One of the highlights of the GigaNet event in Washington
yesterday was U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Lawrence Strickling’s speech.
There were, by the way, other extremely interesting panels and discussions
about which I will blog later, notably on IP addresses, U.S. privacy policy and
the role of the Internet in the Arab spring.

Strickling’s comments were forthright, as usual, and clearly
indicated the direction of U.S. policy on issues such as the IGF, ICANN and the
IANA contract. They did not always advance convincing reasons for that
direction, however. In his comments regarding ICANN, some observers
compared his speech to a “game of chicken” the US is playing with ICANN in order to
maximize its leverage over the new gTLD policy process.
However, it is also true that the end of the Joint Projects Agreement in 2009 means that the USG is freer to
make open and public its criticisms with ICANN. In other words, now
that the USG is more or less “just another government” in GAC, it is to be
expected that it make its criticisms known. What needs to be avoided, however,
is linking those comments to threats involving the IANA contract, where the US
is definitely not just another government.

Some of the most important and interesting comments related
to the IANA functions contract. On the unbundling of the IANA functions,
Secretary Strickling noted that those who could execute the unbundled functions
did not register any support for taking on those activities. This is true, but it
does not necessarily mean that unbundling isn’t the best policy for the future
of the Internet. NTIA will issue a second Notice of Inquiry in which this issue
can be pursued. Strickling dismissed the Internet Society’s push to have a cooperative
agreement replace the IANA contract. NTIA does not have the legal authority to do
that, he said. Most startling, Strickling said that the Commerce Department is
“seriously considering” the idea of using the IANA contract to make ICANN more
accountable. Some interpreted this as a threat, part of the aforementioned game
of chicken. Among business and trademark interests, the meaning of
the term “ICANN accountability” has been degraded into a code word for “ICANN’s
policy process didn’t give us what we want and it must be beaten with a stick until it does.” Strickling indicated that he
was following up on a suggestion made at the comically unbalanced Congressional
hearings held the day before. It is therefore difficult to tell whether this is
a serious suggestion or part of the posturing game as the US tries to influence
the final stages of ICANN’s new top level domain process.

And Strickling did make clear his view that he is pressuring
ICANN to make sure the “GAC is satisfied” before it executes its new TLD
program Although he stopped just a bit short of saying that the program should
not be finalized in the June Singapore meeting, he lent USG support to the
increasingly disturbing tendency of governments to consider their “advice” to
be “instructions” and to question the viability of the multi-stakeholder (MS)
governance model if those instructions are not followed. The exact same
attitude has been revealed by the leaked European Commission letter to the USG 
the idea seems to be that if governmental instructions are not followed it is
“detrimental” to the MS model.  But in
fact, MS means that the different stakeholder groups have to compromise with
each other. Governments have no special status.

As noted in an earlier blog, Strickling is at pains to voice
US support for MS. But he correctly states that the newness of this governance
model means that we have to pay close attention to the performance of MS
institutions. The IGF, he claimed, is the very embodiment of MS principle, and
the U.S. is pleased that it has been renewed. Surprisingly, however, Strickling
stated unambiguously that the U.S. wants to discontinue the Working Group on
IGF Improvements
. The reason, he said, is that the Group “will advocate for
fundamental changes to IGF, and depart from the existing model, which has been
successful.” Here I believe that Strickling is referring to proposals developed
in that Working Group
by the government of India, with some support within civil society
and its WG members, which would give the IGF a stronger institutional capacity.
The Indian proposal, for example, would push the IGF in the direction of
creating bottom up working groups and allow the IGF to make recommendations.
But it is not just governmental and civil society “hawks” who would like the
continue the WG. Later on at the GigaNet event, Marilyn Cade, one of the
leading representatives of U.S. business interests in IGF and ICANN, who is on
the WG, voice support for its continuation. Cade is no IGF hawk but, unlike the
Commerce Department, she seems to be willing to tweak the model to made the
changes needed to make the IGF more relevant.