ICANN faces questions over accountability, control

Internet oversight group hears concerns about an outside takeover

WASHINGTON -- ICANN needs to take steps to ensure it cannot be taken over by governments and other outside entities, and it needs to create more ways to ensure accountability to Internet users, constituents of the nonprofit organization said today.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the organization overseeing the Web's top-level domain naming system, heard several concerns during a meeting focused on improving confidence in ICANN. But concerns about an outside takeover of the organization and critiques of ICANN's transparency came up several times during the meeting here.

An oversight agreement between the U.S. government and ICANN expires in a year, and ICANN officials say they don't plan to sign a new agreement. But in recent years, representatives of several other countries have called for an international organization to oversee the 10-year-old organization.

Many e-commerce companies don't want a new model of international control of ICANN, said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a trade group representing several U.S. companies, including eBay Inc., Yahoo Inc. and Oracle Corp. Continued U.S. government oversight may keep other nations from exerting control, he said.

To ensure against an outside entity taking control, ICANN has proposed that it remain located in the U.S. because of its relatively strong antitrust and competition laws. The organization is also trying to increase participation in its activities. ICANN officials have also proposed that a consensus, or super-majority of participants, agree on changes in policy, and they have suggested that the organization should limit participation by companies or individuals in multiple ICANN committees.

Those suggestions aren't enough, DelBianco said. "It's as if ICANN wants to sort of check that box with a series of bureaucratic measures that are primarily designed to prevent capture from internal parts of the ICANN community," he said. "The real threat of capture, I believe, is from external threats."

ICANN has a $60 million budget and manages the backbone of the Internet, making it a desirable target for takeover, DelBianco added. "ICANN becomes a magnet for the United Nations and other governments who would covet that role," he added. "I think this demonstrates the adage that money and power don't buy you friends, but they get you a better class of enemies."

Yrjo Lansipuro, a member of the ICANN President's Strategy Committee, discounted DelBianco's fears. While Russia continues to urge international control of ICANN, other countries haven't recently pressed the issue, said Lansipuro, who works for Finland's Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

"Governments are watching each other," he said. "It's inconceivable that one government would be able to [take over ICANN] when all the others are watching."

But Marilyn Cade, another member of the President's Strategy Committee, disagreed, saying outside takeover is an ongoing and pressing concern. Much of the debate over control of ICANN stems from a "lack of understanding" of the role of ICANN, said Cade, an independent consultant and former vice president for Internet governance at AT&T Inc.

Some people seem to mistakenly believe ICANN controls access to information and content on the Web, and that leads to arguments over control, she added.

Other participants at the meeting focused on oversight of ICANN by the Internet community. ICANN has proposed to create a new way for the Internet community to petition the ICANN board to revisit a decision and also create a mechanism for removing the entire board, among other things.

Those proposals are flawed and lack ways to measure ICANN's accountability, said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a technology trade group. The proposal to ask the board to reconsider a decision appears "ineffective," while the removal of the entire board seems "extreme," he said.

The current mechanism for asking ICANN to reconsider a decision hasn't been used in two years, added Becky Burr, a partner at law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr and former senior Internet policy adviser at the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

"Do I think that ... the ability to recall the entire board meaningfully enhances ICANN's accountability?" Burr said. "Not even close. It's a nuclear option of no plausible value" unless the board upsets the entire Internet community.

Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN's chairman, agreed with Zuck that accountability metrics are needed. "Things that are measured get done," he said.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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