Amidst all the drama surrounding ICANN’s Los Angeles meeting (Vint Cerf’s exit from the ICANN Board, protests over the free expression implications of its new gTLD policy, the Whois-privacy debate and steps toward new multilingual domain names) an important signal about the future of ICANN was almost lost in the shuffle. The U.S. Commerce Department announced that it would be soliciting public comment on “ICANN’s progress towards becoming a more stable organization with greater transparency and accountability…” The mid-term review of the ICANN-US Commerce Department Joint Project Agreement invites a full-scale, public review of the global Internet governance regime’s status. Members of the public will be able to address critical issues such as ICANN’s accountability; the transition away from unilateral US control; its relationship with the Governmental Advisory Committee; public participation; and other issues. Interested parties have until 15 February 2008 to submit their comments.
It is apparent to anyone watching ICANN that ICANN’s management wants to be free of US oversight, and that its torrid pace of reviews, self-studies, reforms, and rapidly growing staff is designed to meet the objectives established in its JPA with the Commerce Department in order to facilitate that goal. Has independence become the carrot dangled in front of the organization to motivate its improvement?
It is fun and ironic to note the shift in the attitude of the US Commerce Department. Originally the Commerce Department was visibly uncomfortable with the way IGP globalized its review of ICANN in 2006. IGP’s campaign around the NTIA proceeding reminded the US agency that it was a national entity governing a transnational institution. The IGP campaign generated about 130 comments from around the world; about 200 more came from IGP ally Free Press, which mobilized net neutrality advocates. Now, the Commerce Department notes proudly that its public consultation “resulted in over 700 contributions.” Yes, but nearly half of them were generated by critical advocacy groups and 87% of the relevant comments called for movement away from US governmental control. (See this IGP report for an account of the July 2006 hearings at the Commerce Department.)
What makes the new NTIA initiative a bit more interesting is the apparent revival of “enhanced cooperation” – the WSIS-inspired code words for European demands that the U.S. accommodate their concerns about unilateral U.S. control of the Internet. After being pushed by the European Union two years ago and codified in the Tunis Agenda, the concept of enhanced cooperation seemed to sink into oblivion. Earlier this year UN envoy Nitin Desai was forced to admit in an IG Forum consultation that no progress had been made on it. Many assumed that enhanced cooperation was a stillborn concept. But at this ICANN meeting, the term has popped up repeatedly in connection with the ruminations of the Governmental Advisory Committee. And for most of the week, the US’s Suzanne Sene was inseparable form EU GAC representative William Dee. This faintly signals some kind of movement on the thorniest issue in global internet governance. And as one source close to a developing country government told me, the US seems extremely eager to build support for the regime as it fears the growth of China and the possibility of forming a separate order.
One can, therefore, sense movement, but movement in exactly which direction remains unclear. The ability of the UN Internet Governance Forum to create an independent environment for political and normative pressure certainly plays role in it.