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Where Does ICANN’s Money Come From? We Asked; They Don’t Know

Posted by Geetha Hariharan at Feb 09, 2015 01:50 PM |
Just how transparent is ICANN? How responsive are they to requests for information? At CIS, we sent ICANN ten questions seeking information about, inter alia, their revenues, commitment to the NETmundial Principles, Globalisation Advisory Groups and organisational structure. Geetha Hariharan wonders at ICANN's reluctance to respond.


Why Is ICANN Here?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is responsible for critical backbones of the Internet. It manages the root server system, the global allocation of IP addresses, protocol registries and the domain name system (management of gTLDs, ccTLDs, as well as the newly rolled-out “new gTLDs”).

ICANN was incorporated in California in 1998, and was intended as the technical coordination body for the backbone of the Internet. That is, it was to administer the Internet’s domain names and IP addresses, and also manage the Internet root servers.

As a result of an agreement with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the US Department of Commerce, ICANN is the IANA functions operator. It carries out the IANA functions, which include making changes to the root zone file (the backbone of the domain name system), allocation of IP address blocks to the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), and maintaining protocol parameter registries in collaboration with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The RIRs are responsible for allocating IP addresses (IPv4 and IPv6) to national and local Internet registries. The IETF develops Internet standards and protocols, such as those within the TCP/IP suite. To be clear, ICANN does not make policy for the IP address or Internet standards/protocols; those are the domains of RIRs and the IETF, respectively.

ICANN, Domain Names and All That Buried Treasure

ICANN is the de facto policy-making body for domain names. Through ICANN’s community Supporting Organisations and Advisory Committees (SOACs) – largely a multi-stakeholder community – ICANN determines policies for dispute resolution (see, for instance, the UDRP for domain name disputes), maintaining the WHOIS database, etc. for domain names.

Under its contracts with Top Level Domain (TLD) Registries, ICANN receives payment for all registrations and/or renewals of domain names. For instance, under the .bharti Registry Agreement, ICANN receives a fixed annual registry free of US $6250. If there are more than 50,000 registrations or renewals of domain names under a TLD (say, .bharti) in a quarter, then ICANN also receives an amount equal to (No. of registrations or renewals X US $0.25). TLD Registries “own” TLDs like .com, and they maintain a list of all the domain names registered under that TLD. There are around 816 such Registry Agreements, and in FY14, ICANN received over US $47 million in Registry fees [see page 7].

Similar agreements exist between ICANN and domain name Registrars accredited by it, too. Domain name Registrars are entities like Go Daddy and Big Rock, from whom people like you and me (or companies) can register domain names. Only Registrars accredited by ICANN can register domain names that will be included in the ICANN DNS, the most frequently used DNS on the Web. Each Registrar pays a yearly accreditation fee of US $4000 to ICANN (see Clause 3.9). Each Registrar also pays to ICANN fees for every domain name registration or renewal. There are over 500 ICANN-accredited Registrars, and in FY14, ICANN received over US $34.5 million in Registrar fees [see page 7].

Now, apart from this, in its IANA operator role, ICANN is responsible for the global allocation of IP addresses (IPv4 and IPv6). From the global pool of IP addresses, ICANN allocates to the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), which then allocate to National Internet Registries like the National Internet Exchange of India (NIXI as IRINN), local Internet registries or ISPs. For this, ICANN receives a combined contribution of US $823,000 each year as revenue from RIRs [see, ex.: FY09 Financial Statements, page 3].

And this isn’t all of it! With its new gTLD program, ICANN is sitting on a large treasure trove. Each gTLD application cost US $185,000, and there were 1930 applications in the first round (that’s US $357 million). Where there arose disagreements as to the same or similar strings, ICANN initiated an auction process. Some new gTLDs were auctioned for as high as US $6 million.

So ICANN is sitting on a great deal of treasure (US $355 million in revenues in FY14 and growing). It accumulates revenue from a variety of quarters; the sources identified above are by no means the only revenue-sources. But ICANN is unaware of, or unwilling to disclose, all its sources of revenue.

