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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Let's Not Fuck Up a Good Thing

I love the title of this Ars Technica article: EU admits ICANN setup has worked well, wants change anyway.

On Thursday, the European Commission released a strategic document in which it called for some significant changes to the way that the Internet's name assignment system operates. Currently, the system is managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private, nonprofit corporation. The EU doesn't seem to have a specific beef with how ICANN operates, but it's been consistently unhappy about the fact that ICANN answers only to the US government and is incorporated under California law. With ICANN's current charter coming to an end this September, the EU is starting a campaign to give it a more international flavor.

The document makes it clear that the EU is very much in favor the general structure that was used to set up ICANN: a private-sector entity handling the general operations, with governmental oversight of its decisions. In fact, the document is notable for the absence of any specific criticisms of any actions taken by ICANN during the past decade. A section entitled "How has ICANN performed in its first ten years?" is largely complementary, with the only real complaint being that it has no mechanism for binding oversight by the international community—in essence, the EU is admitting that the setup has worked well without its input.

I find it rather amazing that the US government has managed to stay "hands off" with respect to ICANN. There's a lot of power there to punish countries and organizations that the US considers hostile, but no evidence (I'm aware of) it has pushed to do so. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut before some congressman gets an idea.

So why in the world would we want to give even more countries a chance to screw with things? We -- the Internet community -- have lucked out that ICANN has remained benevolent. Everyone knows what happens when you throw more cooks into a kitchen, and this quote already has me worrying about what the EU visions ICANN should do:

"The EU also believes that future internet governance arrangements should comply with key principles, in particular, the respect for human rights and freedom of expression as well as the need to preserve stability and security of the Internet."

I don't know about the EU, but for a cautious tale we only have to look a little north. What the Canadian Human Rights Commussion thinks is free speech is downright scary. Just remember that the US has a very broad view of what constitutes freedom of expression, that the Internet currently reflects this, and that many countries don't share our view.

I'm all for discussing alternatives to ICANN because we shouldn't assume it will always remain benign. But let's not change anything until problems occur.

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