Tension envelops US oversight of ICANN

Internet governance experts remain divided over last week's decision to extend the U.S. government's oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), with some calling it appropriate and others portraying it as unwise.

The strong sentiments on either side reflect a chronic, troubling tension that has enveloped ICANN since 1998, when it was formed to progressively absorb Internet management functions until then handled fully by the U.S. government.

Often accused of lacking transparency in its decision-making process and of responding disproportionately to U.S. interests, ICANN carries on its shoulders the critical responsibility of ensuring the security and stability of the Internet.

With so much at stake in matters of global communications and business, it's no surprise that governments and private-sector enterprises have high expectations and deep concerns about ICANN.

Those supporting the continued U.S. supervision say ICANN isn't yet ready to manage the Internet's domain name system by itself, and note that ICANN, a private, nonprofit company in California, has to improve how it makes decisions and establishes policies.

By contrast, the other camp argues that while ICANN is far from perfect, the U.S. involvement creates political friction with other countries and delays ICANN's development.

Over the years in a series of memorandums of understanding (MOUs), the U.S. Commerce Department has been ceding tasks to ICANN, with the goal of eventually giving ICANN full autonomy.

Last week, the MOU got extended for three more years, and increased ICANN's autonomy. However, the Commerce Department continues helping ICANN increase transparency and accountability and overseeing the security and operation of root name servers.

"Extending the MOU was the only reasonable course of action at this point," said David McGuire, director of communications at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), in a phone interview.

"ICANN has to improve its accountability and transparency and openness. ICANN needs to address that before we can have a meaningful conversation about it standing alone," McGuire said. The CDT is a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank focused on Internet public policy issues.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Virginia, also supported the decision, calling it, in a statement, "a necessary and important step" toward full autonomy, while noting also that ICANN must improve its transparency.

Meanwhile, the Internet Society, a nonprofit education and policy group in Reston, Virginia, said in a statement that the new agreement moves beyond an oversight model, gives ICANN more flexibility and assigns the U.S. government "a more discrete role."

However, some predict the continued U.S. oversight will do more harm than good. Ian Peter, senior partner at Ian Peter & Assoc. and founder of the Internet Mark 2 Project in Australia, said via e-mail that ICANN needs a healthier dose of internationalism.

"The oversight role for ICANN should be global and multistakeholder -- not a single government," wrote Peter, whose Internet Mark 2 Project analyzes issues affecting Internet governance.

Oscar Robles-Garay, general manager of Mexico's Internet NIC (network information center) for the .mx domain, feels pessimistic about last week's decision.

"Three years from now we'll have the same problem as today, exacerbated by even more strident criticism from some governments against ICANN and the Commerce Department," Robles-Garay wrote in an e-mail interview.

Milton Mueller, professor of information studies at Syracuse University in New York, agrees that international resentment will grow as a result of last week's decision.

"The U.S. government is a big part of the problem with ICANN's accountability and process. U.S. government involvement sets up a privileged 'back channel' for influencing ICANN decisions so that powerful interests ... can get their way while bypassing the procedures everyone else has to use," he wrote via e-mail.