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ICANN Doubles Down on Technical Internet Governance Label: What Are the Implications?

Back in September of 2020, ICANN CEO Göran Marby wrote a blog post discussing the implementation of “a common strategy for Internet governance (IG) and technical Internet governance (TIG),” raising the question of whether the ICANN org intended to pursue this distinction moving forward, as debated in a previous article. This was proven to be the case during the 2020 IGF’s Open Forum #44: “ICANN Open Forum—Technical Internet Governance,” organized by ICANN itself and taking place on the 5th of November, which can be watched here.

On that session, Marby clarified that “the efforts with what we call the technical Internet governance are intended to improve the understanding of the technical underpinnings of the Internet among non-technical stakeholders,” further affirming “that is why we started to distinguish between technical Internet governance and Internet governance, and I know that some of you will not agree with it because of course, it’s going to simplify [matters], but Internet governance has historically focused on who has access to Internet and what they’re going to do with it.”

According to his vision, “when we try to describe technical Internet governance, it’s focused on how the Internet actually operates involving more than just the technical competence relevant to ICANN and the DNS ecosystem. It’s an effort [that includes] all of those that can affect and contribute to making the network more stable, secure, and resilient, such as Internet standards development organizations, network operators, hardware manufacturers, protocol designers, software engineers, and the list could go on.”

What appears to be at the core of ICANN’s concerns comes up next in Marby’s intervention, in that it is “especially important now that many countries are developing new Internet-related regulations and legislations that aim to tackle the main Internet related issues we face,” continuing by saying that “in the role of a technical Internet governance [stakeholder], ICANN’s role is to clarify and position itself as a technical nonprofit organization keen on keeping legislators and regulators understanding, and therefore mindful, of the way the Internet functions.”

He dialogued with the community in complementing that “some of you may ask why. The straightforward answer is to avoid the development of new legislation, regulations, and policy missteps that could negatively impact the technical function of the Internet. Because these new regulations and/or legislation could have a negative impact on the stable, interoperable Internet, one component of it being the DNS.”

Marby expanded that “what we’re concerned with really are three types of dialogues: discussions taking place in IGO initiatives, in standardization bodies, and at the national, regional, or government level, because the discussions that are taking place are diverse. ICANN’s participation in this conversation has expanded and has to be expanded,” further affirming that “it is important to note that not all challenges to a stable, secure, resilient Internet are related to legislation. Many of the threats to the open Internet could come from standardization. Case in point, 5G, and the New IP, are proposed standards that we are carefully monitoring and analyzing for potential impact on the ability for people to connect on what they define as the Internet. To maintain an interconnected Internet, we must therefore talk about the technical implications of what exists, especially with the non-technical stakeholders.”

Taking into consideration these and other relevant points raised during the Open Forum, this pivot towards the Technical Internet Governance label can be understood as ICANN’s latest movement in an attempt to redefine its place within the Internet Governance ecosystem. As noted by Professor Wolfgang Kleinwächter in a reply to the previous article on this theme, such a distinction has always been part of the WSIS Tunis Agenda, which distinguishes between “the evolution and use of the Internet,” with the evolution being TIG and the use being IG. However, the need to clarify these points is now growing in importance in the face of contemporary challenges.

Particularly since the Chehadé administration, when the organization made significant political movements such as that of fostering and playing a key role in 2014’s Netmundial Initiative, ICANN’s role has walked a fine line between its technical and political obligations. Now under growing pressure from both governments and technical bodies that encroach upon the names and numbers space, the institution’s explicit effort to strengthen this distinction could help push the needle towards some sort of middle ground.

However, ICANN’s unique position as manager of one of the Internet’s critical resources makes it so that every position it takes carries significant implications. It is perfectly possible and perhaps sensible for it dig into this position as an organization that advises stakeholders across the globe on what are the best practices relating and around names and numbers, but for ICANN to achieve this, it will need to send out clear signals in its actions instead of only its positioning.

With the institution assuming a fundamentally technical position, matters such as that of the curbing of DNS Abuse will need to be addressed differently, just to cite one example. The Spamhaus Project maintains a credible and up-to-date list of the top 10 most abused Top Level Domains in relation to spam and malware. As of November 2020, that list comprises a majority of gTLDs (as opposed to ccTLDs), meaning those are within actionable scope by ICANN. Why are these operations not directly being assisted by or, if it comes to that, actioned by ICANN? The technical mechanisms appear to exist, and there is willingness to cooperate from many registries, registrars, and hosts; what about those that aren’t willing?

It is a known fact that rogue actors are, at times, allowed to remain active for weeks or months, which is more than enough time for them to harm many end users. It is a game of catch-up and whack-a-mole, but that does not mean that there isn’t more that can be done. The moles can be whacked faster and with more precision. Within well-specified technical parameters, contracted parties with a higher volume of incidents need to work together with ICANN org. to produce better outcomes, generating an increase in the overall trust in its institutional capabilities.

If this is a case of contractual matters not being clear-cut, that’s all the more reason for the burden to fall upon the technical organization, rather than its community, to understand what are the compliance measures that can be leveraged against actors who are unwilling to cooperate. The global community needs to understand exactly what is valid or not, what can actually be done.

The question remains whether ICANN will aim for such changes or if this is a pivot aimed only at enhancing its legal position for when further conflicts emerge in the future.

By Mark Datysgeld, GNSO Councilor at ICANN

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ICANN, gTLDs & TIG John Poole  –  Nov 11, 2020 1:42 AM

Thank you Mark, for this and your prior post on these issues. ICANN was unable, or unwilling, to even give a responsive answer to a question I posed at the 2020 IGF’s Open Forum #44: “ICANN Open Forum — Technical Internet Governance” (which you cited above), to wit: “Are gTLDs global public resources (RFC 1591) or the property of each respective gTLD registry operator with whom ICANN has a registry agreement?” How can ICANN dialogue with anyone when it continues to act in such bad faith with stakeholders? ICANN is a “failed organization” and needs to be replaced by the global internet community.

ICANN, gTLDs & TIG UPDATE John Poole  –  Nov 11, 2020 9:16 PM
ICANN & RFC 1591 John Poole  –  Nov 15, 2020 12:49 PM

From its answer, it is clear that ICANN Org has a fundamentally flawed and corrupt understanding of a core concept in Technical Internet Governance (TIG) -- RFC 1591.

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