You Got a Better Idea?

ICANN is the worst solution to Internet governance, except for all the alternatives.

ITU monument, Bern.
The ITU monument in Bern, Switzerland

Photograph courtesy Gdr/Wikimedia Commons.

This article arises from Future Tense, a joint effort of Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate that looks at emerging technologies and their implications for policy and for society. On Thursday, Nov. 29, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on the future of Internet governance. To learn more and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website. The event will also be streamed live.

There’s an old saw about the weather: “Everyone complains about it, but no one ever does anything about it.” The same might be said about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN.

The U.S. government created ICANN in 1998 to oversee the coordination and management of the Domain Name System, which basically means that it coordinates the unique identifiers of every Web-connected device on the planet. Today, ICANN is most well-known for its rulemaking around website names. For the past 14 years, it has weathered volley after volley of criticisms (not to mention lawsuits) by an eclectic group of individuals, nation states, NGOs, companies, and global governance bodies for a laundry list of perceived ills, shortcomings, and outright failures. It has been criticized for imposing U.S. values, lacking foresight, and being the catspaw of special interest groups. At the same time, it has been criticized in the halls of the U.S.Congress, its ostensible master, for pursuing paths that were at odds with American interests. It has been taken to task by its own directors, critical of the changing rules by which the organization runs and a lack of transparency in its activities.

Through it all, numerous replacements (often U.N.-affiliated) have been proposed and then fallen. And yet despite the huffing and puffing, ICANN endures.

This presents something of a mystery. Even the most ardent ICANN defender would not argue that this is an organization without fault. Over the years, it has changed course, back-tracked, and pivoted with something less than balletic grace. In fact, the staying power of ICANN offers great insight into the nature of global governance. Its resilience challenges our high-minded assumptions about the importance of “legitimacy.” It invites the question: is “democratic governance” really essential for robust international rulemaking?

The upcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai will present another high-profile challenge to ICANN. Leaked proposals for new governance structures and rules have already provoked much discussion and hand-wringing about the dangers of completely revamping the Internet governance architecture. Still, this meeting will almost certainly fail to yield anything like a new blueprint. Why? Because at the end of the day, building and maintaining functional international governance organizations is about keeping key interests satisfied and limiting the scope of authority to matters where those interests agree the existence of global rules is essential. Based on my own examination of global governance organizations in a wide range of substantive arenas, all floated proposals miss this essential reality. ICANN will endure this storm, just as it has so many others, for several reasons.

First, the uncertainty of anything new is highly threatening—to policymakers, business leaders, and government officials. Fears abound that a global Internet regime might usher in an era of greater Internet censorship and control. Of course, this already exists in many countries, but the force of an international rulemaking body could take this beyond the realm of authoritarian regimes. If, for instance, an ICANN successor tried to link domain registration to substantive limitations on content, the effects would not be limited to a single nation. Perhaps even more threatening is the prospect of rules that reshape the business landscape of the Internet. Americans even vaguely familiar with Internet policy know there was a big brouhaha about something called “net neutrality.” People got excited enough to stop Congress from altering the competitive landscape—but it turns out other parts of the world have a very different take on the matter. Would a new Internet governor open the door to differential charges for bandwidth use? Certainly a possibility.

In reality, ICANN has a rather light touch. It manages the domain name system—the mechanism by which entering gets you to this website—but leaves many other matters, like access and taxation, alone. As Internet overlords go, it is rather laid back. And it is responsive in a lumbering sort of way. For instance, the recent introduction of multiple language top-level domains finally satisfies one long-standing complaint about the Eurocentrism of Internet governance—even if it took many years to make it happen. The double-whammy of dramatically increased scope along with unpredictable shifts in the internal decision-making process would be too much for the most invested supporters of ICANN to bear.

Second, flawed though it may be, the ICANN model has achieved a stable equilibrium. In the early days, Internet users around the world had to accept ICANN’s rules for a rather practical reason: It, and its antecedent bodies, literally controlled the root servers that function effectively as the switchboard or phonebook of the Internet. You want to be in the phonebook? You accept ICANN’s terms. While there are now root servers beyond the reach of the U.S. government (the first ones were all ultimately tied to Uncle Sam), this gatekeeper authority has been replaced by an enormous amount of inertia and acceptance. To those who find ICANN to be undemocratic and unrepresentative of the world’s peoples, this might be seen as “authority without legitimacy.” Still, it is authority all the same. Many are well-served by ICANN and the rules it promulgates, which vigorously defend intellectual property rights of corporate entities. Other Internet users, companies, and nations defer to ICANN because, well, because everyone else does, and to do otherwise hurts no one but yourself. This is a characteristic of a mature global governance organization. In earlier phases, a similar organization might be required to make more concessions, particularly to key constituencies, as ICANN did, in order to keep them at the table.

Third, ICANN has proven adaptable enough to meet shifting demands and expectations. In my book World Rule: Accountability, Legitimacy, and the Design of Global Governance, I argue that global governance operates by a realpolitik that the powerful interests must accept a global governor for it to last. This is necessary but not sufficient. For global governance to matter, everyone else has to go along. And here’s the interesting part: The inequity of influence can go only so far. Pushed beyond that point, the disenfranchised will walk away. And at that point the value of global regime starts to fade. The balance required is never static. It must be constantly calibrated according to the demands of the moment and the context.

At the ICANN meeting held in Toronto in early October, Fadi Chehadé, in his first meeting as ICANN CEO, intimated that not only has he is aware of the criticism of ICANN’s decision-making methodology, but that he’s also laid out a methodical evolution of the multistakeholder model so desired by ICANN’s would-be surrogates. Whether or not that statement will translate to action remains to be seen, but it suggests an awareness of the appeal of some of the movements for democratized Internet governance.

Critics will find the concessions to be too little and too late. But the alternatives are just plain frightening to so many interested parties. Just over a year ago, India spearheaded a proposal to create a U.N. Committee for Internet Related Policies, which would have had a mandate to “develop and establish international public policies with a view to ensuring coordination and coherence in crosscutting Internetrelated (sic) global issues; Coordinate and oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operational functioning of the Internet, including global standards setting; and more. …” Even for those dissatisfied with ICANN, this prospect is frightening, because its scope seemed virtually unlimited and procedurally the design contained none of the safeguards against governance run amok that proved crucial in the construction of every effective global governacne organization.

Indeed, the reaction to the comprehensive CIRP approach was so tepid that its original sponsor India last month declared it had moved away from promoting an ICANN alternative and would instead focus on improving the status quo. ICANN was nimble enough to keep its many constituencies perhaps not happy but not overly unhappy.

Certainly the idea of a multi-stakeholder governing body sounds like the best way to govern the Internet, an unprecedented technology that connects humanity around the globe, and yet this strange U.S.-dominated entity soldiers on. So it will be after the ITU meeting in Dubai. With the disparate agendas on display in full form, the predictability and limited scope of ICANN will seem awfully acceptable a month from now.