The Obama administration has announced that as of October 1st, the U.S. will relinquish its power over the internet's Domain Naming System, DNS, which is one of the most important components of Internet governance. The DNS orders the way in which easy domain names (like Pandora.com) are laid out and paired with their relevant IP addresses (like 188.8.131.52), allowing users to type common addresses rather than the long string of numbers.
The U.S. will be handing over "the keys to the kingdom" to a powerful nonprofit that you've probably never heard of and that has already been doing the job for years -- the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN. Starting in October, ICANN will adopt a more global governance model by operating through a newly formed nonprofit public benefit corporation. As a "multi-stakeholder organization" it will answer to various stakeholders that include countries, businesses, and private groups.
Some politicians and advocacy groups are worried that this shift will open the door to greater influence (and possibly internet censorship) by authoritarian governments like China and Russia. Earlier this summer, Congressman Sean Duffy (R-WI) and Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) proposed a bill to prevent "the Obama administration from giving the Internet away to a global organization that will allow over 160 foreign governments to have increased influence of the management and operation of the Internet."
Others see this change as a natural transition that "reflects the broad diversity of today’s Internet community," as James Schaffer of Nonprofit Quarterly noted yesterday. "ICANN’s transparent governance model is trusted and considered ready to manage this next step in the Internet’s evolution. U.S. government oversight was always meant to be temporary."
Interestingly, ICANN's new plan inserts into its bylaws a commitment "within its mission and in its operations" to "respect internationally recognized human rights." The trouble is that this statement remains undefined until after the transition, along with various other fundamental governance details.
"It's one thing to leave some of the finer details to be worked out post-transition," commented Kristian Stout of the International Center for Law and Economics, "but several fundamental governance issues remain outstanding, including ICANN's ability to thwart threats of foreign government intrusion, its willingness and ability to ensure a basic level of contractual compliance and respect for property rights among registrars and registries, and its avoidance of antitrust liability risk."
The transition has been in the works for years now, and in 2014 a "Cross Community Working Group" (CCWG) was established for enhancing ICANN's accountability as part of the transition process. As far as I can tell, the group operates in a transparent manner -- documents are easily accessible and publicly archived. It will be important, however, to pay close attention to the way in which they continue to define the terms of their governance over basic components of the Internet.
A commitment to respect "internationally recognized human rights," for example, could result in the expansion of ICANN's historical core mission as well as create a gateway for content regulation.
In order to address these concerns, the CCWG drafted a document to elaborate on ICANN's commitment to human rights. While they acknowledged that the bylaw amendment is not intended to impose a duty on ICANN to enforce human rights nor a responsibility to take any actions, the document also notes that "where an organization, such as ICANN, determines that it is contributing to an adverse human rights impact, it should consider taking necessary steps to cease or prevent its contribution. Where appropriate, an organization can also choose to use its leverage over third parties to seek to mitigate any remaining adverse human rights impact to the extent possible."
Needless to say, there's plenty of ambiguity left for interpretation. The ICANN would do well to keep caution in its use of terminology as well as prevent the possibility for content regulation.