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ICANN accountability, IANA transition and open questions

Posted by Geetha Hariharan at Feb 06, 2015 11:39 AM |
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On February 3, 2015, the Centre for Communication Governance (NLU, Delhi) hosted a pre-event briefing in light of ICANN52 (Singapore, February 7-12, 2015). Geetha Hariharan attended the event.

At a briefing on ICANN52 organized by the Centre for Communication Governance (NLU, Delhi) on 3 February, 2015 (‘CCG Briefing Event’), consensus was seen on two broad things: ICANN’s processes on IANA transition and accountability are crucial for Internet governance this year, and India’s participation (both municipal and international) is wanting. The meeting, which saw discussion following the Chatham House rules, was attended by members from industry associations, government and civil society. A light parsing of the current proposals from the CWG-Names and CRISP (the names and numbers communities) for IANA transition brought the composition of the transition proposals under scrutiny.

CRISP and the proposed Service Level Agreements:

The proposal from the numbers community, the CRISP, suggests that ICANN and the five RIRs enter into Service Level Agreements. Under the proposal, existing accountability, oversight and policy development mechanisms remain unchanged, with ICANN agreeing to perform IANA functions to meet requisite service levels. If it fails to meet such standards, the RIRs may terminate the contract or refuse to renew it.

The CRISP proposal does not look beyond ICANN for an IANA functions operator, and places its faith entirely in ICANN’s past performance of numbering IANA functions. As so many have said before, the CRISP proposal is blithe in its lack of review mechanism or safeguards, having even fewer safeguards than the CWG-Names proposal. Doubtless, a cause for concern.

CWG-Names and the Four New Entities:

The CWG-Names proposal suggests that four new entities be created to replace the NTIA’s role under the IANA Functions Contract. Under the proposal, ICANN will continue to be the IANA Functions Operator for the present. It will enter into an IANA Functions Contract with “Contract Co.”, a new shell entity which will replace NTIA as the contracting party. Contract Co. is to be a lightweight entity, with few staff or administrative capabilities.

At present, the NTIA performs what it considers a “clerical role” in its oversight of the DNS. However, the IANA Functions Contract also includes review functions, such as the rebidding and renewal process to determine whether ICANN (or some other entity) ought to continue as the IANA functions operator. Under the CWG-Names proposal, these review functions, which also include budget reviews, reporting, etc. are to be carried out by a “Multi-stakeholder Review Team (MRT)”, the terms of whose composition are as yet undecided.

The composition of the MRT is crucial to an independent and representative oversight of IANA. At the CCG Briefing Event, concerns were raised as to the representation of ccTLDs on the MRT. Not all ccTLDs are represented in the ICANN ecosystem, in the ccNSO; 152 ccTLDs are members of the ccNSO. Of course, one may argue that this concern exists under the present IANA functions contract as well. But the devil is in the details, or lack thereof. We don’t know, for instance, who will populate the MRT, whether they will enjoy immunities normally reserved for diplomatic or consular agents, or most importantly, what relationship the MRT will enjoy with ICANN. Will there be a contract with ICANN, or a memorandum of understanding that sets out ICANN’s responsibilities, failing which the IANA contract may be terminated?

The third new creation of the CWG-Names proposal is the “Customer Standing Committee (CSC)”. While the CSC’s composition is also nebulous, its functions are to work with the MRT to establish Service Levels and Performance Indicators for the naming functions, and to receive performance reports from the IANA operator (ICANN). Clause C.2.8 of the present IANA functions contract requires that the IANA operator (ICANN) develop performance standards for all enumerated IANA functions (see Clause C.2.9.1 to C.2.9.4), and also to report on them (Clause C.4). Presumably, the CSC will fill the role of the NTIA’s Contracting Officer’s Representative in receiving these performance reports.

The fourth and final new entity is the “Independent Appeals Panel (IAP)”, the composition of which is also undecided. The IAP is intended to hear and adjudicate all actions related to the root zone or root zone WHOIS, and under the present proposal, the CWG-Names suggests it should be constituted from time to time in the manner of a binding arbitration process. However, it should be noted that the CWG-Names proposal is unclear whether the IAP decisions are binding on or advisory to the ICANN Board. Concerns of the IAP’s composition aside, dangers of making its decisions only advisory to the ICANN Board loom large and real, and the CCG Briefing Event reflected this.

