The core Internet institutions abandon the US Government

Internet Governance Project

In Montevideo, Uruguay this week, the Directors of all the major Internet organizations – ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, the World Wide Web Consortium, the Internet Society, all five of the regional Internet address registries – turned their back on the US government. With striking unanimity, the organizations that actually develop and administer Internet standards and resources initiated a break with 3 decades of U.S. dominance of Internet governance.


A statement released by this group called for “accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.” That part of the statement constituted an explicit rejection of the US Commerce Department’s unilateral oversight of ICANN through the IANA contract. It also indirectly attacks the US unilateral approach to the Affirmation of Commitments, the pact between the US and ICANN which provides for periodic reviews of its activities by the GAC and other members of the ICANN community. (The Affirmation was conceived as an agreement between ICANN and the US exclusively – it would not have been difficult to allow other states to sign on as well.)

Underscoring the global significance and the determination of the group to have a global impact, the Montevideo statement was released in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian and Chinese. In conversations with some of the participants of the Montevideo meeting, it became clear that they were thinking of new forms of multistakeholder oversight as a substitute for US oversight, although no detailed blueprint exists.

But that was only the beginning. A day after the Montevideo declaration, the President and CEO of ICANN, Fadi Chehadi – the man vetted by the US government to lead its keystone Internet governance institution – met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. And at this meeting, Chehade engaged in some audacious private Internet diplomacy. He asked “the president [of Brazil] to elevate her leadership to a new level, to ensure that we can all get together around a new model of governance in which all are equal.” A press release from the Brazilian government said that President Rousseff wanted the event to be held in April 2014 in Rio de Janeiro. The President of ICANN thus not only allied himself with a political figure who has been intensely critical of the US government and the NSA spying program, he conspired with her to convene a global meeting to begin forging a new system of Internet governance that would move beyond the old world of US hegemony.

Make no mistake about it: this is important. It is the latest, and one of the most significant manifestations of the fallout from the Snowden revelations about NSA spying on the global Internet. It’s one thing when the government of Brazil, a longtime antagonist regarding the US role in Internet governance, gets indignant and makes threats because of the revelations. And of course, the gloating of representatives of the International Telecommunication Union could be expected. But this is different. Brazil’s state is now allied with the spokespersons for all of the organically evolved Internet institutions, the representatives of the very “multi-stakeholder model” the US purports to defend. You know you’ve made a big mistake, a life-changing mistake, when even your own children abandon you en masse.

Here at the Internet Governance Project we take only a grim satisfaction in this latest turn of events. We have been urging the USG to end its privileged role and complete the privatization of the DNS management for nearly ten years. The proper substitute for unilateral Commerce Department oversight, we argued, was not multilateral “political oversight” but an international agreement articulating clear rules regarding what ICANN can and cannot do, an agreement that explicitly protects freedom of expression and other individual rights and liberal Internet governance principles. We have heard every argument imaginable about why this did not have to happen: no one really cared about the governance of the DNS root; there was no better alternative; the rest of the world secretly wanted the US to do this; etc., etc. A combination of arrogance, complacency and domestic political pressure prevented any action.

Had that advice been heeded, had the US sought to divest itself of its unilateral oversight on its own initiative, it could have exercised some control over the transition and advanced its cherished values of freedom and democracy. It could have ensured, for example, that an independent ICANN was subject to clear limits on its authority and to new forms of accountability, which it badly needs. Now the U.S. has lost the initiative, irretrievably. The future evolution of Internet name and number governance, at the very least, is no longer up to them.

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