The Slow, Ineffectual ICANN Is Still the Best Option for Internet Governance

What's to come?
Nov. 28 2012 5:34 PM

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.

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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.