New ICANN agreement runs into criticism

Critics say a new agreement doesn't provide enough accountability for ICANN

A new agreement between the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the U.S. Department of Commerce that creates international oversight of the nonprofit operator of the Internet's domain name system may not provide enough accountability, some critics said.

The agreement, announced Wednesday, seemed to enjoy widespread support, but some critics questioned how new review teams overseeing ICANN would be independent and whether the new agreement represented average Internet users. ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) announced the new agreement on the day an 11-year series of agreements expired. Under those agreements, the U.S. government provided primary oversight of ICANN.

One of the main changes in the new agreement, called an Affirmation of Commitments, is the creation of new review panels, which would check ICANN's compliance with the agreement every three years. Volunteers would serve on those review teams, as would independent experts and representatives of the ICANN board of directors and the DOC.

The problem is that ICANN's chairman or CEO and the chairman of ICANN's Governmental Affairs Committee (GAC), selected by all the nations involved with ICANN, would have the final say on the makeup of those review teams, said Brenden Kuerbis, operations director the Internet Governance Project, a group of academics focusing on Internet governance issues.

"The review panels are not external to ICANN," Kuerbis said Thursday at an ICANN forum hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus. "They're selected by the very people responsible for what ICANN does. They're likely to produce the politics that already exist within ICANN."

ICANN has a long history of disagreement among stakeholder groups and calls by other nations for the U.S. to give up its oversight role.

ICANN's major problem isn't a lack of oversight, it's a lack of clearly defined rules for the organization and standards to measure performance, Kuerbis added. "If these rules don't exist -- and they still don't -- the review panels ... can just become another layer of politics and second-guessing, superimposed on what is already a messy and pretty diffuse process," he said.

However, ICANN Vice President Paul Levins disagreed that the review teams will be made up of ICANN allies. There will be public comment on membership of the review teams, and ICANN's board and CEO don't control GAC, he said. "It's going to be extremely hard [for ICANN] to game the process," he said.

Another criticism of the new agreement is that it was negotiated between ICANN and DOC in secret, even as the agreement calls on ICANN to be accountable and transparent to the public and to use a bottom-up decision-making process.

"Whatever deliberation occurred prior to the approval of this 'affirmation of commitments' was entirely secret -- except for those favorite friends ICANN chose to invite into the smoke-filled room, or to whom the deliberations or decisions were leaked," Edward Hasbrouck, a travel blogger and ICANN critic wrote on ICANNwatch.org, an ICANN watchdog site.

"In fact, the completely secret, nontransparent and unaccountable way in which these 'commitments' were adopted is clear and compelling evidence of ICANN's continuing 'lack' of any actual commitment to these principles, or indeed to any transparency or accountability; its continuing commitment to lie -- as loudly and as prominently as it can -- about its lack of accountability and transparency; and the continuing need for 'real' transparency and accountability," the blog post continued.

But other ICANN watchers offered support for the new agreement. It's clear that ICANN received input from outside groups, and the agreement addressed major concerns about U.S. control over ICANN, said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, an e-commerce trade group and frequent ICANN critic. The new agreement gives the U.S. government a continued role in ICANN oversight, but it spreads out the oversight to other governments and the private sector, he said.

"ICANN's independence day will be known as Sept. 30, 2009," DelBianco said. "[The agreement] is very clever in the way it balances some of those forces that were speaking out."

GAC, which has complained of not having enough oversight of ICANN, will now have more control, he said. "The way we relieved the pressure [on ICANN] was to give governments more say," he said.

Other supporters of the new agreement included registrar Go Daddy, the Software and Information Industry Association, and U.S. Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

"This agreement is a perfect example of how a public-private partnership can work to the advantage of all stakeholders," Waxman said in a statement. "It will help insure that the Internet remains stable and secure for the people around the world who use it for work, study, entertainment, or to stay in touch with family and friends."

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