The fragile reign of ICANN

by Dagmara Kodlubanski

ICANN, the U.S. based non-profit organisation responsible for assigning domain names and numbers, appears to be facing, in its brief troubled existence, the strongest flood of attacks against it yet. Will this be the last fight?

Round 1: World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Tunisia.

The heads of Nations and their respective representatives at the UN have been arguing over who should run the net, which in one form means who controls the root servers; there are 13 root servers in total, 10 of which are in the U.S. Some fear that the U.S. in its sole control of the root could at any point wipe out a Country Code top-level domain, as was suspected of the disappearance of Libya’s top-level domain (.ly). Countries challenging US control often pull this one out citing, as nation states often do, their right to national sovereignty over their internet presence.

But in truth the U.S., more specifically ICANN, has no apparent interest in doing this even if it was requested of them. Even in the case of a collapse of government, such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or Sadam Hussein in Iraq, it would sooner reassign ownership than delete it. If they were to delete China’s domain (.ch), Chinese ISPs could go ahead and add it back to their networks creating a domain that falls outside of ICANN’s control. If this scenario were replicated a few more times, we would have first hand experience of the ‘splinternet’ and we’d be watching ICANN maim itself.

Result: Tunis ended with an agreement to set up an Internet Governance Forum; a toothless international body housed by the UN that is meant to oversee ICANN’s work. For now, ICANN can breathe easily, but not for long as this issue is due to be revisited later this year.

Round 2: VeriSign Agreement

ICANN has long defended its openness, accountability, and its representative nature. It changed the make-up of its board to include members from different countries. It publishes its minutes and agendas in a bid to appear transparent. However, the recent handover of the .com domain to VeriSign until at least 2012 has just seen it throw all its earlier efforts out the window. Not only was the deal done behind closed doors, but it effectively reinforced a monopoly ensuring that the world’s largest registrar continues to control the world’s most well-known internet domain. The agreement ends a long battle between VeriSign and ICANN, which has seen ICANN fold to VeriSign in a bid to get it to drop the many lawsuits it held against ICANN. The deal assures that VeriSign will continue to obey ICANN’s rules (keeping ICANN in post as the dictator of protocols) and VeriSign will retain its incumbent position, much to the anger of other big registrars.

Result: A classic case of regulatory capture? Political economists must be grinning from ear to ear.

Round 3: IANA Contract

What happens when your boss who gave you your job decides to rethink this decision and opens up your job to expressions of interest from others? You would probably either look at how you can drastically change the way you do business, or be ready to make a career change. The Department of Commerce, who retains lawful power over ICANN, has quietly posted an invitation to Expressions of Interest for the contract of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). Although not an official invitation to bid, it is at the very least an exercise to assess the level of interest, the capacity of those who are up for it and a chance to see what kind of alternative approaches are proposed to the carrying out of this role. Taking the IANA role away from ICANN would mean a loss of a sense of purpose at the organisation. Its vocation vanquished.

Result: Yet to be seen. But if it were me, I’d be looking to pack up my desk!

ICANN lacks the support of Heads of State, the support of the largest registrars (aside from VeriSign, and even that is slim), and the support of its own boss, the Department of Commerce.

Are these signs of an ailing sovereign? Perhaps we should call in a priest. Just in case.

One thought on “The fragile reign of ICANN

  1. Pingback: Simon Buckle’s Weblog » Blog Archive » ICANN, you can’t

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