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The ICANN-US DOC 'Affirmation of Commitments' - A Step Forward?

Posted by Anja Kovacs at Oct 06, 2009 07:20 PM |
On 30 September 2009, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) signed an Affirmation of Commitments (AoC) with the US Government's Department of Commerce. For those of us who are concerned that the Internet should serve the global public good, is the new arrangement a step forward? An assessment.

On 30 September 2009, ICANN signed an Affirmation of Commitments (AoC) with the US Government's Department of Commerce. ICANN is the not-for-profit public-benefit corporation that coordinates the Internet's naming system. The Affirmation has been widely hailed for the loosening of US-ICANN ties that it implies. The unilateral control that the US exercised over the organisation had for long been criticised in various quarters as inappropriate for a – by now - global resource such as the Internet. A central instrument of this control was constituted by the reviews that the US's NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) would conduct of the organisation, based on which the country's Department of Commerce would rework and renew its contract with ICANN. With the signing of the AoC, reviews will henceforth be conducted by panels to be appointed by the Chair of ICANN's Board of Directors, as well as the Chair of the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) in consultation with the other members of the GAC. Since the Affirmation of Commitments is of long standing – unlike earlier Memoranda of Understanding, which had a limited validity – and since the US has demanded for itself a permanent seat on only one of the four panels that the AoC institutes, the US has indeed given up significant amounts of the control that it wielded over the organisation so far.

A clear step forward? Well, not necessarily – and in many ways it is too early to tell. Because while the denationalisation of ICANN was high on many stakeholders' agenda, so was the strengthening of ICANN as an accountable tool for global governance. And where the latter is concerned, the AoC falls sorely short. Although ICANN likes to posit itself as an organisation rooted in communities, where policy is developed from the bottom up, this wonderfully democratic discourse stands in rather ugly contrast to the quite questionable practices that are all too frequently reported from the organisation (the rather stepsisterly treatment meted out to noncommercial users in ICANN in recent times, for example, immediately comes to mind [1]). At the root of this contradiction seems to lie the fact that, while ICANN may be a public interest organisation on paper, in practice it is heavily dominated by large businesses, in particular those US-based, who seem to be willing to go to considerable lengths to defend their interests. The AoC has done nothing to check these tendencies. The review panels suggested are an internal affair, where those who develop policy will get to appoint the people who will assess the policy development processes, and most of those appointed, too, will come from within the organisation. While the suggested wider involvement of ICANN communities, including governments, in reviewing the organisation is a welcome move, it remains to be seen, then, to what extent these review panels will have teeth – in any case their recommendations are not binding. But some go even further and argue that the AoC has effectively removed the one democratic control that existed over ICANN's Board: that of the US Government. As the communities that supposedly make up ICANN do not have the power to unseat the Board, the Board now is effectively accountable... to none.

Since it does not directly address accountability problems within ICANN, the AoC is not so much an improvement, then, as simply a change: it has closed a few old doors, and opened some new ones. Whether this is for good or for bad remains to be seen: in the absence of clear structures of control and oversight, the shape of things to come is never fixed. For those within ICANN who genuinely want to work towards an Internet in the service of the public good, rather than of big business, there is, therefore, a tough task ahead of trying to ensure that the most will be made of the opportunities that the new arrangement does provide. Considering ICANN's institutional culture, this will undoubtedly mean that much of their energy will need to be invested in simply trying to shape new procedures and frameworks of governance in more democratic and accountable directions, eating into valuable time that could and should have been devoted to policy development instead. Indeed, irrespective of the final outcome of the AoC, the spectre of ICANN's lack of accountability and its glaring democratic deficit, for now, remains. And for a forum such as ICANN, that is unbecoming to say the least.

1] For more information, please see http://ncdnhc.org/profiles/blogs/ncuc-letter-to-icann-board-of, http://ncdnhc.org/profiles/blogs/top-10-myths-about-civil, and http://blog.internetgovernance.org/blog/_archives/2009/10/2/4338930.html.

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