Wednesday's announcement by the Obama administration, that former Washington state governor Gary Locke has been nominated as the next Secretary of Commerce could be a good sign for Internet governance, and the continued globalization of the ICANN regime. The Chinese-American Locke brings key political capital and experience to the table. He is well respected within and has access to the most senior levels of the Chinese government. And his firm, Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, has deep expertise in Internet policy, having represented companies in China and on ICANN issues related to free expression.
It is no secret that the Chinese government, private sector and civil society are conspicuously missing from ICANN. The Chinese government has largely ignored the institution, seeking to shift debate over the governance of critical Internet resources elsewhere. ICANN has made overtures toward China, as it attempts to integrate the world's fastest growing ccTLD namespace and online population. Board Chair Peter Dengate Thrush visited CNNIC last year, where he promised ICANN's new IDN process “would be fast” and encouraged CNNIC to play a bigger role in the international arena. This effort has seen limited success. CNNIC's director of International Business and Policy Development now sits on ICANN's country-code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) Council. But overall, relative to its importance in the global economy and politics, the level of participation in the ICANN regime by China is low.
Why is this so? For institutionalists, its a pretty simple explanation. If institutions are about bargaining over distributional outcomes, then what exactly does the Chinese government gain out of participating in ICANN? Because China has done such an effective job of firewalling its portion of the “Internet” off from the rest of the world, it has made any global regulation through the ICANN contractual regime irrelevant. The Chinese government can regulate the private sector and civil society there as it sees fit. From an outsiders perspective, this has brought a mixed bag of results. On one hand, the Chinese government controls free expression through well-known incidents of censorship and surveillance. But there are also the eye opening examples of market expansion through inexpensive and deployed Chinese character domain names. Then there is the elephant in the room, the political oversight of ICANN by the USG. Even if China recognized some regulatory value in participating in the ICANN regime, having another sovereign control the global DNS root is a non-starter.
While the place of the DNS industry in the US-China commerce equation is diminutive, governance of the DNS has been identified as a top policy issue for the incoming Secretary, more important than even the $7.2 billion in broadband infrastructure grants included in the Obama Administration's economic stimulus package. Locke's background could be particularly beneficial as the NTIA's relationship with ICANN, and ICANN's relationship with the ROW, and particularly China, continues to evolve. Going forward, the USG and ICANN will eventually have to confront questions concerning the relevance of the ICANN regime to China, and relatedly, understanding the benefits and costs of incorporating or excluding China's interests in the regime.
For some narrow US interests (e.g., those associated with national security), none of this will matter – for them the DNS root must always be under control of the USG. If that view dominates the discussion, then don't get you hopes up about ICANN's eventual independence. But given the growth of the Internet, the continuing pace of globalization, and the sheer opportunity of the BRIC markets this view seems inimical to growing any economy. That means the new Commerce secretary, if confirmed, is going to have to do a number of things simultaneously. Reach out to the Chinese, without kow towing to China's demands too much, and convince them that it is in their interest to support a global, privatized, accountable ICANN regime that is independent of any government. But any success with this will be dependent on his ability to persuade the domestic forces that insist the US government retain its special oversight of the DNS root that the position is unsustainable.