For the past two years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has faced mounting pressure to make itself more accountable to Internet stakeholders. Now a key driver of that pressure is in jeopardy as ICANN seeks to walk away from a critical agreement with the U.S. Government.
Accountability is the Holy Grail of the ICANN process. If there's one thing that the diverse and often disagreeable group of ICANN stakeholders agrees on, it's that the organization must be more accountable to the global Internet community. Indeed, ICANN itself concedes this point and has engaged in a lengthy process to "improve institutional confidence" by — among other things — bolstering its accountability.
But even as it talks about creating new accountability mechanisms, ICANN has been working overtime to end the only real accountability mechanism it has ever known. In September, the Joint Project Agreement (JPA) between ICANN and the U.S. Government is set to expire. With it may go the best chance for ICANN to achieve real, sustainable accountability.
ICANN stakeholders have been clamoring for increased accountability for years, but what really focused those cries into a cohesive effort was the midterm review of the JPA conducted by the U.S. Commerce Department starting in late 2007. When ICANN asserted that it had achieved its accountability goals, Internet stakeholders voiced their ongoing concerns en masse, driving ICANN to reconsider what it had "achieved."
In this sense, the JPA serves two key roles for ICANN. The agreement is, in itself, an accountability mechanism, in that it forces ICANN to account for its progress and face its critics in an open forum. Equally important, the JPA has served as a catalyst for ICANN to build the sustainable, internal accountability mechanisms that will eventually replace it.
But that work is far from complete. While ICANN may have proposed a series of measures for improving accountability and "institutional confidence," it has left no time to determine whether those measures will actually work.
I may be betraying my engineering bias, but as I said at the last ICANN meeting in Sydney: "What's measured gets done. And there are no measures inside of this institutional confidence initiative. We don't know whose confidence it is we're trying to increase. We don't know how we're measuring that confidence. We don't know what the stakes are if that confidence isn't increased. We don't have a time frame by which
that confidence needs to be increased. And yet we all know it's important."
Talking about accountability does not create accountability. Creating new policies may create accountability, but it takes time to know whether those measures are actually working. We can debate the appropriate way to measure ICANN's success, or the appropriate timeframe for doing so, but as of this writing, no such analysis has been contemplated or proposed by ICANN officials.
In this context, the proposed termination of the JPA is extremely troubling. In order to be accountable, ICANN must answer to someone or something other than itself. ICANN maintains that it is accountable to its "community," but members of that community, myself included, have strongly disputed that assertion.
If the JPA ends before a real accountability regime is established, ICANN will be truly accountable to no one. Given the organization's struggles to impose accountability, even under direct pressure, it is difficult to imagine that it will succeed when that pressure evaporates.