ICANN accountability, IANA stewardship - what's at stake?

ICANN. IANA. Accountability. Stewardship. Transition.

These words together have deep meaning to many of those who participate in or follow global Internet governance. They are also, to be honest, meaningless mumbo-jumbo the vast majority of Internet users.

What’s it all about, and should you care at all?

Annoyingly, the answer is, “probably.”

If you rely on the Internet’s Domain Name System functioning reliably (want that email to go to the right place? how about knowing your favourite website is going to work?) you should care.

If you manage a top level domain, or run a registrar for a global TLD, you should care.

If you’re a standard Internet user, you should be comforted that other people are doing your caring for you – but it’s still worth taking an interest.

So here’s a check-in (not as short as I would like, but hopefully readable!) on the state of play and the issues still to be resolved.

At its most recent meeting in June, the ICANN community managed to hit an important milestone: we joined the Numbers and Protocols communities (six months after them) in finalising a proposal for how to make the IANA Stewardship Transition happen.

(The IANA Stewardship transition is a process the U.S. started in March 2014. It is about ending the remaining contractual relationship between the U.S. Government and ICANN – “transitioning” stewardship of the DNS to the global Internet community, organised through ICANN.)

The IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) is now considering the three proposals (Names, Numbers, Protocols). It will work out whether there are any inconsistencies, or whether the three can coexist. Once any conflicts are ironed out (if they’re big ones, that might take some time), the ICG will assemble a combined proposal and seek public comments on it.

A key but parallel part of the debate is a discussion about accountability of ICANN.

In the world that will emerge after the IANA stewardship transition, things will be different. The NTIA (the U.S. agency responsible for domain name policy) has been in a unique and commanding position to help shape ICANN’s development since its formation. It has been able to correct speed wobbles, through formal and informal exercise of its influence. It was able to impose the Affirmation of Commitments on ICANN, parts of which ICANN deeply opposed. However trivial the operational role of NTIA’s oversight has been, the broader impact and the symbolism have been important.

The stick with which NTIA could have beaten ICANN – the challenge of regular public renewal processes – will have gone. Knowing that, the ICANN community has since mid 2014 been discussing improvements to ICANN accountability. Since December, a working group has been analysing past ideas, and proposing a tightly limited set of changes to ICANN’s accountability that will be implemented before the transition happens.

The focus of these efforts isn’t a backward-looking set of complaints about past ICANN behaviour – though things that have happened in the past clearly motivate some in the debate, and render others defensive.

It is about how we do something that I would tag as pretty amazing: how we build an accountable governance structure for an incredibly important point of control and authority in global Internet governance absent heavy lifting by governments.

Later this week, the accountability working group trying to finalise a proposal for community input is meeting face to face. It faces an immense challenge in trying to build consensus between interests, groups and individuals with seemingly very different goals:

  • The U.S. Government’s desire to see the transition proceed on time and with broad consensus about the approach
  • ICANN’s corporate desire to maintain its influence and resources
  • TLD managers’ desire to protect and maintain high quality services with minimal disruption created – either by the transition or by improved accountability
  • Governments’ desire to protect their role as arbiters of public policy matters
  • The clear and present desire of the numbers and protocol communities (which have very workable and well-established accountability systems in place) to “get on with it!”
  • A pretty general desire to promote and protect the bottom-up, consensus-driven approach to policy development among ICANN’s diverse (multi?)stakeholders.

So, what’s at stake?

If we get this right, the United States can end its historic role as steward of the Domain Name System knowing that the DNS is in good hands: that the global Internet community has taken responsibility for a workable, reputable method for making multistakeholderism into something more than a talkshop. It will be a way to actually govern the DNS, with all of the obligations that come with that role for something as vital to modern societies and economies as the Internet.

If we get it wrong, then the consequences are legion: for the security and stability of the DNS, for the viability of multistakeholder approaches in governing critical Internet resources, in the long term development of the Internet and its technologies staying in the private sector and not sliding into an intergovernmental, treaty based nightmare. At a very basic level, a proposal that isn't up to scratch won't pass the test of U.S. Executive and Congressional scrutiny that precedes any decision on America's part to let go.

The gap between getting it right and getting it wrong is significant, as I've said, and nor is right v wrong just a matter of perception, perspective or opinion.

Either the new settlement will provide for a clear location of authority over the DNS in the global Internet community, or it will not.

Either ICANN the organisation will accept the accountability challenge and change its nature and culture to truly become the servant of the community, or it will not.

Either consensus will emerge about a viable way of delivering this new settlement, that meets the reasonable concerns of all parties and is internally coherent, or it will not.

My money is still on a successful outcome, and not only because the consequences of failure are so stark (no stewardship transition, a serious blow to the credibility of multistakeholder Internet governance).

It is because, when you cut away some of the details or some of the critical but very focused debates to be had, there is widespread agreement across almost all stakeholders about the kind of ICANN we need:

  • Open and transparent
  • Accountable
  • Multistakeholder in approach
  • Bottom-up and respectful in culture
  • Effective
  • Reliable


The unifying factors are far more significant and enduring that what currently stands in the way of consensus.

Next week, I’ll write you an update on how the meeting went.

In a separate post, I set out a few of the key issues facing the accountability group. I hope that that post and this are of interest, and as always, I welcome any thoughts or feedback you have on these issues.