Already, the ICANN Board wields extensive power with regard to policy decisions. For instance, policies developed under the global policy development process by Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) may be rejected by the ICANN Board by a 2/3rds majority vote. Such a rejection may result in a mediation process according to agreed procedure. Another instance is the change in the ICANN Board’s treatment of GAC advice. Prior to the amendment to ICANN’s Bye-laws, the Board was not required to provide reasons for its rejection of GAC advice. In its present form, Article XI, Section 2(1) of ICANN’s Bye-laws make such reasons mandatory. How ought IAP decisions be treated, as binding or advisory? If they are to be binding, ICANN or any other IANA functions operator will have to enter into a legal arrangement (by contract or MoU, or in the best case, an amendment to ICANN Bye-laws).

Dodging the real issues: ICANN incumbency, IANA separation and where will all the money come from?

Both the CWG-Names and CRISP proposals skim past certain issues relating to ICANN’s incumbency in the IANA role. The first concern, of course, is whether ICANN should continue to be the IANA functions operator. Both proposals accept ICANN’s role, suggesting no change. While there are compelling reasons for ICANN’s continued role as IANA functions operator, unquestioning incumbency is equal to lack of accountability. And as neither proposal sets out a review process (the CWG-Names proposal only mentions that the MRT shall have this function), it is a concern.

Perhaps the CCWG-Accountability, convened under the Enhancing ICANN Accountability process, is better equipped to provide suggestions. However, the CCWG-Accountability is hard-pressed for time. Its two Workstreams, dealing with IANA transition related accountability mechanisms and ICANN’s internal accountability, are unlikely to see desired progress before the transition deadline of September 2015. For instance, within the CCWG-Accountability, a debate is ongoing as to ICANN’s composition. At the time of its incorporation, a suggestion that ICANN ought to have statutory members was floated, but turned down. The suggestion has reared its head again in the CCWG-Accountability, to consider checks and balances on the ICANN Board.

The second concern relates to IANA’s continued existence within ICANN, without separation of policy and implementation. This concern has been clamouring for attention for many months. Milton Mueller, for instance, has recommended structural separation of IANA and ICANN, as did I and others during the course of the face-to-face meetings of the CWG-Names (I attended remotely).

A structural separation is beneficial for many reasons. It enforces a simple separation of powers. “When”, as Montesquieu stated, “the legislative and the executive powers are united in the same person, or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty; because apprehensions may rise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute them in a tyrannical manner”. Tyranny is speaking in terms too extreme for ICANN, perhaps, it is undeniable that ICANN has grown larger in scope and size from its original incorporation. It was incorporated, as Professor DeNardis has noted [Protocol Politics, 161], to perform technical coordination of the global DNS and other functions performed originally by Jon Postel as IANA.

Today, in addition to technical coordination and policy-setting for names and numbers (through the gPDP), ICANN is a major player in the Internet governance institutional space; its involvement in and aggressive marketing of the NETmundial Initiative is but an example. For instance, ICANN budgets for less than US $10 million for providing core Internet functions out of a US $160 million strong budget (FY2015). It has budgeted, in comparison, US $13 million for travel and meetings alone (FY2015). Separating IANA from ICANN will, as others have suggested, protect it from political or other influences within ICANN.

In any event, once the NTIA terminates the IANA functions contract, IANA is not strictly required to be within the US. At the moment, Clause C.2.1 of the IANA functions contract requires that the IANA functions operator be “a wholly U.S. owned and operated firm or fully accredited United States University or College operating in one of the 50 states of the United States or District of Columbia; b) incorporated within one of the fifty (50) states of the United States or District of Columbia; and c) organized under the laws of a state of the United States or District of Columbia”.

Were structural separation to be achieved, IANA could be incorporated in another, neutral jurisdiction. Not only would be assuage optical considerations and ensure separation of powers, but as our experience with filtering on the Internet shows (see, for instance, the Open Net Initiative’s research), unilateral controls are much harder to enforce when the apparatus is decentralized.

The third concern raised at the CCG Briefing Event concerned the funding of the new entities proposed by the CWG-Names. Would these entities be self-financing, or perhaps ICANN would support them? While some participants felt ICANN could also provide financial support, this would, in my view, bring ICANN too close to its oversight entities, and increase chances of influence.

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