Reflecting on ICANN 56

By Gangesh Varma**

The ‘control-of-the-Internet’ rhetoric never lost its appeal. The domestic politics in United States, particularly the opposition from Republican Senators, is not a new obstacle to the IANA Transition. The Republican Party Platform for 2016 captures the key policy positions of the Republican Party for the Presidential elections and includes a section on “Protecting Internet Freedom”. It has been suggested that the individual efforts of some Senators has now been consolidated into an official party position. The Congress had earlier succeeded in blocking the NTIA from using any funds for executing the transition. Some fear that this delay tactic may arise as an issue in the form of a rider in a bill around this September when the NTIA’s contract with ICANN is set to expire. Waiting for the consequences of these blocking efforts to unravel provides an opportune moment to reflect on the 56th Public Meeting of ICANN, held in Helsinki, Finland from 27-30 June, 2016.

ICANN 56 was a meeting of many firsts: it was the first B-meeting format as per the new ICANN Meeting Strategy. It was also the first meeting after the NTIA approved and endorsed the IANA Transition Proposal and happens to be the first meeting since Göran Marby officially took over as CEO. As per the B-Meeting format, ICANN 56 was a policy forum. This meant that the meeting would focus purely on policy development and outreach. Stripping down the ICANN meeting to a much leaner format without the public forums, public board meetings, or exhibition areas provided a short but intense four days focussed on policy discussions. At the heart of the meeting were the three active Policy Development Processes (PDPs):

New gTLD Subsequent Procedures PDP

The New gTLD Subsequent Procedures PDP looks at the experiences of the New gTLD Program so far, and is tasked with making recommendations for changes and improvements, if any. During ICANN 56, the Working Group provided a recap of the discussions so far, and also engaged with the GAC in a session detailing the work pending and done so far. The Cross community session also saw interesting debates on multiple themes including use of country and territory names, geographic names, and public interest commitments. The PDP has been organized into four key work tracks. More details on this PDP can be found here.

The Next Generation Registration Directory Services (RDS) PDP

The Next Generation RDS PDP looks at the new service that is to replace the WHOIS, which provides the registration data of domain name registrants. At ICANN 56, this PDP was the site of extensive debates on privacy. Some argued for the need for more information from a domain name registrant, and more data on the directory service. Others argued the opposite and sought for collection of lesser information, and greater protection for a registrant’s privacy. The concerns of various stakeholders ranged from the need for reliable information for law enforcement to the protection of whistle-blowers. More details on this PDP are available here.

Rights Protection Mechanisms PDP

The Rights Protection Mechanism PDP is a large over-arching PDP that covers all rights protection mechanisms in all gTLDs. This PDP is split into two phases. Currently in its first phase, the working group is reviewing all the rights protection mechanisms developed for the New gTLD program. The second phase will review the Uniform Dispute Resolution Process. During ICANN 56, the working group discussions looked at community feedback on some of the RPMs to be reviewed in phase one, such as the Trademark Clearinghouse etc. More details on this PDP are available here.

IANA Transition related sessions

While the PDPs received significant amount of attention, some interesting sessions such as those on updates regarding implementation phase of the IANA Transition, never made it to the official schedule.  The sessions relating to the IANA Transition were rather muted in comparison to ICANN 55 at Marrakech. This could be because of two things. First, the transition proposal has already been approved, and endorsed by the NTIA. Whereas, at ICANN 55 the proposal was still being debated, and awaited the endorsement of the chartering organizations. Second, after the NTIA has approved the proposal, and asked ICANN to provide an update on the status of implementation by August 10, 2016. This implies that the ball is now in ICANN’s court to simply carry out the plan. Except that this illusion of the transition moving ahead without hurdles falls apart with the Republican efforts and possible requirement of approval from the US Congress.

The GAC, on the other hand, had a colourful discussion on its role in the post transition Empowered Community. The session saw reignited debates on the role of governments and had countries reinterpreting the ICANN 55 Communique. The ICANN 56 GAC Communique held no surprises nor was it as eagerly anticipated as the ICANN 55 GAC Communique. Members of the GAC also expressed the need for more time and formal work sessions particularly the need for more time to draft the communique.

Outside the Official Schedule

While the new meeting format can be appreciated for it unflinching focus on policy development, its ability to encourage all avenues of policy discussion is limited. For example, the Cross Community Working Party on Human Rights was not allotted a formal working session. It however had a joint session with the GAC Working Group on Human Rights and International Law where it discussed the progress of work so far, in addition to plans for future work.

Joining others that did not feature in the official schedule, the CCWG on Internet Governance had a session with ICANN Board Working Group on Internet Governance and ICANN CEO. This session discussed the role of ICANN in the larger internet governance ecosystem. With the formation of the Board Working Group on Internet Governance led by Markus Kummer, it is imperative that the CCWG on Internet Governance introspects its scope and function. With the bottom-up policy mantra that ICANN and its CEO ardently espoused, it is essential that ICANN’s role in the larger internet governance arena be developed with inputs from all stakeholders in the ICANN community. This is something the CCWG on IG can and should facilitate.

In some ways, ICANN 56 reflected the transformation ICANN is undergoing. Stakeholders were required to imagine their new roles and responsibilities in the post transition ICANN yet remain grounded in its current structure and policy making framework. ICANN is going about its work quietly, maintaining what some might call a low profile, until the domestic US political disturbances are settled. While the transition is yet to happen, the pre-requisite implementation work is almost complete. The impact of the IANA transition, if it does happen, will not only be felt within ICANN and its community, but will be a testament to multistakeholder processes and institutions in the internet governance ecosystem.

**The author is grateful for having been provided the Non-Commercial User Constituency (NCUC) Travel Support Funding for attending ICANN 56.

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