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United Nations vs. ICANN: One ccTLD At A Time

What happens if ICANN fails? Who will run the DNS then?

Of course to many, ICANN already has failed—spectacularly so. Critics have long complained that ICANN not only lacks accountability and legitimacy, but also that it is inefficient (at best) and downright destructive (at worst). According to these critics, ICANN’s many sins include threatening the stability of the Internet, limiting access by imposing an artificial domain name scarcity, and generally behaving like a petulant dictator.

But what happens if ICANN really fails-that is, if its failures come to seem so spectacular and so self-evident and so irremediable that even the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) decides it’s had enough. It’s easy to forget that ICANN is already operating under a Damocles sword: when the DOC renewed its contract last September, it did so only for a year (the original contract was for four years), and with a number of (fairly) stringent conditions, notably that ICANN fully reform itself within that year (the new MOU & accompanying statement). So what happens if we get to next September and the DOC comes to the conclusion that ICANN has not met those conditions? What happens to the global naming system?

There is, of course, little reason to fear a total collapse-the Internet (mercifully) is stronger than one (badly-run) organization. And, never fear, there will be no shortage of candidates eager to take over ICANN’s work. After all, who wouldn’t want the chance to “run the Internet”? (Not to mention the opportunity to travel in style to three-or is it four?-exotic locations every year).

Less flippantly, the reason ICANN’s demise might turn out to be fairly uneventful is because there already exist several bodies that could in theory pick up the slack. One reason the DOC renewed ICANN’s contract last September was-in the DOC’s own words—because “no obvious alternative exists.” But is that really true? Aren’t we living in an era of global civil society? Last time I checked, the world was awash with non-governmental (or inter-governmental, or multi-sectoral: pick your jargon) bodies that possessed both the technical competence and global reach to manage the DNS.

Two obvious candidates are, of course, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the United Nations (UN). Both bodies (in fact part of the same organization, but often treated as distinct entities) have been sending out feelers about a possible role in Internet governance. Earlier this month, for example, Yoshio Utsumi, the secretary general of the ITU, reiterated his call (originally made late last year) for cyberspace regulation. “We need a common framework or regulatory regime because [the information society] is borderless, and we have to create this new framework,” he said, adding that issues such as taxation, freedom of speech, intellectual property rights, security and privacy could be ripe candidates for such regulation. He plans to bring these issues up again at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to be held at the end of December at the United Nations.

Itsumi’s comments take on added significance in the context of a continued background buzz about the ITU’s ambitions, particularly with regard to ccTLDs (See, for example, this post, or this one, both from ICANNWatch. Also this statement from the ITU). Although he did not explicitly say that the ITU should be the one to do the regulating, and although he did not explicitly include DNS matters in his list of candidates for regulation, his general drift is clear. You don’t have to read too closely between the lines to figure that, as far as the ITU is concerned, ICANN’s role in Internet governance should at the least be supplemented (if not altogether replaced) by another organization. In either case, there will be no “mission creep”: as the scope of Internet governance expands, ICANN’s work will remain limited, and ultimately, may become peripheral.

The ITU can no doubt make a convincing case for itself. So can the UN, which, like the ITU, appears to have its eyes on certain aspects of Internet governance. Of course, this being the UN, the whole process is likely to be far more civil, and cloaked in niceties about public service and consensus. But if I’d been a member of ICANN’s ruling coterie, a shiver would have run through my spine in Ghana last year, when Kofi Annan invited ICANN to “join hands with the United Nations Information and Communication Technology Task Force.”

The collaboration, ostensibly, would be to further the cause of developing nations on ICANN-a noble cause if ever there was one (and one, incidentally, that has been taken up by Stuart Lynn, at least in rhetoric if not in substance). But even a casual observer of ICANN knows that the “invitation” is made in the context of growing resentment about the extent to which developing nations have been excluded from the body (and certainly, from its expensive, globetrotting conferences). A storm of discontent is brewing: I’ve had several conversations with representatives from developing nations who would be a lot less gentle than the ever-gentlemanly Annan. They would have the UN-ICT, rather than ICANN itself, direct the whole process of outreach to developing nations; they would, effectively, rewrite the rules of participation in ICANN.

In this context, an interesting development: Shortly after the new year, IANA announced that management of the .“af” ccTLD (for Afghanistan) had been handed over to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Could this signal a trend? If the UN gets into the domain name business, there’s no telling where it all might end.

Of course managing a single country’s ccTLD, or simply running outreach programs to developing countries, does not quite signal a death-knell for ICANN. What we may be witnessing is a gradual process in which individual functions of Internet governance are slowly assumed by organizations other than ICANN-a process of attrition rather than outright decapitation. But it is in this fashion, brick by brick, that empires far mightier than ICANN have been brought down.

And why not? There are, I think, lots of compelling reasons for thinking that many of ICANN’s tasks could be more effectively managed by alternative organizations. After all, bodies like the ITU or the UN (or the IETF or, god forbid, something like the World Bank) are far more developed as institutions, are global in composition, have well-tested rules for participation and voting, and have ample technical capacity. It makes sense for them to eventually run the DNS, perhaps in some kind of collaboration, perhaps through some kind of innovative inter-institutional structure.

But there’s also one very compelling reason to think that’ll never happen-and here we return to the DOC. At the end of the day, ICANN or no ICANN, it’s the United States that decides who runs the Internet. And although the days when America almost bankrupted the United Nations are gone, relations are still notoriously testy between the sole superpower and most multi-lateral organizations. There’s simply no way America is going to hand over the Internet to the French!

That’s particularly true amid all the post-September 11 fear over Internet security and cyber-terrorism. Indeed, anyone who read the statement accompanying the DOC’s renewal of ICANN’s MOU would have been struck by the repeated references to the need for stability and security. “Abruptly changing oversight of critical DNS functions,” the statement said, “could deeply challenge [those goals].”

But then the statement goes on to say that, in case ICANN fails to reform, “alternatives will be identified and considered.” It’s still unclear whether existing bodies like the ITU or the UN will make the cut. But for ICANN, the clock’s ticking.

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