ICANN Faces First Big Test of Independence

September 22, 2017

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Almost one year ago, the U.S. government transferred management of key technical functions of the Internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)—a nonprofit organization intended to represent the interests of the global Internet community. After a chorus of voices raised questions about the viability of ICANN to independently manage such an important function without U.S. oversight, the organization agreed to make significant internal reforms to increase both the transparency and accountability of its decision making. The Internet community is now putting these reforms to the test, as the ICANN board is scheduled to make a ruling this Saturday on a long-standing proposal that has been fully vetted by ICANN’s multi-stakeholder process, but has yet to receive approval from ICANN’s senior leadership.

To the average Internet user, nothing appeared to change with the transfer of power to ICANN, but this event represented one of the most important milestones in the history of the Internet because it formalized a new system of multi-stakeholder governance that will shape the Internet’s future. At its core, this system of governance depends on a diverse group of stakeholders, including industry, civil society, academics, and government actively participating in making a consensus decision and trusting that the group’s decision will be respected. If someone overrules the group, it delegitimizes the entire process and undermines the legitimacy of the organization. One of the main concerns that prompted ICANN’s internal reforms was that it would not remain accountable to the global Internet community after it gained independence, and would instead be co-opted by special interests or foreign governments.

This tension between accountability to the Internet community versus subservience to foreign governments is playing out right now. In 2012, ICANN launched a program to expand the number of generic top-level domains (gTLDs)—i.e., the string of text that follows a domain name, such as .COM or .ORG—and since its launch, ICANN has approved more than 1,200 new gTLDs, such as .SHOP or .LOAN. As part of this process, the global e-commerce company Amazon applied for the .AMAZON gTLD, but ICANN blocked its application after a group of Latin American countries objected to the use of the name.

It is important to note that ICANN had developed extensive criteria for evaluating applications, and Amazon met all of them. Indeed, ICANN gave Amazon’s initial application the highest possible score and found that it did not run afoul of the geographic name restrictions. Moreover, Amazon has worked to address potential concerns over the use of this gTLD. The company voluntarily made a number of binding commitments, including a limit on registration of culturally sensitive terms and support future gTLDs that represent the geographic terms of the regions, such as .AMAZONIA. Despite these concessions, the governments in question would only accept a full withdrawal of the company’s application.

Governments are an important stakeholder in the Internet community, and they can and should have the right to protect their interests. However, they must also operate within the same rules and procedures that govern other stakeholders, and ICANN cannot be beholden to their interests alone. In this case, ICANN appears to have capitulated to the demands of these governments and ignored its own rules. Indeed, after Amazon challenged the decision, an independent review panel found that ICANN “failed to exercise the requisite degree of independent judgment in making its decision” and “violated the basic procedural fairness requirements.”

Following the ruling from the independent review panel, the ICANN board is now set to re-evaluate Amazon’s application for the .AMAZON domain. This will be the first major test of whether ICANN’s reforms have succeeded and created an institution that is capable of following the consensus of the global Internet community. We should all hope good governance prevails.