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Why Platform Regulation Concerns ICANN

With the publication of the Australian Governmental report on Digital Platforms1and in the light of the ongoing work on the EU’s Digital Services Act, the spotlight of policymaking is on platforms such as Google, Facebook and Amazon.

It is natural that members of the ICANN community want to discuss the role of platforms within the ICANN framework, but sadly and predictably, the usual bylaws jockeys and keepers of the true ICANN faith were quick to stifle the conversation. They bring forward the same arguments that have become so common during ICANN public meetings, stating: “not within the ICANN remit” and “mission creep.” As with many topics that ICANN refuses to discuss, for either political or economic reasons, Platform regulation is an important concern of ICANN and here is why:

  1. Google and Amazon applied for a large number of gTLDs in the latest round, and they have become important contractual Partners of ICANN. They are critical and unavoidable business partners of ICANN. A more direct link can hardly exist. It is important for ICANN to know how their contractual partners are acting in their business practices, and even more important to know how upcoming regulations may influence how they handle their new gTLDs.
  2. Platforms have become important players to develop and maintain the infrastructure and backbone in which the DNS is operating. When Google builds a new undersea cable, it does not just strengthen Google, but also the technical standards and protocols it promotes.2 When Google promotes DoH, its dominance gives it the power to set standards that are adopted by others voluntarily or not, which brings us to the next point.
  3. The dominance of the platforms gives them power over ICANN stakeholders and other contracted parties such as the gTLD .brands. Vendors today face a situation where their economic viability is dependent on factors such as the ability to place advertising or how the product is offered on an online store under the control of platforms. We are the customers of vendors that are forced to become customers of dominant platforms, and it is the platforms that decide which vendors will sell, and not the vendors’ customers.

In some cases, platforms use the knowledge they have acquired through their platforms about a vendor to dominate it as David Kahan, Chief Executive Birkenstock Americas, says:

“Capitalism is supposed to be a system of checks and balances. It’s a marketplace where everyone haggles until they are basically satisfied, and it works because you can always threaten to walk away if you don’t get a fair deal. But when there’s only one marketplace, and it’s impossible to walk away, everything is out of balance. Amazon owns the marketplace. They can do whatever they want, That’s not capitalism. That’s piracy.”3

There is a danger that the ambitions of the platform will include ICANN and the DNS. Why should they not control the DNS as a fundamental tool of their businesses?

These seem to be three clear-cut arguments why the discussion should take place within ICANN. But given the past experience, I fear the “bylaw jockeys” and “keepers of the true ICANN faith” will be able to suppress the discussion, or if they cannot avoid it, arrange that it will have no real consequences.

Despite all protestations of ICANN, ICANN is the guardian of the DNS and posterchild of multi-stakeholder governance. It has always been a real-world organization and, as such, has interests and dependencies that guide its actions. ICANN’s main and overriding function is to maintain the DNS as a tool for economic development, usually along lines that conform to US policies.

Not only has ICANN not questioned the practices of two of its most important contractual partners, but it also does not have the ability to counter the lobbying, political donation, and opinion-making powers of the platforms. ICANN should hold an internal (within stakeholders, org and board) reflection on what does the emergence of the platforms and the issues surrounding them mean for how ICANN should understand its operational remit within the banner of its mission: The security and stability of the DNS. After that, ICANN would have a list of which of the platform issues ICANN should be addressing in-house and what ICANN’s positions would be as it engaged in Internet Governance venues elsewhere. This is why we need an open discussion on platforms in ICANN, both to figure out what is relevant and what is not and for the sake of the future of ICANN and the DNS!.

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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In the realpolitik world of policy making Sam Lanfranco  –  Aug 22, 2020 3:20 PM

In the realpolitik world of policy making size matters. The capacity of the FANG group of companies to lobby, to influence opinion, and to exert financial pressure by choice of location is immense. This has implications for ICANN’s internal policy making process, and for ICANN as a stakeholder in the wider areas of Internet eGovernance and policy making.

Comparing Alphabet (Google’s parent) to ICANN, Alphabet earns in one day (1 Day) roughly twice ICANN’s annual budget. Alphabet is not the elephant in the room. ICANN is a digestible consumable in the belly of the Alphabet elephant. Looking at ICANN relative to the FANG+China group of companies, they earn more in one hour than ICANN’s annual budget.

What is the lesson here? ICANN, even as a defensive strategy, must see itself as a member of a broader stakeholder community in the eGovernance, policy making and policy implementation. Some policies impact ICANN’s remit directly. Other policy decisions will have ramifications on ICANN’s work even though they look to be beyond ICANN’s narrowly defined remit. ICANN must take its seat at the policy table as an engaged collaborative player in the broader Internet ecosystem stakeholder community. It is worth adding that several the stakeholders within ICANN’s multistakeholder community already have seats, or some standing, at those other policy tables.

Broader implications Mark Datysgeld  –  Aug 22, 2020 6:23 PM

Mr. Stoll, I believe you bring up some relevant points.

ICANN as an institution is at the center of the Internet Governance regime, and yet the opportunities to discuss the broader ecosystem within its lists and events are very limited.

Even considering the magnitude of the impact of DoH over DNS policies, it was only actively discussed for a few months by the broader community and fell off the radar before the year began.

My feeling is that more spaces need to be fostered in which the ICANN community can discuss the broader implications of Internet-related matters. While this should not feed directly into the PDP, it could serve as an alternative to the sparse discussions carried out over different IGFs and private contexts, which are insufficient for the dimension that the Internet has reached in contemporary society.

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