Internet Governance Battle Heats Up as Governments Demand Greater Powers

Monday March 14, 2011
Appeared in the Toronto Star on March 13, 2011 as Governments' ominous thirst to control the web

A simmering battle over governance of the Internet is set to take centre stage in California this week as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California-based non-profit corporation charged with the principal responsibility for maintaining the Internet's domain name system, holds one of its regular meetings in Silicon Valley.

Since its creation in 1998, ICANN has faced a wide range of critics - Internet users frustrated at the lack of accountability, business groups concerned that the policy making process is too slow and uncertain, and governments wondering why matters related to the Internet are vested in a private organization and not an entity such as the United Nations.

Yet this week ICANN faces one of its greatest challenges to its independence.  Ironically, it comes directly from the government that created it - the United States.

The source of the dispute arises from the longstanding efforts to establish new top-level domains. In the 1980s, seven generic top-level domains, including dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org, were established.  Those domains remain among the most popular on the Internet, with millions of registrations worldwide.

The introduction of new generic top-level domains has been one of ICANN's thorniest policy issues, with the governance body approving seven new domains, including dot-biz and dot-info, in 2000.

Interest in the creation of yet additional domain name extensions remains high as the domain name registry business presents a lucrative opportunity to collect annual registration fees for potentially millions of new domain names.  Domain name registrars support additional domains as they provide new products to market to the Internet community.

After years of debate and stakeholder consultation, ICANN has finally developed a policy designed to allow for hundreds of new domain name extensions such as dot-bank, dot-car, dot-love, dot-movie, dot-web, and dot-gay.

Earlier this year, governments began to voice their concerns with the ICANN policy, using the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), an advisory body consisting of over 100 governments within ICANN, to identify dozens of demands for policy changes.  In fact, the U.S. raised the possibility of an absolute veto power for governments over ICANN policies.  

The move shocked the Internet governance world, as many noted that the veto power could extend to any country, since countries uncomfortable with dot-gay or dot-humanrights could simply exercise their veto power.

Last month, the ICANN board met with the GAC in an effort to clarify areas of disagreement. The outcome confirms a wide gap between the policy process developed by the Internet community and national governments. The governments are seeking new rules for intellectual property protection that include the removal of due process on disputes and “more intensive” vetting for domains involving regulated industries such as banking or law.

While the Internet governance battle has received little attention in Canada, there is an important Canadian connection. Heather Dryden, an official at Industry Canada, is the GAC chair and therefore the lead representative on the issue.

Canadian leadership on greater governmental power over Internet governance is a stark reversal in position. In 2008, the Canadian government published its views on the role of the GAC, emphasizing its advisory position and concluding that "the GAC should not be viewed as a decision-making body, nor should it be expected to routinely provide a consensus view on issues, or 'official' government 'positions' or 'directions'."  

The recent events are a reminder that a stakeholder-driven process giving all interests a voice - Internet users, domain name registrars and registries, Internet companies, and governments - remains a work-in-progress with the possibility of government takeover still looming in the background.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can reached at mgeist@uottawa.ca or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.