Photo: Flickr, "Opportunity Knocks" by The Shifted Librarian
On Friday, September 30, 2016 - at the stroke of midnight - the IANA functions contract between the US government and ICANN ended quietly. This marked the end of an era, full of political struggles concerning the role of the US government over the Domain Name System (DNS). It also marked the beginning of a new one, full of opportunities and hope.
The termination of oversight over the IANA functions is more symbolic than anything. On October 1st, the US government did not turn off any Internet switch nor did it pass the keys of the Internet to ICANN. The US government was never holding such power to begin with. In a nutshell, what took place with the decision of the NTIA to allow the IANA contract to expire was the validation of the multistakeholder model of Internet governance.
Historically, the multistakeholder model – the collaborative approach to dealing with Internet (policy and technical) issues – has not had an easy ride. Its efficiency and legitimacy to provide tangible and implementable policy recommendations has been questioned and it has often been characterized as an unworkable approach. Ever since it emerged during the second phase of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in 2005, multi stakeholder governance has been criticized for its lack of focus and for failing to identify the roles and responsibilities of its participating actors, especially governments. But, multistakeholderism has persisted and it seems that it now has scored its first big win.
But, let’s be fair, multistakeholderism is a very awkward term. It is an invention that not everyone can easily relate to; it is so open-ended that it has been taken to mean a bunch of different things to a bunch of different people and institutions. But, if we forget the term for a minute, this invention is what has allowed non-state actors to be active participants in discussions that directly affect them. It has allowed collaboration to be front and center in preserving the Internet, addressing its challenges and finally being able to ensure its constant growth. Multistakeholderism is about collaboration and this is how we should view it.
It is this collaborative model that has allowed us to address the various challenges over the past years, including the IANA transition. And, it is this collaboration that must carry us in the future. The successful transition of the IANA functions provides us with a solid framework to do so.
So, where should we see its impact?
The immediate impact should be seen in the debate over "enhanced cooperation", which was originally part of a compromise on the future of the Internet at the WSIS in 2005. At the time, agreement could not be reached over the governance of critical Internet resources, including the DNS. Enhanced cooperation was seen as the focal point where stakeholders would collaborate towards a more participatory governance structure. And, for years now, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) has been trapped in a never-ending argument that consistently seemed to circle back to the unresolved issue of the US government’s role over the DNS. With IANA out of the way, this argument is no longer persistent. This provides the CSTD and its participating actors with a unique opportunity to advance their thinking. The CSTD working group has the opportunity to find a new identity and make a whole new contribution to Internet governance. Rejuvenating the discussions at the CSTD level could help rejuvenate the discussions also in other fora, UN and non-UN.
More fundamentally, however, the impact of the IANA experience should be be visible in the years to come and as we seek to find solutions to complex questions. One of the key takeaways of this this two-year plus process is the tools that we now have at our disposal -- tools that were always there but right now should be visible to all of us.
These are some of the obvious impressions the IANA transition process has to offer; of course, there are more. In moving forward, we should celebrate this important milestone the community has reached. But, we should also cease this opportunity to continue building a governance framework that allows people to come together and collaborate for a more inclusive Internet.