Clear and Concrete Principles for ICANN Accountability

The question of accountability has hung over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ever since it was created in the 1990s to oversee the Internet’s system of domain names.  Until recently, the focus of concern was whether ICANN was too accountable to the US government, which retained a contract with ICANN for performance of certain key functions (“the IANA functions”) associated with the management of domain names. In CDT’s view, the US government never really had the kind of control over ICANN that many assumed it did.  But that debate became largely irrelevant earlier this year when the US announced that it planned to end its contract with ICANN next year and completely cut the organization loose from any US control. CDT has welcomed the US government’s decision to end the last vestiges of control over the IANA functions.

The prospect of an unaccountable ICANN, or one subject to control by governments or special interests, has enormous implications for the open, innovative, global Internet.

On May 6, 2014, ICANN initiated a consultation intended to develop a plan for how it can remain accountable in the absence of its historical contractual relationship to the US government.   The key question has become whether, after the US cuts the umbilical cord, ICANN will be subject to too little accountability, or even worse, whether it will become “accountable” to other governments or special interests that will exercise more intrusive control than the US ever did.  The prospect of an unaccountable ICANN, or one subject to control by governments or special interests, has enormous implications for the open, innovative, global Internet.

CDT has become increasingly concerned with the slow pace of the accountability process and the apparent desire of ICANN to end its relationship with the US government and to take over the IANA function itself before a new accountability structure is in place.  In our view, it is essential that the accountability process move in step with the IANA transition process and that the accountability question be answered before ICANN assumes control of the IANA.  To complete a transition that sees ICANN implementing the IANA functions without appropriately strengthened accountability mechanisms would be irresponsible.

In this context, we welcome one very positive development.  Until recently, the discussion on strengthening ICANN’s accountability had been plagued by a lack of clear guiding principles and concrete recommendations for improvements.  However, last week a diverse group of stakeholders took a major step forward with the publication of “Key Principles for Coordination of Internet Unique Identifiers.”  The document offers a sound foundation upon which further discussions on ICANN accountability can be based.  The principles listed therein reflect and respond to concerns voiced by many stakeholders in the discussions on accountability to date.  The following are central to the discussion: 1) the authority of, and accountability to, ICANN stakeholders; 2) a clear and understood separation of functions – policy-making, dispute resolution and implementation, with specific rights and responsibilities; and 3) the imperative of protecting ICANN from government or special interest capture.

Much more work needs to be done.  While CDT looks forward to being able to contribute to the Accountability Working Group (WG) that ICANN will create, we question how appropriate it is that, in ICANN’s view, the accountability “discussion will take place entirely within the ICANN community.” Sensitive issues related to the role of the United States in the management of the DNS have been of continuing concern to the global Internet community, which is broader than the ICANN community.  We support bringing on board experts who are diverse, neutral, credible, and unaffiliated with ICANN, its Board, CEO, or senior staff.   CDT would also like to see greater clarity as to how the ICANN Board will decide to adopt (or not) the WG’s recommendations, what criteria would be used, and how recommendations that are specific to the Board would be considered.  For example, if WG recommendations have broad support in the ICANN community and the broader Internet community, would the Board still be able to refuse their adoption?

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