Achieving Accountability in Internet Governance

Posted by J. Scott Evans, Director, Trademark

Almost two decades ago, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was founded in the nascent days of the Internet to manage domain name registrations. Created in partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce, ICANN has evolved into a private sector entity, working with private sector stakeholders in the US and around the world to manage an otherwise unwieldy domain name process.

In March 2014, the Obama Administration announced its intention to transition some of ICANN’s Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) responsibilities by exploring the adoption of a new, private and global multi-stakeholder model for Internet governance and oversight.

This monumental change would have a direct effect on the long term preservation and successful growth of the Internet because IANA functions include the assignment of technical Internet protocol parameters which allow devices to properly connect and communicate with each other to perform various online activities such as website browsing, email and content storage. In February 2015, ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadé testified before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to discuss ICANN’s latest IANA transition plans. In his opening remarks, Chehadé stated that ICANN was built on “the values of the American system” and provided “unequivocal assurance that whatever we do here must and will retain the values with which we started this endeavor.”

Though an exact proposal has yet to surface, critics of the general IANA transition plan cite growing fears about ensuring security and stability of the Internet under a new model where nations that may not embrace similar values could gain larger influence and control without proper checks and balances.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee shares this sentiment and opened the hearing by stating that without “U.S. involvement in the IANA functions, ICANN may be subject to capture by authoritarian regimes and these are valid concerns.” In addition, Sen. Thune raised the issue of accountability. “I will be interested to see whether the stakeholder community can deliver a proposal that allows Internet users to continue to have faith the IANA functions are carried out effectively and seamlessly, and I’ll focus on the adequacy of the accountability reforms in any proposal.”

There are also critical implications for business and brand reputation challenges that must be addressed. For example, a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Cybercriminals Are Misappropriating Businesses’ Web Addresses,” reported that domains of U.S. businesses have been targeted, hijacked and transferred to “such places as China, Eastern Europe and Russia in what appears to be ‘organized criminal activity.’”

Some look to ICANN to do more in an effort to monitor and prevent the illegal transfer of stolen domain names to registry holders abroad. According to Mr. Phillip Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, “If they find there are bad registrars working with bad folks to facilitate domain hijacking,” taking steps to “put them out of business would send a very strong message.”

If ICANN is unable to step up to enforce laws and safeguard business from illicit international activity under the current model, how can they guarantee protections under a new, more complex one?

Regarding the critical nature of these proposals, Sen. Thune added, “The multi-stakeholder community has one opportunity to get this right because the Internet is too important for democracy, for world culture and the interconnected global economy to allow poor governance to jeopardize its future.”

Though Adobe understands that the creation of a new private sector led, multi-stakeholder institution to manage IANA functions is likely the best approach — there are still many questions that must be resolved. We look forward to reviewing the ICANN proposal as it becomes available in the coming months in anticipation of the September 2015 deadline.

Despite many differences among the stakeholders, we can all fundamentally agree that it is imperative for both the U.S. and world that we “get this right.”