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06 May 2009
Viviane Redding, the Information Society and Media Commissioner for the EC posted a video blog this week noting that the JPA between ICANN and the US Department of Commerce ends this September. In it she proposes that ICANN be overseen by a "G-12 for Internet Governance" with 12 geographically balanced government representatives from around the world. That's such a non-starter that I'm baffled that she would even propose it.
The key bits of the Internet have always been under the control of the U.S. government, dating back to its origin as the sequel to the military-funded Arpanet, and its growth with the government funded NSFNet and the various regional educational networks. IANA, which among other things keeps track of what is in the root zone, was originally a part time job for Jon Postel which grew out of his Arpanet work, and has since evolved to a separately contracted activity that ICANN does for the US Government. ICANN doesn't charge for operating IANA, partly because they have all that money from the other stuff they do pursuant to their Joint Program Agreement with the US Department of Commerce, but mostly because it's hard to underbid someone who's bidding $0. As I noted in December, the JPA has been extended over and over since it was originally signed in 1998, the government can cancel it at any time, and they've consistently made it clear that they don't think that ICANN is anywhere near mature enough to run itself without supervision, an opinion I fully share.
From the moment that ICANN was invented, people have been complaining about how unfair it is that the US gets to control ICANN. It's true, it's unfair, but that's just how it is, because there is no credible alternative to the current setup. ICANN is deeply corrupt (in the sense that the actual flow of authority bears little resemblance to the nominal structure) and equally deeply incompetent. I see no evidence of meaningful progress on either the corruption front, viz. the recent IRT report which was predictably hijacked by trademark lawyers, nor the competence front, viz, their disastrous speculation with what is supposed to be their reserve fund. The only brake on ICANN is the knowledge that the US DOC is watching. No alternative plan offers adequate supervision, certainly not one that has an informal group of a dozen governments chosen by an unknown process, jostling for influence. The pre-ordained outcome of the current JPA exercise is that ICANN will say they're ready to float free, the DOC will decide otherwise, and they'll get another two-year extension.
Finally, there is an elephant in the room that many people don't acknowledge, which is the root servers that actually provide the DNS service that glues the Internet's names together. There are 13 roots named A through M, of which ICANN operates only L. The other 12 are run by disparate organizations selected primarily by historical accident, with no legal or even moral obligation to ICANN since they've been running the Internet longer than ICANN has. ICANN has carefully avoided asking the roots to do anything they might not want to do, because nobody wants to know what would happen if some or all of them said no. (The F root has a "Mutual Responsibilities Agreement" with ICANN, but it is carefully written to commit each party to nothing beyond talking to each other unless they don't feel like it.)
Three of the roots, E, G, and H, are run by branches of the US military. Roots A and J are run by Verisign, B and D by universities in the US that have significant government research contracts, C by Cogent, a US-based backbone network, and F by the non-profit Internet Systems Consortium in California. The other three are run by two non-profits in Europe and one in Japan. This is a disparate group of organizations, but it should not escape anyone's notice that more than half of them are run by the US government and organizations that aren't going to argue if the government offers advice on their operation. So even in the extremely unlikely event that ICANN broke free of the Department of Commerce, the US government still has their thumb on the roots. The addresses of the root servers are hard-coded into every DNS cache in the world, and they're not going to change, despite loud wishful thinking by a few people who would like you to use their roots rather than the real ones.
So sit back and enjoy the show, but like any show, its ending was set before it started.
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