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What ICANN’s Strong Stance on the UN’s Global Digital Compact Says About Current Internet Governance

On 21 August 2023, ICANN org. made its position in relation to the current state of the UN’s Global Digital Compact (GDC) clear in a blog post by Sally Costerton (ICANN CEO), John Curran (ARIN), and Paul Wilson (APNIC), entitled “The Global Digital Compact: A Top-down Attempt to Minimize the Role of The Technical Community.” The publication strongly criticizes the GDC’s attempt at folding the technical community into the civil society umbrella under a “tripartite” approach also involving the private sector and governments, as proposed by the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, Amandeep Gill.

The UN’s GDC purports to “outline shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all,” but has faced criticism for its disproportionate focus on multilateralism and a lack of clarity in how the implementation of its goals will take place. This process is presumed to be responsible for shaping the IGF’s future, having likely subsumed the IGF+ project and its proposed changes, such as the creation of more enduring UN-centric IG bodies.

The tension between the UN and ICANN is hardly new, with the UN usually being represented by its International Telecommunications Union (ITU) branch. This can be traced all the way back to ICANN’s inception, but in 2009, Mueller wrote about the intensification of the polarization between the sides, which Hallam-Baker confirmed was ongoing in 2010 in a CircleID article, noting that “ITU and ICANN have emerged as proxies for a much wider diplomatic dispute over who is going to control cyberspace.”

Ever since, these conflicts have periodically reemerged in the form of veiled accusations of capture by both sides, although an olive branch was extended in 2019 when ICANN submitted an application for membership of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Sector (ITU-D). This initiative appears to have been fueled by ICANN’s interest in the capacitation of government actors on technical aspects of the Internet.

With that in mind, was there need for a strong reaction from ICANN org. in face of the Envoy’s statement? If we take the trajectory outlined above as reference, then the answer is probably that yes, there was need. As the spearhead (or at least convener) of the names and numbers institutions, ICANN has an important role to play in the maintenance of the relevance of these actors and their ability to act in the best interest of technical stability.

In a series of 2020 CircleID articles, I drew attention to ICANN org.‘s emphasis on the adoption of the term “technical Internet governance” to describe itself, which shows that there has been increasing concern by the org. with defining the scope and nature of its work, as well as reconsolidating its identity. When an external actor who is a historic rival challenges that definition within a public context, it makes sense for ICANN org. to show a reaction.

This comes at a moment of renewal within ICANN after the somewhat tumultuous departure of former CEO Göran Marby, with senior staff member Sally Costerton now acting as interim CEO. In the author’s personal opinion, Costerton’s tenure has received support from the community and Board so far, which puts her in the position of being able to issue a strong statement and defend positions that are seen to benefit the stakeholders that ICANN convenes.

From an objective point of view, it is hard to contextualize how having the technical community be a part of civil society even makes sense within ICANN’s context. The ICANN community already has long-standing groups representing civil society, the private sector, and governments, meaning that it already incorporates the Envoy’s “tripartite” actors within itself.

That is not to say that ICANN has done the best job in accommodating technical actors. While the org. has seen an interesting development with the creation of the forward-looking Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), and the community relies on advice from the Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC), decisions within ICANN in general at times end up being driven by political motivations while technical considerations are minimized or ignored.

Perhaps an important step ICANN needs to take in the reconsolidation of its technical Internet governance label is reprioritizing technical stewardship, affirming its role as custodian of one of the only globally accepted and established technical resources in existence. The recent “Amendments to the Base gTLD RA and RAA to Modify DNS Abuse Contract Obligations” are an encouraging example of prioritizing a theme that should be at the core of ICANN’s efforts: mitigating malicious actors and protecting public safety on the DNS.

Taken as a whole, these developments point towards a possible rearrangement of forces in Internet governance. The GDC progressively sets itself up as a more encompassing effort than what might have been perceived to be its initial mandate. It is not only forward-looking, but it is also attempting to redefine established concepts. This has already been noted by actors intent on enacting global policies such as the EU, as reflected in its positioning on the GDC.

There might not be much new in the inherent nature of this conflict, but the context surrounding it is certainly evolving. With the increasing number of challenges facing the Internet, particularly the growing volume of cybersecurity threats and the impact of applied AI technology on society, priorities will need to be rethought in order for actors to remain relevant. An event such as a Netmundial+10 would be very relevant to encourage this collective thinking, but in the absence of one, stakeholders need to evaluate their role and goals in face of emerging threats if they want to continue having an impact in the shaping of global policies.

By Mark Datysgeld, GNSO Councilor at ICANN

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ICANN, iet thy people go!? Klaus Stoll  –  Aug 28, 2023 12:57 AM

I think ICANN.org has become victim of its own multi stakeholder. rhetoric. Emphasizing well defined stakeholder groups and playing them against each other might be useful in controlling policy making processes, but you also put yourself in danger of being sidelined by others. This is what happened to ICANN.org.
ICANN has a choice. It breaks open the stakeholder groups and silos and adopts a democratic model of multi stakeholders by emphasizing the common good and not specific stakeholder interests as outcomes. To do so ICANN.org should support a NetMundial+10 with all its might.
The other option is as you state: ”Perhaps an important step ICANN needs to take in the re-consolidation of its technical Internet governance label is re-prioritizing technical stewardship, affirming its role as custodian of one of the only globally accepted and established technical resources in existence.” That would mean that ICANN lets the community go to define its public policy interests somewhere else. Would the community know where it wants to go? I also suspect that the it might find the land of UN even more barren than the Californian nonprofit exile.

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