Obama admin calls for more ICANN accountability

Commerce Department wants ICANN to be reformed from within and not replaced, saying "the United States is most assuredly opposed" to a United Nations Internet takeover.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read

The Obama administration today called for improvements in the mechanisms used to oversee Internet domain names, saying changes are needed to make the process more "accountable" and "transparent."

Larry Strickling, a Commerce Department assistant secretary, said that the California nonprofit group created in 1998 to oversee these functions--the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN--"needs" to do more to explain the reasoning for its decisions and to heed the advice of national governments.

"We still have work to do to make the reality of ICANN meet the vision," said Strickling, who heads the department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In some areas, he said ICANN's efforts "remain incomplete."

NTIA chief Larry Strickling calls on ICANN to be more open, accountable
NTIA chief Larry Strickling calls on ICANN to be more open, accountable. ICANN

Strickling's comments follow a rare and unprecedented public rift between ICANN and national governments over the rules for approving new top-level domain names. Hundreds of applications for these suffixes are expected later this year, once the process has been finalized, including bids for .car, .love, .movie, .web, and .wine. (See CNET's Q&A with the backers of .gay.)

During a public meeting of ICANN's board this week in San Francisco, tomorrow and Thursday have been set aside for what's being called a "consultation" with national governments. A statement from earlier this month listed 23 points of disagreement, including how much influence nations will enjoy when objecting to proposed suffixes, and how much power trademark holders will have to monitor new domain names registered under those suffixes. ICANN has rejected both proposals, saying that the former will lead to "ad hoc changes to the evaluation process based on subjective assessments."

This process, Strickling said, is not working very well. One question, he said, is "whether governments collectively can operate within the paradigm of (ICANN's) multi-stakeholder environment and be satisfied that their interests are being addressed."

He said ICANN had not responded appropriately to an April 2010 accountability review. The question, he said, is "whether the ICANN board and management have the discipline and willpower to embrace and implement these recommendations in a serious and meaningful way now." He added: "ICANN needs to do more to engage governments."

Lending the Obama administration additional bargaining power over iCANN is a public notice (PDF) that NTIA recently released. The notice asks for questions about whether the contract to oversee Internet addresses--currently held by ICANN and expiring on September 30, 2011--should be revisited. Comments are due at the end of this month.

On the other hand, Strickling pointedly refused to go as far as some of ICANN's more vocal critics and stressed that the organization should be reformed from within rather than be replaced. "The United States is most assuredly opposed to establishing a governance structure for the Internet that would be managed and controlled by nation-states," he said, a point that NTIA echoed via Twitter.

That's a reference to a push by some governments to divest ICANN of domain name authority and hand it to a United Nations agency such as the International Telecommunication Union.

Last year, China and its allies objected to the fact that "unilateral control of critical Internet resources" had been given to ICANN, suggesting instead that the U.N. would be a better fit. According to a transcript (PDF) of a meeting in Brussels a few weeks ago, Kenya's representative threatened that, without some changes, developing countries "will take another direction--and I can tell you they will just go to the ITU."

Representatives of national governments on ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee, or GAC, rejected a proposal from the United States that would have given them a veto over new top-level domains. But they are nevertheless seeking more influence over the process, saying that "additional scrutiny and conditions should apply" to suffixes such as .bank, and that the possibility of future "market power" should be taken into account. They also want the ability to object to proposed suffixes without paying.

The theme of prodding ICANN to be more open and responsive was picked up by two other speakers during today's San Francisco meeting: Ira Magaziner, the Clinton White House aide who was deeply involved in the group's birth, and Vint Cerf, the computer scientist who was once ICANN's board and is now a vice president at Google.

ICANN should "strive to increase the transparency of and to explain the rationale for policy decisions arising out of any board deliberations," Cerf said. "I think that process could be refined substantially."

Magaziner's recommendations for ICANN included focusing, in a frugal and humble way, on a "technical mission." ICANN's board and staff, he said, "must avoid trying to build an empire." (That could be a reference to ICANN's annual revenues, which topped (PDF) $65 million for the 2010 fiscal year, or to the fact that its president receives approximately $1 million a year in compensation.)

For his part, ICANN President Rod Beckstrom said the board is preparing to enter into this week's negotiations with national governments in a "collegial spirit of engagement."

"We intend to fulfill and, wherever possible, exceed our obligations under the affirmation of commitments--subject to receiving appropriate resources," Beckstrom said.