NPR story on ICANN and Internet governance: way off target

I pay my son a weekly allowance to take out the garbage every week. He dislikes this chore, to put it mildly, but he does it for the money. But nobody pays me to sort out the trash that’s written about ICANN and global Internet governance. I just do it because, well, someone has to do it. You can’t just let it pile up.

Which brings me to my topic: today National Public Radio in the U.S. did a feature piece on ICANN, presumably because January 12 is the day it starts its program to open up the domain name space to hundreds of new top level names. Yet what should have been a story about ICANN, the pros and cons of new TLDs, and ICANN’s political struggles with U.S.-based intellectual property interests and the legislators they influenced, became yet another story about…wait for it… how the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is threatening to take over the Internet!

The article mentions in passing that “some members of Congress actually wanted the Department of Commerce to order ICANN to delay the domain name expansion,” and notes that this would reinforce some countries’ feeling that ICANN is a tool of the US. But it quickly moves on to claim that “there is now a big international pushback over U.S. domination of the Internet, and a growing move to diminish the U.S. role.”  According to the NPR piece, “these complaints are likely to come to a head this December, when the International Telecommunication Union – a UN agency – holds a meeting in Dubai.” This meeting, according to the report, is going to rewrite legally binding global treaties to radically change how the Internet will be governed worldwide.” And worse: “the move is led by China, Russia and India…” Oh my! “It’s extremely serious, it’s fundamental,”  someone posing as an Internet governance analyst hyperventilates in the article.

Huh? How did this report get so misdirected? Answer: It seems that the NPR reporter relied on former ICANN employee and commercial domain name consultant Kieren McCarthy as his source. Let me sort through the garbage here. Some of it is recyclable and needs to be put in the blue bin, but the rest just needs to be put in a black plastic bag and thrown into a landfill. Yes, there is an ICANN program to add a bunch of new top  level domains. Yes, there was a move by the U.S. legislators, prodded by large corporate brand holders and other trademark-related interests, to delay or stop that program. ICANN did not cave, but yes, as we wrote two weeks ago, U.S. politicians would have seriously  damaged the credibility and legitimacy of ICANN as an international institution had their attempt to derail the program to pay off domestic lobbyists succeeded. It would have been good for NPR to report on that. But it didn’t. The reporter didn’t quite understand why new TLDs are controversial. Still, a few facts in the story can be melted down and turned into a decent report. Save them.

Into the black bag: No, there isn’t a “growing move” to diminish the U.S. role. The move to counter or diminish U.S. pre-eminence over Internet governance reached its peak in 2005, during the World Summit on the Information Society, and has diminished since. Furthermore, international pressures to create a nation-state centered Internet governance regime are completely independent of ICANN’s new TLD program. The two things really have little to do with each other. While many governments, most notably China, South Africa, Brazil and India are still dissatisfied with the situation, all have basically accepted the existence of ICANN. China actually re-joined ICANN’s  Governmental Advisory Committee after WSIS; Russia and India demanded and won from ICANN the right to enhance their national country-code domain name monopolies with new multilingual domains more than a year ago, making them quite happy.

More garbage: No, the ITU and its regulations are not the leading edge of the move to inter-governmentalize the Internet. It is the attempt by India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) to create a UN “Committee on Internet-Related Policies” (CIRP) that holds that honor. While we don’t like this escape from multi-stakeholder representation, CIRP is more like an OECD-like analysis and idea development factory than a plan to take over the Internet. And if it is created, it will occur through the UN General Assembly, not at Dubai, and not through the ITU. In fact, the ITU probably would prefer that CIRP not be created.

More garbage: The biggest threat to the freedom of Internet users today does not come from the ITU, nor from CIRP. It comes from national-level legislation and policies, including, especially, actions in the United States. Yes, China does an extensive job of crushing dissent and intimidating Internet users and service providers within its own borders, but it is a pariah. The techniques for control contemplated by the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), on the other hand, mirror Chinese blocking techniques and tell the rest of the world we are moving in their direction. There is of course extensive censorship and surveillance in the Middle East. The French have instituted a copyright surveillance and graduated response system; India and South Korea both have moved to aggressively regulate the Internet. European social democracies block “hate speech,” alcohol ads, and other politically correct targets. The push for “cybersecurity” and untrammeled surveillance by law enforcement also feeds into this.

On the other hand, the ITU has tried repeatedly to assert control over critical Internet resources(domain names and IP addresses) without any success.  Indeed, the ITU does not even pose the second biggest threat of undue governmental influence over the Internet. That “honor” belongs to ICANN’s own Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). All of the powers and controls that people fret about when the hapless ITU is mentioned, such as intergovernmental control of content, are actually happening in the GAC. The GAC is essentially a mini-United Nations within ICANN’s structure – but one completely free of any democratic accountability or legal and procedural constraints. Through GAC, governments have asserted, and gotten, ownership of geographic names – when no international treaty affords them that right. Through the GAC, governments have asserted, and to some extent gotten, a right to arbitrarily censor new top level domains. Through the GAC, law enforcement agencies have vetoed or altered privacy policies they didn’t like, without going through any legitimate process.

Given the facts related above, an article that gets us hyperventilating about the Dubai meeting of the ITU is worse than inaccurate; it distorts our worldview and diverts our attention from the real issues. We expect better of NPR.


2 comments

  1. Anonymous

    Your post does not discuss NPR's presentation of the Federal Trade Commission's set of concerns over ICANN's actions, points that are extremely important, valid and worrisome. FTC is designed to protect the public from deceptive trade practices. ICANN's move will make it very difficult to achieve this vital goal. Slowing down the ICANN rollout would be better while these issues are resolved.

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