NTIA Shrugs

The NTIA has released a short announcement about the mid-term review of ICANN. The announcement tells us very little except that the administration hasn't changed its position on anything important regarding its supervisory relationship to ICANN. The US is reasonably comfortable with the status quo and won't move until someone makes them very uncomfortable. Nothing they heard in February did so. Clearly, NTIA was not looking for information about what needs to be done, but seeking confirmation of its prior tendency to do nothing. It will leave to a future Presidential administration the issue of whether to continue to be the unilateral “ruler of the root.”

The only thing that made this exercise fun and worthwhile was ICANN's own tugging and pulling at the US government leash, as the proceeding provoked it into a full-scale lobbying and public relations effort to promote its independence and an end to the JPA — a goal that IGP expressed some sympathy for.

Despite its brevity and its all-too-obvious lack of interest in engaging with, much less resolving the issues raised by the mid-term review, the NTIA announcement is a fairly accurate summary of the comments they received in the aggregate. Let's look a bit more carefully at what they said:

NTIA: “Although views during the midterm review represent diverse perspectives, there was general consensus on the need to preserve the security and stability of the DNS and the recognition that ICANN is the appropriate technical coordinator of the Internet DNS.”

Well, yeah, we didn't see any comments favoring an insecure and unstable internet, did we? And there was no substantial body of comment calling for ICANN to be abolished and replaced with something else. These were about the only points that could be described as “general consensus” within the comments.

NTIA: “ICANN has made significant progress in several key areas, but most participants agree that important work remains to increase institutional confidence …”

True: other than ICANN itself and its ISOC-based allies, even those who strongly favor ending the JPA and the ties to the USG think that reforms need to be made in the next 18 months.

What kind of work remains? The rest of the comments can be seen as reflections of different constituencies' points:

NTIA: “…through implementing effective processes that will enable: …accountability;”

IGP and several others stressed the need for accountability…

NTIA: …”responsiveness;” and ” stakeholder participation;”

Many consumer groups and some individuals complained about this.

NTIA: “long term stability;” “continued private sector leadership,”

A lot of the DC-based business interests made a point about this, including those who advanced the crazy idea that the US govenrment had to stay in control to protect ICANN from governments.

NTIA: “increased contract compliance;”

This was the IPR crowd's line. In their view, you just can't control things enough when their trademarks or copyrights are at stake. They want a meaner, harsher ICANN that more aggressively regulates.

NTIA: “and enhanced competition.”

This was the concern of some who want more new TLDs

So if the summary of comments was reasonably accurate, the question we ought to be asking is why the NTIA has consigned itself to passively collecting, collating and noting alternate views. The answer should be obvious: Government agencies, in the absence of strong leadership from their political superiors, are lazy and prone to inertia. NTIA is not going to take any initiatives on its own and clearly the lame-duck Bush Presidency has no vision or plan in this area.

As a perennial optimist, I find one silver lining in this gray cloud of bureaucratic fog: perhaps some of our more naïve ICANN-ocrats will learn from this experience about the idiocy of relying on so-called “consensus-based” policy making when there are major power struggles or distributional issues at stake. The US NTIA asks for comment from a public (biased of course toward Washington DC), knowing full well that they are not going to get a unified and consistent message; it then uses the lack of agreement to legitimate its preconceived tendency to stay in the same place, despite the fact that the preponderance of the global community and even ICANN itself is clearly unhappy with its role, and anyone with half a brain knows that it is not a austainable position in the long term.

In other words, the absence of “consensus” can be used to sustain a problematic or patently unjust status quo, as has happened for years with the Whois situation. And now the shoe is on ICANN's foot. Some poetic justice in that, I guess.

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