Wednesday was ICANN Day on Capitol Hill, with the U.S. House of Representatives holding two separate hearings related to ICANN and the IANA transition.

The afternoon hearing grappled with what role the U.S. Congress should play in the IANA transition and how it can exercise oversight over the NTIA to ensure that the transition succeeds, both from a tactical perspective as well as from a political one. The tone from Congress and witnesses alike was, overall, collaborative and positive – much of the hearing focused on learning the structures within ICANN, the appropriate roles for various stakeholders within the organization, and paths for recourse for unpopular or problematic policies. The morning hearing, with its focus on the controversial .SUCKS gTLD, was unsurprisingly more contentious, and many used it as an opportunity to use the .SUCKS situation to cast doubt over ICANN’s accountability and the decision to transition the IANA contract out of U.S. oversight.

Checking in on the IANA Transition

With just over six months left until the original deadline for the transition of oversight of the IANA functions – critical functions that make it possible to navigate the Internet using domain names, which ICANN administers – now is a logical time for Congress to ask for an update. In fact, these hearings come on the heels of the NTIA sending a letter to the leaders of the IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) asking how much more time is needed for the transition plan to be completed.

First, the Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet convened a hearing titled, “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .SUCKS Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation.” Later in the afternoon, the Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee on Communications and Technology hosted a hearing similarly titled, “Stakeholder Perspectives on the IANA Transition.”

Support of ICANN’s Multistakeholder Model and the IANA Transition

Despite the large number of witnesses (14 across both hearings), there was one thing that everyone who testified agreed on: that the transition of the IANA stewardship to ICANN should go forward. More time is needed, most witnesses concurred, but the transition should happen nonetheless. Witnesses indicated that the organization’s multistakeholder model is preferable to other governance models such as multilateralism (for example, the “one country, one vote” model or organizations like the United Nations).

What Does This Support Mean?

ICANN is not without its flaws. Nearly everyone involved in the IANA transition agrees that ICANN’s accountability mechanisms need to be strengthened before the transition takes place. To illustrate this, developments over the past few weeks indicate that the group dedicated to developing a proposal for the transition will wait for the group that is working on improving ICANN’s accountability to complete its work, even if that means extending beyond the September 30 deadline for the transition. Most stakeholders – including the members of the two Congressional committees that held hearings yesterday – likewise have indicated that it is important to take the time to ensure ICANN’s accountability in order to get this transition right.

If there is a lesson to be learned from these hearings, it is that the transition will, understandably, be messy. Multistakeholderism, for all its benefits, can be messy. True multistakeholderism can involve a lot of delays and false starts, especially when relevant stakeholders do not engage in a process until after it is underway. And multistakeholderism does not always produce perfect results. Regardless of your opinions about .SUCKS, it came out of ICANN’s multistakeholder, bottom-up policy development process – a process that did not restrict a term like “sucks” from becoming a top-level domain and does not set restrictions on the prices registries can charge for domain names.

Multistakeholderism is also very hard work. It requires stakeholders to put the time and effort into staying engaged, following policy discussion, reading background materials and proposals, writing public comments, and the list goes on. And in the case of ICANN and Internet governance, it requires learning a whole new vocabulary of technical terms and acronyms upon acronyms. But even with that in mind, it was clear from yesterday’s hearings that the U.S. government and the private sector are committed to embracing the multistakeholder model of Internet governance, with all of the challenges it presents.

If that is so, it’s important for brands – critical stakeholders in the system – to be aware of what’s going on. As was said multiple times in the hearings, there’s a place for Congress and there’s a place for the private sector in the multistakeholder model, and we can expect that it will continue to be a messy road ahead to figure out just how everyone fits together on each issue.

Josh Bourne
When the IANA Transition Looms Large – Notes from the Hill

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