ICANN accountability: a final hurdle looms

At ICANN's next open meetings (March in Marrakech), final community decisions about significant reform of the organisation's accountability arrangements are due. Ever since the United States agreed to the IANA Stewardship transition process back in 2014, accountability has been intertwined as a necessary step before the transition is signed off[1].

So, what's on the table? The working group I've been part of (the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability - known as CCWG for short) spent 2015 developing proposals for improved accountability. A public consultation round closed in December, and since then the group has spent a huge amount of time getting a supplementary final draft of the proposal together.

It's been a case of refinement and improvement, and brokering some closing compromises. Think ten hours of online conference calls a week; the occasional outbreak of argument or dispute about ridiculous levels of detail; plenty of laughs but the odd tantrum... all that you might expect with over 100 people from all around the world pushed together under time pressure to deliver a complicated product with some hard compromises as part of the deal.

It's fair to say two things about these proposals. First: they will mark significant improvements to the accountability of the organisation if agreed by the ICANN community. Second: no one is perfectly happy with them — which is what you'd expect at the end of a long and detailed example of multistakeholder effort. Compromise is all part of the deal.

The biggest adjustment that was agreed in the last two months was a workable compromise on the role of the GAC - ICANN's government advisory committee. 

The United States has been very clear that it would not allow the IANA stewardship transition if it could result in a governmental takeover of ICANN's activities. Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO) stakeholders among others argued very strongly along similar lines. This is in fact a widely agreed goal.

In contrast, the CCWG's view has been that governments as representatives of the public interest do have a role in holding ICANN accountable. Allowing their involvement in exercising the new accountability powers would not mark a decisive shift to governmental control. 

A carefully crafted compromise will hopefully work for everyone: GAC will have a role in the new set of accountability powers, but can't make decisions about their use when the issue to hand is how ICANN has acted to implement - or not implement - GAC advice.

A similarly careful compromise has seen a recognition of human rights slated for inclusion in the ICANN bylaws, but further work to determine how this will be implemented in practice in the course of the CCWG's next work stream (Work Stream 2 - accountability issues that did not need to be dealt with before the IANA Stewardship transition). 

If the ICANN community gets behind these reforms, the new settlement will be in place before the end of this year. There will be new powers for community control of ICANN's strategy and budgets; community consent required for changes to ICANN's rules; the ability to remove ICANN directors if required; and new independent review powers.

There'll be a new mission and set of core values that carefully demarcates what ICANN can and cannot do. Actions outside the mission can be stopped by independent review.

All of these changes add up to a major improvement in the ability for the global Internet community to hold ICANN accountable. They are the last piece of the puzzle that will let the United States end its historic role as the contract-holder for the IANA functions - those vital central coordinating roles that keep the global Internet open and interoperable.

It's a pretty big moment in private sector leadership of the Internet at the global level, through multistakeholder policy making that takes account of the needs interests and concerns of all - from government to deep tech, and from business to civil society.

New Zealand and InternetNZ have been broadly supportive of the transition and of the improvements the accountability group has come up with. We have contributed substantially to the work. We can join a consensus about agreeing it is ready to be implemented.

The decisions among ICANN community organisations whether to accept or not the proposals wll be made by the end of the Marrakech meeting, 4-10 March. I'll be there on the ground with other colleagues from New Zealand, and welcome any questions you have, or further information you seek.

Once this ICANN meeting makes a call, the United States goes into assessment mode. It's their prerogative whether to allow the transition or call for more work, but as of today I'm cautiously hopeful they can say "yes", and implement this change before the end of the year.

Good news for the Internet!  I'll let you know how it goes on the ground through blogs and the odd tweet at twitter.com/ICANNwithINZ


[1] - the numbers and protocols communities have been waiting for this process to finish, with varying degrees of patience. Because their policy authorities are not inside ICANN, their accountability arrangements are already workable and robust - and so for those communities waiting for the domain names community to catch up has been occasionally agonising.