ICANN's Troubling Scope-creep and Does Transparency Matter?

At CIS, we are concerned by ICANN’s unchecked influence and growing role in the Internet governance institutional space. For instance, under its CEO Fadi Chehade, ICANN was heavily involved backstage for NETmundial, and has set aside over US $200,000 for Mr. Chehade’s brainchild, the NETmundial Initiative. Coupled with its lack of transparency and vocal interests in furthering status quo (for instance, both the names and numbers communities’ proposals for IANA transition want ICANN to remain the IANA functions operator, without stringent safeguards), this makes for a dangerous combination.

The clearest indication lies in the money, one might say. As we have written before, ICANN budgets for less than US $10 million for providing core Internet functions out of a US $160 million strong budget (Budget FY15, page 17). It has budgeted, in comparison, US $13 million for travel and meetings alone, and spent over US $18 million on travel in FY14 (Budget FY15, page 11).

To its credit, ICANN makes public its financial statements (current and historic), and community discussions are generally open. However, given the understandably complex contractual arrangements that give ICANN its revenues, even ploughing through the financials does not give one a clear picture of where ICANN’s money comes from.

So one is left with questions such as the following: Which entities (and how many of them) pay ICANN for domain names? What are the vendor payments received by ICANN and who pays? Who all have paid ICANN under the new gTLD program, and for what purposes? Apart from application fees and auctions, what other heads of payment exist? How much does each RIR pay ICANN and what for, if IP addresses are not property to be sold? For how many persons (and whom all) does ICANN provide pay for, to travel to meetings and other events?

You may well ask why these questions matter, and whether we need greater transparency. To put it baldly: ICANN’s transparency is crucial. ICANN is today something of a monopoly; it manages the IANA functions, makes policy for domain names and is increasingly active in Internet governance. It is without greater (effective) accountability than a mere review by the NTIA, and some teething internal mechanisms like the Documentary Information Disclosure Policy (DIDP), Ombudsman, Reconsideration and Independent Review and the Accountability and Transparency Review (ATRT). I could elaborate on why these mechanisms are inadequate, but this post is already too long. Suffice it to say that by carefully defining these mechanisms and setting out their scope, ICANN has stifled their effectiveness. For instance, a Reconsideration Request can be filed if one is aggrieved by an action of ICANN’s Board or staff. Under ICANN’s By-laws (Article IV, Section 2), it is the Board Governance Committee, comprising ICANN Board members, that adjudicates Reconsideration Requests. This simply violates the principles of natural justice, wherein one may not be a judge in one’s own cause (nemo debet esse judex in propria causa).

Moreover, ICANN serves corporate interests, for it exists on account of contractual arrangements with Registries, Registrars, the NTIA and other sundry entities. ICANN has also troublingly reached into Internet governance domains to which it was previously closed, such as the NETmundial Initiative, the NETmundial, the IGF and its Support Association. It is unclear that ICANN was ever intended to overreach so, a point admitted by Mr. Chehade himself at the ICANN Open Forum in Istanbul (IGF 2014).

Finally, despite its professed adherence to multi-stakeholderism, there is evidence that ICANN’s policy-making and functioning revolve around small, cohesive groups with multiple professional inter-linkages with other I-Star organisations. For instance, a revolving door study by CIS of the IANA Coordination Group (ICG) found that 20 out of 30 ICG members had close and longterm ties with I-Star organisations. This surely creates concern as to the impartiality and fairness of the ICG’s decision-making. It may, for instance, make a pro-ICANN outcome inevitable – and that is definitely a serious worry.

But ICANN is intended to serve the public interest, to ensure smooth, stable and resilient running of the Internet. Transparency is crucial to this, and especially so during the IANA transition phase. As advisor Jan Scholte asked at ICANN52, what accountability will ICANN exercise after the transition, and to whom will it be accountable? What, indeed, does accountability mean? The CCWG-Accountability is still asking that question. But meanwhile, one among our cohorts at CIS has advocated transparency as a check-and-balance for power.

