ICANN 52 reflection

It’s a week now since the end of ICANN’s 52nd public meeting in Singapore, held 8-12 February. I’ve had a chance to reflect on the week and think about what happened. My main focus, as outlined in a note to InternetNZ members before travelling to the meeting, was on the intertwined issues of the transition of stewardship of the Internet’s domain name system from the United States Government to the global Internet community, and the improvements to ICANN’s accountability that would be required to allow this transition to happen.

Others have been reflecting too: for instance, here’s Larry Strickling’s take (he’s the senior U.S. official responsible for NTIA, and thus for the transition).

Our involvement with ICANN is about representing our interests as the designated manager for the .nz ccTLD – that’s why people from all parts of the InternetNZ Group are there. InternetNZ holds the delegation and so as stewards for .nz, it is in our interests that the global coordination of Internet domain names is effective, efficient, accountable, secure and reliable. We project New Zealand perspectives and interests in these debates.

Singapore was a busy meeting, as they all are. Here are some things that have filtered out of that busy time in my mind and that now feel like the significant things for anyone following this to be aware of:

Making this transition happen is a lot of hard work: thousands and thousands of person-hours are being spent to design solutions among the Internet domain name community (largely organised around ICANN), the Internet numbering community (organised through the Regional Internet Registries like Brisbane-based APNIC), and the Internet protocols community (organised around the Internet Engineering Task Force, the hub of Internet protocol design and development. These efforts are going on in good faith to design a transition that meets the criteria the United States Government set out in March 2014. My own role is as a rapporteur helping the work of the Accountability discussion – and that’s a few hours of work each week plus some teleconferences at strange hours for the next few months.

Coming up with a names community proposal is hard: While numbers and protocols have done their draft proposals (more details available here) the domain names world is trickier. Some logic as to why is in this blog post from Brenden Kuerbis from the Internet Governance Project. In my own words, there’s a harder road for domain names because ICANN is the policy forum for the domain name sector and also operates the IANA functions. Numbers and protocols are separate, so there’s an arms length relationship. It’s a bit like Spark and Chorus doing a deal – separate entities with a contract in between. In contrast the names situation is a bit like Spark Operations and Spark Government Relations doing a deal – they’re not all that separate. 

“Separability” of IANA is locking up the debate: there’s a common principle in all the models the names community is working on: that if ICANN screws up the operation of the IANA functions, they should be able to be removed from ICANN and operated by something else. This principle is consistent with the requirements of the names and protocols people, so it isn’t novel and isn’t unexpected. The issue of how to make sure this can happen is the point of dispute: some argue it can be managed inside ICANN through some kind of declared trust or entrenched provisions in the bylaws; others argue it needs an external ‘contract holder’ (a company or a trust) with the right to assign the IANA functions operation to another body if ICANN fails. It’s a flashpoint and so far no consensus-building is happening, certainly among ccTLD operators. Like any flashpoint, some emotion is in the air in the conversations about it too.

Accountability is fundamental: whatever solution emerges in terms of the IANA stewardship transition, improving ICANN’s general accountability is vital. Without the stick of a contract with the U.S. Government up for renewal now and again, the community has to be able to keep ICANN the corporation under control. That is where my own work is focused – thinking about the powers the community should have in relation to ICANN’s work (sack the board? approve the budget? block or approve bylaws changes?), and the mechanisms the community could use those powers through (a membership model? a supervisory board? independent appeals panels?).

These two bits of work are important. The right future structure for ICANN and IANA, and the right relationship between them and the community, will help guarantee a secure and stable Internet. The right accountability framework will make sure the community’s voice is the main concern of ICANN.

In both areas, our own experience here in New Zealand provides valuable lessons. The ups and downs of .nz – its structural changes over time, the accountability provided by InternetNZ’s membership and processes – are real world experience that we can bring to the global table, to help inject some reality into discussions that sometimes turn theoretical.

 The ideas flow back home too: there are some leading experts on accountability involved in these debates. The conversations I have are ones that I’ll be sharing with the InternetNZ Council and membership as we work on improving our own member experience, and when we look at ways to improve and develop our own transparency and accountability to New Zealand’s Internet community.

 This is a fascinating time to be working on these issues. If we can manage to build a framework without a solid link to governmental authority – of any state – then we will have proved that so-called “multistakeholder Internet governance” – the idea that every player’s voice counts, not just the techies or governments – can actually deliver on its potential. InternetNZ wants the transition to succeed so that we can show that the model works globally, just like it does for us here in New Zealand.