ICANN, the non-profit organisation that administers internet domain names, is up against a tough deadline to cut ties with the US government by next autumn.
Organisation staff and experts involved in ICANN’s committees said there was much at stake for ICANN’s annual meeting starting this weekend (18-22 October) in Dublin. If ICANN leaders fail to come up with a strategy to exit US control, the organisation could risk another delay in its effort to become independent.
The organisation’s accountability working group is meeting today (16 October) ahead of the Dublin meeting to try to draft a new proposal outlining ICANN’s transition to a ‘multi-stakeholder’ group made up of government representatives, academics, NGOs and private companies.
ICANN was set to be cut loose from the US Department of Commerce this year, but its contract was extended until autumn 2016 when an alternative plan to govern the organisation wasn’t agreed by the deadline.
Participants in ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) committees tasked with coming up with a strategy for running the organisation have squabbled over details and spent hundreds of hours in phone conferences, according to people who have taken part.
Some involved in the talks see the meeting in Dublin as an opportunity to put an end to the back and forth. But ICANN’s board is wary of a new model that would include membership and a voting system for the first time, which could impede the board’s decision-making power.
“I think if we don’t succeed in finding a consensus way out by the end of the Dublin meeting we face not meeting a deadline and having it postponed again,” said Peter van Roste, general manager of the Council of European National Top Level Domain Registries (CENTR), a Brussels-based association made up of country domain registries like .de or .fr.
“More important to me than the deadline is demonstrating that the model within ICANN is working,” van Roste added.
CENTR and the European Commission’s high-level group on internet governance, made up of representatives from EU member states, held a meeting last week about the progress of plans for ICANN. The groups came out with a firm critique, warning that an agreement between negotiators would only have “the necessary legitimacy if the bottom-up, consensus-driven process continues to be fully respected.”
ICANN Vice President for Europe Jean-Jacques Sahel called the Dublin meeting crucial to get the organisation ready for its looming deadline with the US government, but said it won’t be the last chance for negotiators to strike an agreement.
“There’s no need to panic, but it’s not like it’s a rosy situation. There’s work to be done, there’s pressure. There’s the international community watching. There are a lot of governments that have only come recently to understanding this multi-stakeholder model. They’re not completely comfortable with it yet,” Sahel told EurActiv.com.
An agreement on the strategy for managing ICANN will be followed by months of reviews, including one by the US Congress.
ICANN staff have signalled the urgency to wrap up the review process before it’s too close to the US presidential elections next year. Some Republican members of Congress have spoken out against ICANN’s transition away from the US Department of Commerce.
China and India have previously favoured handing over governance of internet domains to the UN, which ICANN has opposed. In the last year, senior officials from those countries expressed openness towards ICANN’s multi-stakeholder system – once its removed from the US government’s hold.
“I think we need to be mindful that we need to keep their trust and keep them engaged in this process. Delays are not helpful,” Sahel said.
“There is a real risk that some of the trust in the mechanism could be eroded if the wrong messages are sent.”
The World Radiocommunication Conference will take place next month in Geneva, organised by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU). At an ITU conference in 2012, several countries pushed for an ITU takeover of ICANN’s role as controller of internet address registration.
Sahel said the upcoming ITU conference puts added pressure on the Dublin meeting to produce results.
“Certainly I think that’s something our committee members should consider and I’m not sure many of them realise the importance of that,” he said.
An EU official with knowledge of the transition called the plans for ICANN’s future a “moving target” that are constantly changing but said there are signs of “concrete progress” towards an agreement.
The European Commission backs the Council’s position from this summer on the ICANN transition, which pointed out that “any unjustified delay of this process could negatively impact internet governance debates worldwide.”
Like telephones, the internet relies on numbers which identify computers and allow them to connect to one another.
This identification process is coordinated at global level by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
ICANN was established as a not-for-profit corporation in 1998 with the backing of Washington. The agreement with the US administration has been renewed every three years up to the last renewal, signed in 2006.
ICANN is responsible for defining Internet domains, such as .com or .eu and for managing the Internet core directory.
The EU and other countries around the world have acknowledged the success story of the US-born internet, but have increasingly challenged the United States' sole control of internet governance.
- 18-22 Oct. 2015: ICANN annual meeting in Dublin
- 30 Sept. 2016: ICANN's contract with the US Department of Commerce expires