The DIDP process at ICANN may prove useful in the long run, but does it suffice as a transparency mechanism?

ICANN's Responses to CIS' DIDP Requests

Over December ’14 and January ’15, CIS sent 10 DIDP requests to ICANN. Our aim was to test and encourage transparency from ICANN, a process crucial given the CCWG-Accountability’s deliberations on ways to enhance ICANN’s accountability. We have received responses for 9 of our requests. We summarise ICANN’s responses in a table: please go here.

A glance at the table above will show that ICANN’s responses are largely negative. In 7 requests out of 9, ICANN provides very little new information. Though the responses are detailed, the majority of information they provide is already identified in CIS’ requests. For instance, in the response to the NETmundial Request, ICANN links us to blogposts written by CEO Fadi Chehade, where he notes the importance of translating the NETmundial Principles into action. They also link us to the Final Report of the Panel on Global Internet Cooperation and Governance Mechanism, and ICANN’s involvement in the NETmundial Initiative.

However, to the query on ICANN’s own measures of implementing the NETmundial Principles – principles that it has lauded and upheld for the entire Internet governance community – ICANN’s response is surprisingly evasive. Defending lack of action, they note that “ICANN is not the home for implementation of the NETmundial Principles”. But ICANN also responds that they already implement the NETmundial Principles: “Many of the NETmundial Principles are high-level statements that permeate through the work of any entity – particularly a multistakeholder entity like ICANN – that is interested in the upholding of the inclusive, multistakeholder process within the Internet governance framework” (emphasis provided). One wonders, then, at the insistence on creating documents involving such high-level principles; why create them if they’re already implemented?

Responses to other requests indicate that the DIDP is, in its current form, unable to provide the transparency necessary for ICANN’s functioning. For instance, in the response to the Ombudsman Request, ICANN cites confidentiality as a reason to decline providing information. Making Ombudsman Requests public would violate ICANN Bylaws, and topple the independence and integrity of the Ombudsman.

These are, perhaps, valid reasons to decline a DIDP request. But it is also important to investigate these reasons. ICANN’s Ombudsman is appointed by the ICANN Board for 2 year terms, under Clause V of ICANN’s Bylaws. The Ombudsman’s principal function is to “provide an independent internal evaluation of complaints by members of the ICANN community who believe that the ICANN staff, Board or an ICANN constituent body has treated them unfairly”. The Ombudsman reports only to the ICANN Board, and all matters before it are kept confidential, including the names of parties and the nature of complaints. The Ombudsman reports on the categories of complaints he receives, and statistics regarding decisions in his Annual Reports; no details are forthcoming for stated reasons of confidentiality and privacy.

This creates a closed circle in which the Ombudsman operates. The ICANN Board appoints the Ombudsman. He/she listens to complaints about unfair treatment by the ICANN Board, Staff or constituency. He/she reports to the ICANN Board alone. However, neither the names of parties, the nature of complaints, nor the decisions of the Ombudsman are publicly available. Such a lack of transparency throws doubt on the functioning of the Ombudsman himself – and on his independence, neutrality and the extent of ICANN’s influence on him/her. An amendment of ICANN’s Bylaws would then be imperative to rectify this problem; this matter is squarely within the CCWG-Accountability’s mandate and should be addressed.

As is clear from the above examples, ICANN’s DIDP is an inadequate tool to ensure transparency functioning. The Policy was crafted without community input, and requires substantial amendments to make it a sufficient transparency mechanism. CIS’ suggestions in this regard shall be available in our next post.

CIS' Annual Reports are here. Our audit is ongoing, and the Annual Report for 2013-14 will be up shortly. Pranav Bidare (3rd year) of the National Law School, Bangalore assisted with research for this post, and created the table of CIS' DIDP requests and responses.