the global Internet ecosystem.

ICANN risks being taken hostage by government-driven legalistic processes, picked apart like pray. ICANN can respond to governmental demands with constructive ideas. Building governance from an engaged multistakeholder digital citizenship approach, where ICANN.org is a lead stakeholder, is the right place to start. Call it ICANN 3.0 if you like. ICANN.org cannot force its community to embrace empowered digital citizenship, but it has the right and responsibility to offer it as a path to solving the governance vacuum that plagues current problems. The same can be said for ICANN’s own stakeholder groups. They must wean themselves from thinking that ICANN is the totality of Internet Governance. Building knowledgeable and engaged stakeholder citizen communities in getting “There” from “Here”, as Jon Postel might have put it.

By Klaus Stoll, Digital Citizen

Klaus has over 30 years’ practical experience in Internet governance and implementing ICTs for development and capacity building globally. He is a regular organizer and speaker at events, advisor to private, governmental and civil society organizations, lecturer, blogger and author of publications centering empowered digital citizenship, digital dignity and integrity.

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