Everybody involved in Internet governance is in Brussels. It is one of the largest attendances at an ICANN meeting ever. Famous crypto expert Whit Diffie is here as a new ICANN employee and so is DNS developer Paul Mockapetris. Lawrence Lessig and Jon Zittrain are here for the Internet Society Board meeting. Paul Twomey, the former CEO, has come as “a civilian.” The U.S. Commerce Department is out in force, including Larry Strickling. So is the European Commission.
Accountability is the theme here. It seems to have suddenly dawned on people that ICANN is a private corporation capable of taxing and regulating a critical part of the global internet's infrastructure — and yet it has no members, no shareholders, no competition, and no real legal or regulatory oversight. Perhaps it was the Independent Review Panel's .xxx decision, which ICANN's staff and Board insists is “nonbinding.” Or perhaps it was the creation of the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT), which emerged from the new “Affirmation of Commitments” that released ICANN from the direct oversight of the U.S. Commerce Department. The ATRT is already disappointing people, not only for its gradual creeping away from openness, but also because ICANN's President is already making it clear that he is prepared to ignore their conclusions if he doesn't agree with them.
And so a growing chorus of voices from very diverse sources is now raising questions about ICANN's accountability and making proposals about what to do about it. Asked to give one of the usually ceremonial opening speeches, Neelie Kroes, the European Commission Vice President pointedly asked, “Nowadays, how could any organisation with global responsibilities not be accountable to all of us?” Here is a sample of conservatives, liberals, Americans, nonAmericans:
I find this new attention to accountability gratifying. The Internet Governance Project has been hammering away at ICANN's lack of accountability for years. Most recently, we tried to pinpoint what exactly was wrong and came up with this paper. It identifies four basic forms of accountability and shows how ICANN relies exclusively on only one of them (the weakest): the ability to comment or exercise “voice.” Due to that analysis, I never took the Affirmation of Commitments and its ATRT seriously. The ATRT is failing, and must fail, because all it does is add a new form of “voice” to the cacophony of voices already shouting, whispering, cajoling or begging ICANN's Board, which has absolute discretion as to what it does with those advices. Adding more noise to the din (and yet another process to appoint people to make more noises) doesn't make the Board one bit more accountable. As Beckstrom reminded us in his opening speech, “We recognize the right of the Review Team to publicize their views.” Left unstated: there's nothing requiring him to act on them.