New Face of Internet Governance– Managed Transition, Decisions, Organized Chaos: Who Governs? Who Decides?

Clock is ticking for U.S. to relinquish control of ICANN– the divestiture is almost one year behind schedule… and finally, ICANN is prepared to present the U.S. Government with a proposal for full independence…

The ICANN plan to split from the U.S. Department of Commerce was unveiled in February, 2016 with a full divorce date set for September 30, 2016… The move marks an end to a nearly two decade long effort by the organization to become a separate entity.

There were several false starts over the years and the most recent was in October, 2015. The new ICANN plan forms a ‘multi-stakeholder’ model of governance, meaning its board of directors will be composed of members from a wide array of professions, such as; academia, government officials, industry representatives…

Although there are concerns by some opponents of the ICANN plan suggesting that some governments might conspire for hostile takeover of ICANN… but according to Mr.  Fadi Chehadé, President and CEO of ICANN; measures are in place to prevent any one group or entity from grabbing control of ICANN… and that the sole purpose of the organization is to ensure that the system of ‘domains’ work in a consistent manner… ICANN is not some type of police activity controlling the Internet’s actual functioning…

ICANN doesn’t control content on the Internet, it cannot stop spam, it does not deal with access to the Internet… but through its coordination of Internet’s ‘address’ system, it manages a well-functioning Internet… Over the coming months more hearings are expected to take place to continue to discuss complaints that the U.S. Government is somehow ‘giving the Internet away’… While Mr. Chehadé understands the concerns of detractors, but he also maintains that this move should have happened a long time ago…

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Also, Mr. Chehadé maintains that this transition is more symbolic than functional, since  the U.S. is only minimal involved in daily accountability. However, some U.S. politicians and corporations have expressed concerned that governments, such as; China, Russia… may hijack its control… According to Fadi Chehadé; these are valid concerns that must be addressed, but the status quo is unsustainable…

According to Mr. Chehadé; new ICANN has a formal organizational structure, e.g.; with formal board of directors, constitution, judiciary, citizenry of sorts (advisory organizations, committees… from various interest groups)… Even some of ICANN’s harshest critics, agree that this plan, on balance, is a good beginning… Although many observers are in favor of this new plan, but they would like citizenry to have more powers; same seems to be true for many countries, such as; Brazil, France, Russia, China… that argue governments need more powers…

  • Internet Governance: Many policy experts emphasize that ‘Internet governance’ is not a product of institutional hierarchy, but rather from the decentralized, bottom-up coordination of tens of thousands of mostly private-sector entities across the globe. Often referred to as Internet ‘stakeholders’ and they include; network and server operators, domain name registrars, registries, IP address and standards organizations, Internet service providers, individual users… Also, there are civil society organizations and governments that participate alongside stakeholders in contributing to the development of technical policies… However, countries control Internet-related policies within their own borders, such as; passing laws prohibiting online gambling, protecting intellectual property, blocking and filtering access to certain content… Some authoritarian governments often censor political and social content, much as they do in traditional media…

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  • ICANN: Established in 1998 under contract to U.S. Department of Commerce, the ‘Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) is a private nonprofit organization, and it manages the global ‘Domain Name System’ (DNS). Often referred to as the Internet’s ‘address book’, DNS is a worldwide network of databases mapping domain names to IP addresses, so that users can send, receive information from any of the billions of web-connected devices… DNS is essential for the proper function of a single, universal, scalable Internet… ICANN is guided by international board of directors, elected by members of the ICANN community and they holds final decision-making authority. The board is advised by a committee composed of representatives from more than 110 governments, and many other organizations, institutions, groups, individuals…

In the article Organized Chaos: Re-Imagining the Internet by Gordon Smith and Fen Osler Hampson write: Historically, Internet governance has been accomplished ‘en passant’ (in passing)… It has emerged largely from the actions of computer scientists and engineers in interaction with domestic legal and regulatory systems…

However, its strategic agendas is increasingly driven by a coalition of countries, e.g.; Russia, China… that have a more state-controlled vision of the Internet… whereas, democratic states are committed to a more ‘multi-stakeholders’ method of governance… Hence, there is a struggle to establish a coherent plan that will balance the difficult trade-offs between competing interests, and distinct public values…

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In the article Internet Governance by Wolfgang Kleinwächte writes: In 2015 there were many agreements reached on Internet governance; isn’t that good news? After years of fierce controversies in a space which is normally dominated by conflicts, tensions and mistrust– it seems like the political will to reach rough consensus will prevail… However, the bad news is that the good news is only one-side of the coin. The majority of these agreements are nothing more than ‘agreements in principle’. With some exceptions they do not solve real problems… Hence the devil is in details; and the documents which enabled governments to agree on language… in fact, disguise very basic disagreements on substance…

For example, different political and economic interests of governments, corporations… their diverse cultural and social values… historical experiences of individual countries… and the controversial ideologies of political leaders… have not disappeared; and they will not disappear with the new ICANN plan for governance… The risk is high that the new face of the Internet will mirror the same global political trends of growing confrontation, radicalization, re-nationalization…

The best we can hope for is that we can secure an environment which will allow Internet governance ecosystem to continue to– innovate, grow, evolve, enable… and to keep extreme and polarizing positions under control. This would mean that the coming years will be a mix of– cooperation and confrontation… and this would not be a bad thing…

The Internet world has garnered a reputation as a largely unregulated realm, a modern lawless ‘wild west’ frontier where an anything goes… Certainly it can seem that way at times, but there are two broad governance issues: One deals with– how the Internet itself, a complex global communication network, can be managed so it can continue to grow… This involves the complicated task of balancing competing interests in the evolution of new technical standards and governance of; domain names: Internet protocol, root ‘nameservers’, standardization…

The second major issue is– how to legally govern activity conducted on the Internet… This task remains the responsibility of the government of each country that is connected to the Internet: This government regulatory agenda covers a wide range of activities, e.g.; regulation of business transactions, securities trading, consumer protection… fairness in advertising, protection of intellectual property, various forms of taxation on goods and services, prohibitions on gambling, trafficking of alcohol and other controlled substances across borders, regulations on safety of food and prescription drugs… protection of free speech, controls on distribution of indecent materials…

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Internet governance is like a religious organization; it has a council of elders, every member has opinion about how things should work… and that is no– president, CEO, managing director… there is no single authority figure for the Internet, as a whole. The ultimate authority for where the Internet is going to rest is with the Internet Society (ISOC); ISOC is voluntary membership organization whose purpose is to promote global exchange of information through Internet technology… It appoints a council of elders who have responsibility for technical management and direction of the Internet… Although the Internet has a relatively informal organizational structure it’s still the most important infrastructure in the world, and soon it will be the infrastructure of all infrastructures…

According to Leonard Hyman; on its face it may ‘not’ seem like a big deal who manages the process as long as user get to their destination… But what if a government or some other entity restricts  users access from certain URLs, or completely deletes some URLs… then that becomes a big deal… At the same time the U.S. leadership in this area has been called into question– perhaps justifiably– after Snowden NSA surveillance leaks. This is one of the factors that has nudged the U.S. toward giving up its contract…

However, the new road ahead is very difficult, e.g.; there is inevitable censorship by some countries, but the bigger challenge is just managing their domain addresses… Over 1,000 generic ‘top level domains’ (e.g.; dot-search, dot-eco, dot-docs, etc.) are slated to go live in coming months… a big headache for many organizations is– they may have to buy hundreds if not thousands of ‘domain addresses’ related to their brand (e.g., assume if — ‘amazon.buy’ — went to wrong website)…