ICANN reform delayed for another year (at least)

Douglas Crawford

Douglas Crawford

September 23, 2015

The removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce is long overdue. The US can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national. There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length.

Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web

Central to the World Wed Web as we know it is the global Domain Name System (DNS), which is used to translate the easy-to-understand and remember web addresses that we are familiar with, to their ‘true’ numerical IP addresses: for example translating the domain name to its IP address of

What may come as something of a surprise to many is that the organization in charge developing and maintaining this system is a private and unaccountable company based in the United States.

ICANN coordinates DNS databases, assigns IPv4 and IPv6 address spaces (including allocating IP address blocks to regional Internet registries,) operates root name servers, decides on which top-level domains (TLDs) should be permitted, and much more. I other words, ICANN plays a central role in the smooth operation of the modern internet.

Initially developed as a ’side-task’ by key ARPANET researcher and developer Jon Postel, the private but government funded Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was established under contract to the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) to manage the Domain Name System and associated IP number management in 1999.

The fact that a private company, financed by the US government, is effectively in charge of the global internet has understandably caused deep concern in many.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the US government announced plans last year to distance itself from ICANN, inviting the ‘ICANN Community’ (an international network of academics, technical experts, private industry and government representatives, public interest advocates and individual users that constitute ICANN’s ‘multi-stakeholder governance’) to present a viable alternative by 30 September 2015.

After much hard work, the ICANN Community proudly released its 199-page transition proposal in August this year, in which it recommended that the role of the US government be taken by ICANN itself, overseen by a committee and review process comprised of many interested organisations, none of them affiliated with any government. Alissa Cooper, who chaired the transition coordination group, told Reuters that,

Because the proposal roots the accountability responsibility in the various stakeholder communities, that is one of the defenses against capture by any single constituency. The proposal does a good job of maintaining the aspects of the current system that have been working well and carrying them forward to the future.

So far so good. However… ICANN’s board of directors, who cannot be fired, and have final say over ICANN’s constitution, have simply dug their feet in, and flat out rejected the proposals (which would put them out of a job)!

In a three-hour conference call that has been described as “almost surreal” and involving “a level of Orwellian ‘double speak’ rarely seen outside the British civil service,” the board argued for a “binding arbitration” approach that would effectively leave it still in complete control of ICANN.

Despite angry threats by the ICANN community of legal action, it is far from clear that the board can be forced to do anything, and this week the US government quietly announced an extension of the target date for another year.

This could be the death knell for ICANN reform, as it puts the deadline after the next presidential election, and at least one top-running Republican candidate, Jeb Bush, has made it clear that,

The United States must retain a strong leadership position in Internet governance.  For example, we should maintain oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the Internet’s domain name system.

It is likely that Republican rival Donald Trump also shares this view. Despite its headstrong and selfish intransigence, however, the board may struggle to exert its authority over a company that relies on a network of volunteers in order to function, and who are now very pissed off…

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