ICANN at a Crossroads: Please Choose Carefully

by on March 19, 2009 · 3 comments

By Mike Palage,  PFF Adjunct Fellow & former ICANN Board  Member

TPI’s Tom Lenard and Larry White released a study yesterday entitled ICANN at a Crossroads:  A Proposal for Better Governance and Performance (PDF).  ICANN is, indeed, at a crossroads:  A number of critical Internet governance issues will be decided over the next 6-12 months-such as:

  • How to roll out new gTLDs like .BLOG, which I’ve discussed here and here (PDF).
  • ICANN’s future as an increasingly independent organization, which I’ve discussed here

There is an acute need to better educate the public and policymakers about these complex issues and about how ICANN works-something that will be addressed by my upcoming primer on ICANN.  For that reason, I welcome TPI’s contribution to this important debate about the future of the Internet.  I share TPI’s concerns about the inadequacy of mechanisms currently in place to ensure ICANN’s accountability and the absence of any checks on ICANN’s ever-expanding budget. 

But I strongly disagree with TPI’s conclusion that:

ICANN should remain a nonprofit organization, but it should be governed by and accountable to its direct users: the registries and the registrars.  The seats on ICANN’s board could be rotated among the major operators in a manner that would reflect the diversity of viewpoints among the registries and registrars.

Having worn many hats in the ICANN eco-system-as a consultant for both registries and registrars and as a business user and IP attorney-I must say that adopting this model of direct-user control would be suicidal for ICANN.  Filling the ICANN Board with registries and registrars would create at least the appearance of a cartel, allowing those opposed to ICANN’s underlying model of public/private-partnership to capture the organization.  Neither capture by private interests opposed to the “public” part of the model nor a counter-attack by those who object to the “private” part of the model would be a good thing for Internet users or ICANN stakeholders.

Having invested over 10 years of my life in ICANN’s diverse and inclusive public/private partnership model, I speak from first-hand experience that ICANN is far from perfect as an organization.  I’ve often feared that ICANN is heading in the wrong direction and I’ve never hesitated to say so. But despite these shortcomings, the various stakeholders I work with in the seemingly byzantine “ICANN process” remain as committed as ever to the principles set forth in NTIA’s 1998 White Paper as the foundations of Internet governance.  The staying-power of this shared belief in a common set of principles among all stakeholders reaffirms my faith in the public/private partnership-whatever other changes need to be made.

Lenard and White are right about one thing:  We do need a new model for ensuring ICANN’s accountability after the expiration of ICANN’s current relationship with the U.S. Government.  But the model they suggest isn’t it—as Steve Delbianco has pointed out.

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