A Transition in Internet Governance, Hijacked

A Transition in Internet Governance, Hijacked

We are on the cusp of a grand transition in Internet governance, from a time when this globalized domain is operated under contract to the U.S. government to one where complete autonomy devolves to the broader community of Internet users across the world. It is, therefore, a matter of grave concern that some are seeking to hijack this transition, risking the creation of an unaccountable cadre of Internet platonic guardians.

Since the Internet was first invented, it has been operated by open working groups developing a bottom-up consensus. Back in the early days, that consensus was the result of rough agreement among the engineers who developed the first technical specifications and protocols for the network. Today, that model of consensus-based decisionmaking is embodied in two global organizations — the Internet Engineering Task Force (which defines the protocols and parameters for network operation) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN (which is charged with managing the Internet naming function and adopting the policies that drive network expansion).

The consensus-based approach to decisionmaking is so deeply embedded in these institutions that it even has its own name — the "multi-stakeholder model" or MSM. The idea, as the name suggests, is that when decisions are to be made, all of the stakeholders participate — commercial and non-commercial users, registrars, registries, technical advisers, and governments. The MSM is so valued a part of the new Internet structure that it has been lauded, more than once, with bipartisan congressional support.

Though run with an eye to global consensus, however, ICANN operates under a contract issued by the United States government. That is what will change soon: In March 2014 many around the globe (including us) welcomed the decision by the Department of Commerce to end its contractual relationship with ICANN and let ICANN operate independently. The principal condition for this transition was that ICANN propose a set of reforms to ensure its management remains accountable. Where previously ICANN had been accountable to the U.S. government, it would now be accountable to the global Internet community. As you might imagine, given the reverence with which the MSM is viewed, the Department of Commerce urged that the new accountability mechanism be developed through multi-stakeholder working groups.

And the multi-stakeholder community responded. For the past ten months, both of us have participated in various working groups, including one to develop a new structure for accountability. Hundreds of people have devoted tens of thousands of hours, across more than 55 weekly teleconferences and four lengthy in-person meetings (in Frankfurt, Istanbul, Paris, and Los Angeles) to develop a wide-ranging proposal. The process has been challenging and cumbersome. It has been imperfect. And it is has produced a compromise result with which, we suspect, nobody is 100 percent happy. But it has produced, in the end, a proposal that has the general support of most groups and organizations that are dependent upon the Internet domain naming function — which means, in some sense, almost everyone in the world.

The crux of the proposal is something known as the Single Member Model (SMM). Right now ICANN is a nonprofit corporation, organized under California law. But, unlike nearly all other California nonprofits, ICANN has no members. The absence of members means that the board has ultimate authority: The participants in ICANN can only give the board advice, and there are few avenues to compel the corporation to follow the community's guidance. The SMM proposal reverses that: It changes ICANN to a membership organization and, in doing so, transfers ultimate final authority over ICANN to the global Internet community.

There is much to be admired in this proposal, and much to critique — but what cannot be gainsaid is that it is the result of a multi-month, bottom-up, community-based process. It is all the more disappointing, then, for the ICANN board to attempt to veto the proposal at the last minute. According to the board's chairman, the board will refuse to transmit the community's transition proposal to the U.S. government. Period. Full stop.

The why of it hardly matters. Some think the board is playing power games to preserve its position of authority. Others credit the board's concern for an untried mechanism that has yet to be fully developed. Either explanation is plausible, although ICANN complaints about "untested mechanisms" overlook the fact that an ICANN without U.S.-government oversight is also untested, and prima facie dangerous.

But what is implausible, indeed impermissible, is the board's rejection of the multi-stakeholder process. If the MSM has any meaning at all, it has to mean that proposals with a broad consensus from the world's community of Internet users should not be rejected by the board. That is precisely what is meant by accountability in the first instance — a board and corporation that are subject to the control and direction of the people they serve. Nothing demonstrates better the need for greater accountability than the board's efforts to evade accountability in the first instance.

Time is running out. The transition needs to be complete by September 2016. The community working group will meet October 18-22 in Dublin. We hope it will uphold the principle of bottom-up decisionmaking and advance the community's proposed model of accountability. That is what the U.S. Department of Commerce wants. And that is what the U.S. Congress has commended.

If that doesn't happen — if the community caves to the board's demands and allows the transition to proceed with a weakened accountability proposal — the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a transition to a true MSM governance of the Internet will slip away. And the community, and the board, will have only themselves to blame.

Paul Rosenzweig is a visiting fellow in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy at the Heritage Foundation; Milton L. Mueller is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's School of Public Policy and the author of Networks and States: The Global Politics of Internet Governance.

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