Originally, I planned to post about this before the actual date, but as it often happens, priorities got in the way and here I am now, reflecting on things post factum. So, what happened on October 1, 2009 to deserve a blog post?
September 30th was the expiration date of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)/Joint Project Agreement (JPA) between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce. This special arrangement between the US Government and the pivotal organization in the Internet Governance came under a lot of criticism over the years and has generated calls for greater transparency, oversight, and internationalization of ICANN, with an overarching theme of increasing participation of various stakeholders being those governments or the civil society.
Initially, the MOU was supposed to last for three years, but it ended up being used for eleven. Nominally, under the MOU, the only body that could review ICANN’s activity was the US Government. At least in theory, this oversight gave the US Government direct control over ICANN, despite the rhetoric of bottom-up decision making and multistakeholderism. In practice, I am not sure how much direct control was actually exercised; it seems that most influence came through soft power and ICANN made numerous efforts to increase transparency and international participation in its activities.
The big change offered by the Affirmation of Commitments (AOC), which was signed yesterday, is that it replaces the earlier agreement and exposes ICANN to public oversight. As Rod Beckstrom, the CEO and the President of ICANN, wrote in an op-ed in the Guardian: “We are entering a new era of coordination, not control – where the internet is governed by you, the users.” Well, at least nominally. According to the AOC, the different aspects of ICANN’s activities will have to be reviewed, at least every three years, by a various committees where the US Government will have only one sit, together with other representatives of the ICANN community.
Overall, the announcement of the AOC and the first round of responses was surrounded by rhetoric of independence and further internationalization of ICANN. BBC News wrote that “US relaxes grip on the internet,” Guardian titled their item: “US relinquishes control of the internet,” and “Internet News” announced that “U.S. Cedes ICANN Control to the World” (other outlets had similar titles). On the ICANN’s website, there is an entire collection of responses from industry leaders and politicians from all over the world, who solute the AOC. Some of the US newspapers were a bit more critical. The PC World published an article titled: “U.S. Loosens Grip On ICANN, Domain Chaos To Follow?” where they discuss ICANN’s intentions to introduce new top level domains and domains in non-Latin characters. However, the overwhelming majority of responses are applauding the supposed independence.
More specifically, the independence stems from the fact that the review of ICANN’s activity will be no longer conducted by the DOC, but by a committee of supposedly independent experts and will be also put out online for public comments. That is again, nominally. In fact, there are reasons to question the independent character of this committee. As Ian Douglas of the Telegraph notes, members of these committees will still come from the ICANN circles, thus implying little change in the character of the oversight. Milton Muller adds to it by highlighting that people who are going to be reviewed by the committee, i.e. the ICANN management, are those who are responsible for nomination of committee members. According to AOC, the CEO of ICANN and the Chair of the Government Advisory Group (GAC) are those who appoint the review committee members.
The other aspect highlighted in the AOC and in the responses to it is the private sector leadership. Even though there is literature suggesting otherwise, the commonly held perception, especially in the diplomatic circles, was that the US Government is leading ICANN. In practice, again, there were much more shades of gray and the industry played an important role in steering ICANN in particular directions (Milton refers to this as well in his review of AOC). In the current arrangement, the governments are getting a heavier say in the process. Even if they are not formally in a decision-making position, they are now in a position where they directly involved in setting the parameters of the discourse and who is getting the stage.
Personally, I still find it difficult to see beyond the rhetoric of independence and internationalization at the moment. While this is presented as an important step, it remains to be seen how significant the actual change is going to be, particularly in terms of public participation in ICANN’s activity. One of the points that struck me in the interview Rod Beckstrom gave to the NPR, was him equating public participation to the participation of the governments. Indeed, this is the view held by many States that were eager to have a more significant say on issues of Internet Governance; the rhetoric there is that governments are representatives of their people and they know the best how to take care of their people’s interests. While this may be acceptable in some cases and in some cultures, it is definitely not a homogeneous take. I doubt that many people affiliated with the civil society or civil rights activists, particularly in places that do not excel on that front, will agree with that equation.
I think the affirmation, even though it represents a somewhat expected compromise, is a positive step and the rhetoric surrounding it is encouraging. However we still have to wait and see if the actions will align with the rhetoric and whether October 1, 2009 will be remembered as a pivotal date in the history of Internet Governance. Moreover, this step makes the upcoming Internet Governance Forum particularly interesting and I wonder what kind of effect this announcement will have on its agenda. I guess we will see the first signs tomorrow at IGF-USA that will take place in Washington DC.