If Obama gives away the Internet, can ICANN be trusted?

Peter Roff Contributor

As the NetMundial global meeting on the future of Internet Governance convenes in Brazil today, the fallout stemming from the Obama administration’s announcement it would cede the United States’ remaining control of the Internet to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers beginning in 2015 continues.

Thanks to political pressure coming from Capitol Hill, the administration is now backing off, at least as far as the timing goes. Officials of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the part of the Commerce Department that oversees the Internet, are now careful to say that the 2015 date was simply a target, tied to the every-two-year renewal of ICANN’s contract, which has several more years to run.

That things may have slowed down a bit is a good thing. The NTIA’s push to have ICANN “convene global stakeholders to develop a proposal to transition” the U.S. government out of its current role and “to support and enhance the multi-stakeholder model of Internet policymaking and governance” is raising more questions than are being answered.

One of the most important is under what legal system disputes over future Internet policy will be adjudicated. Currently, because ICANN is a U.S.-government-chartered corporation based in Los Angeles, California and U.S. law has precedence. Should ICANN relocated to another country, say Switzerland, things might be very different – and in a way that harms U.S. political and economic interests.

The idea has been raised repeatedly in the international press. ICANN has established offices around the globe, ostensibly to provide 24-hour “sunlight service” to its customers — but ICANN President Fadi Chehade has been a little unclear about his ultimate goal.

At a recent panel discussion hosted by the Hudson Institute, Chehade denied saying he had any intention of “moving ICANN to Geneva,” claiming he lacked the authority to even change the coffee in the cafeteria” without the approval of his board, which itself cannot “make this decision without community agreement.”

He then downplayed the idea, saying “Do you think our community will agree to move thousands of contracts we have today that are working marvelously in California to another place? Why would we do that? So let’s stop the speculation on this. I have no plans to move ICANN to Geneva. We have an office in Geneva. That’s the end of it.”

Unfortunately, it isn’t – because Chehade has also said things that seem to speak of a different intention on his part.

In February Chehade told a hearing of the French Senate that ICANN’s Geneva office, which had opened the week before he testified, did not have the legal structure it should, “as it is an NGO and ICANN should think about having a more international structure.”

On the French radio program “Place de la toile” in the same month Chehade said he would like to see the creation of “parallel, legal, international structure (maybe in Switzerland) for ICANN,” adding “This is new, this is the first time.”

Apparently this statement was, as they say in the bureaucracy, “inoperative” by the time he got to the Hudson panel two months later. It certainly didn’t seem to apply when Chehade testified under oath before a House Judiciary Subcommittee that he had no plans to take ICANN out of the U.S.

Chehade’s view is that ICANN, having reached an age of maturity, should be allowed to make its own decisions – sort of like teenagers who think they should be able to do whatever they want whenever they want because they think they’re old enough. Anyone who has been a parent knows better, and knows why they know better. No good parent would allow teenagers to exercise greater independence if they suspected they were not being honest about their intentions.

There is certainly an argument for expanding the governance of the Internet to make it more global, more open, and with greater decentralization. This can be accomplished without having the United States give up is remaining authority over the Internet, which it exercises in a most benign way. The term “global stakeholder,” however, is both nebulous and potentially harmful to the stated, ultimate goal of greater access and openness. Too many of the people who are currently members of so-called ICANN communities are where they are because someone in some government some place put them there. Things in the rest of the world operate very differently from how they operate in the United States – something most people fail to realize, even if they know it instinctively, and that is why the Internet needs to remain tied to the United States.

Peter Roff is a former senior political writer for United Press International and commentator providing regular commentary and analysis on the One America News Network and in other forums.