from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

What’s Next for ICANN in the Absence of U.S. Oversight? An Interview With Kal Raustiala

February 16, 2017

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The United States relinquished its stewardship role over the internet last year, to the celebration of some and the consternation of others. Kal Raustiala, author of "An Internet Whole and Free" in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs, answers my questions on the future of the multistakeholder model and the role of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). 

Q: One central criticism of the multistakeholder model is that it isn’t representative enough in that it is dominated by U.S. and Western interests at the expense of emerging economies, who make up the fastest growing share of the internet population. How do you respond?

There is no question there are inequities in participation, and they are often driven by resources and capacity. The world is a very unequal place, and I think we would be shocked if that inequality wasn’t replicated—to some degree—in global governance. That said, it is important to note this is not unique to internet governance. And in fact I think ICANN does a better than average job addressing it. In part ICANN has substantial revenues that permit it to offer assistance to some participants from poorer nations. But I also think ICANN takes the multistakeholder model seriously and tries to be open and inclusive to all. Of course it doesn’t always work. Remember too that internet governance is not only about users. It is also about hardware, software, and technologies in general, and of course those are heavily skewed toward Western nations. In fact, I’d say California probably dominates more than almost any other place. But of course this too isn’t surprising: California more or less invented the internet and is the home of many of the most important global tech firms.

Q:Now that the U.S. government has ceded its oversight role, isn’t there a fear that some countries still unhappy with perceived U.S. control over the internet will push for more, like moving ICANN out of California?

That is definitely an issue that some have raised, and I imagine that President Trump and his policies on many issues have only fueled that fire. If it happens, Ted Cruz will surely say I told you so. Still, I think it is unlikely. ICANN already has a presence in a number of other jurisdictions, such as Singapore and Geneva. That allows it to have a more global footprint. It could, I suppose, shift more and more activity to those locations, or to new ones. But I think in the end it won’t. ICANN is also incorporated as a California non-profit, which would make a move hard, but not impossible.

Q: Governments can advise ICANN through the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), though some countries, including in Europe, Latin America and Asia, have criticized it for being ineffectual given that ICANN can reject its advice. Does this pose a risk to the viability of ICANN?

I think it essential to ICANN’s multistakeholder model that no one sector dominates. So it is a feature, not a bug, that the GAC is not in control. The ICANN board is in control, and the aspiration—and largely the reality—is that the board is somewhat reflective of the full internet community universe. It is of course possible that this very feature will drive governments to seek a new mode of governing the internet in which they are in charge. In my article I argued that concern drove a fair bit of the decision making by the U.S. government. But practically, I think that is hard to achieve. As I understand the technology it could happen, but it would require a lot of coordination and a lot of complex politics to occur. And probably the internet would end up fractured rather than whole.

Q: Do you think that China’s concept of cyber sovereignty is incompatible with the multistakeholder model? What are the implications?

China wants to treat the internet as another resource that states control. The appeal of the rhetoric of cyber sovereignty is that it sounds sensible to so many people: why wouldn’t we want sovereignty over cyberspace? But of course in practice we know how that works already in China, and it is not good. And it is not compatible with the multistakeholder model because that model expressly treats the state as just one of many important actors on the stage. It is not the defining actor or the final decision maker. For China, which isn’t a fan of private actor input in almost any decision making, the ICANN model is a problem.

Q: The IANA transition is irreversible. However, given that President Trump, as a candidate criticized the transition, how do you think that will change the United States’ relationship with ICANN and the world on these issues over the course of his presidency?

I think President Trump’s views on ICANN per se are probably less of a problem than his views on nearly everything else. The idea of a quasi-international organization based in the United States seems slightly nutty to a lot of people today—and I don’t just mean those on the right who want to see the United Nations kicked out of New York. But at the end of the day I doubt ICANN will change much or that Trump will try to change it much. But given that nearly every prediction I had about Trump has been proven wrong, I hesitate to say that with much certainly.

Q: How probable is it that another jolt, like the Snowden revelations, could upend the current model and build momentum for a multilateral solution?

In my article I argued that Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) cast U.S. tech firms in a bad light—as well as the U.S. government itself. That pushed the multilateral effort forward, and that in turn encouraged the Obama administration to move faster on the transition. More of that kind of thing may just strengthen the general commitment to multistakeholderism. And I guess at this point I would be surprised if anything surprised anyone about the NSA. We know it is extremely powerful and skilled and that nearly any form of communication is at risk. I can’t be sure there isn’t more that may shock, but the cat is out of the bag at this point.

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