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Will ICANN Reveal Its True Self To WSIS?

The U.N. World Information Summit (WSIS) meets next Wednesday in Geneva.

It is expected that questions will be raised whether the some or all of the functions performed by ICANN would be better vested in an organization such as the ITU.

I wonder whether ICANN will reveal its true self to WSIS or whether ICANN will continue to obscure itself, its abilities, and its real powers.

ICANN’s own bylaws say that ICANN’s mission:

is to coordinate, at the overall level, the global Internet’s systems of unique identifiers, and in particular to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems… [emphasis added]

There’s that word “ensure”. According to Merriam-Webster, the word “ensure” means “to make sure, certain, or safe : GUARANTEE”. ICANN is a public-benefit corporation, thus that guarantee is presumably a guarantee made to the public.

And according to ICANN’s “Memorandum of Understanding” with the United States Department of Commerce as confirmed by the latest (25th) amendment ICANN’s role is to:

... design, develop, and test the mechanisms, methods, and procedures to carry out ...
      a. Establishment of policy for and direction of the allocation of IP number blocks;
      b. Oversight of the operation of the authoritative root server system;

There is nothing particularly ambiguous or equivocal about this language.

Thus we see that the documents that comprise ICANN’s legal foundations make some pretty strong promises, promises to the United States Government and guarantees to the public, that ICANN will ensure that the IP address allocation system and the root servers will be operated in a secure and stable manner.

ICANN has not hesitated to ring the bell of its stewardship of these functions before governments and businesses. In fact, I seem to remember court filings in which ICANN tried to excuse itself by hinting to the court that the internet would wobble off of its axis should the court interfere with ICANN and its unfettered role as overseer.

Over the last few days, on the IETF mailing list, ICANN’s Chairman has tried to tell a different story, a story in which ICANN is merely a “coordinator” with no real power to do much of anything with regard to IP address allocation or operation of the DNS root servers.

Thus we have a dilemma - which is the real ICANN? Is ICANN the sword-bearing guardian of the internet as described in ICANN’s MoU (and amendments) with the United States and in ICANN’s own bylaws? Or is ICANN merely an impotent “coordinator” that has no power over the IP address allocation systems and DNS root servers except to make suggestions and hope that those who really operate those systems might heed ICANN’s non-binding advice?

Certainly if the latter situation obtains, if ICANN has no actual authority the IP address system or the operation of the DNS root servers then we have to ask: Who does? What policies do those real authorities follow? Who makes those policies? To whom, if anyone, are those real authorities accountable?

Let’s posit a few hypothetical situations and see what powers ICANN has to deal with them:

Situation: Regional IP Address Registries (RIRs) decide to charge $5,000 per IP address per year.
ICANN’s power to respond: None, ICANN can merely give non binding advice.

Situation: DNS Root Server Operators decide to block queries from a country or region.
ICANN’s power to respond: None, ICANN can merely give non binding advice.

Situation: DNS Root Server Operators decide to sell their roles to Microsoft.
ICANN’s power to respond: None, ICANN can merely give non binding advice.

Situation: One (or all) of the DNS Root Server Operators decides to take a long holiday and shuts down its computers.
ICANN’s power to respond: None, ICANN can merely give non binding advice.

Situation: One (or all) of the DNS Root Server Operators decides to take the root zone file (i.e. the master definition of the contents of the root) from the Motion Picture Association of America.
ICANN’s power to respond: None, ICANN can merely give non binding advice.

These scenarios seem unlikely and under today’s circumstances they probably are unlikely. But times and conditions change. Should we wager the stability of the internet on nothing more substantial than an ungrounded faith that no similar situations will ever arise?

So let us ask again: If ICANN is not in charge, then who is? And if it is not ICANN, then who is guaranteeing to the community of internet users that the net will remain stable? What is there, beyond mere words, that backs up such guarantees? And who may enforce those guarantees if they are not met?

Next week at the WSIS meeting would be a good time for ICANN to reveal its true self and answer these questions, with clarity, with precision, and with specificity.

This article originally published in the CaveBear Blog.

By Karl Auerbach, Chief Technical Officer at InterWorking Labs

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