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ICANN CEO: Why The Internet's Future Is At Risk

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé spoke with InformationWeek about how the Internet can continue without US government oversight.

Thomas Claburn

October 5, 2015

7 Min Read
<p align="left">Fadi Chehad&eacute;, ICANN's CEO</p>

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ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names, hopes to convince the US government that it can oversee the Internet's technical infrastructure on its own.

The non-profit corporation has been doing so since 1998, but in conjunction with the US Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). Under contract with ICANN, NTIA runs the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which coordinates changes to the Domain Name System's (DNS) root zone file and IP address allocation, among other things.

In theory, the US government, through IANA, could cripple portions of the Internet using only a keyboard to advance its interests or to achieve some political goal. Though it has not done so, the possibility has long vexed other countries.

As far back as 1998, the US government said it wanted to shift its Internet responsibilities to the private sector, but until recently, it hasn't been highly motivated to do so. Since 2013, international resentment arising from Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of US surveillance has helped US officials recognize that change is necessary to keep everyone committed to a single Internet.

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In April 2014, NTIA announced its intention to shift its IANA responsibilities to the Internet's multistakeholder community. And the agency directed ICANN to come up with a proposal outlining how the transition will be carried out.

In effect, the US government no longer wants to be associated with the management of the Internet. At the same time, it wants to ensure that its withdrawal doesn't create instability. Simutaneously, the planned handover faces resistance from some lawmakers who believe the Internet should remain under US control. A week ago, Republican lawmakers sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office asking whether the transfer of IANA's functions should be subject to a Congressional vote.

ICANN has delivered part of its two-part proposal outlining how the organization will function in the absence of Uncle Sam. It's still working on the portion that lays out how ICANN will be accountable to the international community. The corporation has until September 2016 to complete its proposal.

Figure 1: Fadi Chehadé, ICANN's CEO
(Image: ICANN)

Fadi Chehadé, ICANN's CEO

(Image: ICANN)

Last week, Fadi Chehadé, ICANN's CEO, visited Silicon Valley business leaders to remind them that they need to be involved in the transition. In a phone interview with InformationWeek, Chehadé said the purpose of his trip was "to make sure that business leaders in the Valley are crystal clear on the importance of the transition to keep the Internet logical infrastructure, which is the responsibility of ICANN, to keep that logical infrastructure for the world."

A Network Of Networks

The Internet's logical layer, or infrastructure layer, said Chehadé, is a network of networks.

"There are 70,000-odd of them -- mobile networks, satellite networks, fixed networks -- all the networks that make up the Internet," explained Chehadé. "But they are not obviously uniified. The networks are highly fragmented and distributed by design. Now, what makes all those networks become the one Internet is what we call the logical layer, the names, numbers, and protocols that make everything that is connected to those 70,000+ networks unique. And ICANN is responsible to coordinate that logical layer."

If the Internet's logical layer becomes fragmented, said Chehadé, if we end up with multiple separate Internets, that will have a huge impact on the flow of information and ideas.

"The risk is hugely contained right now as a result of the US decision to make the management of the logical layer independent," said Chehadé. "This is very key. If the management of the logical layer is viewed as controlled by any party, then the pressure on the integrity of that layer becomes huge because suddenly, everybody says, 'We need to have control, and if we can't have equal control then maybe it's time to have our own logical layer.'"

One of the goals of his trip to Silicon Valley, said Chehadé, was "to ensure that the risks of the failure of the current US transition of its stewardship over our IANA functions are clear to business leaders."

Beyond warning about the consequences of further delaying the transition, Chehadé said he encouraged business leaders to review ICANN's proposal once it's complete and, if it meets their needs, to share their views with political leaders.

"When you meet with a very senior person, a CEO or a senior counsel at one of the Silicon Valley firms, they once in a while need this distilled and presented at a level where they can engage and appreciate what's at stake," said Chehadé. "So part of this is frankly just to help distill the massive sausage-making effort that's going on and to ensure that people are involved with the right level of knowledge, and know when their voices are critical for the process."

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Timing is key. Chehadé said he welcomes the support of the business community in Washington, but stressed that such support will be most meaningful once ICANN's proposal has been submitted to the government.

The portion of the proposal that remains unfinished poses the greatest challenge: Describing in detail how ICANN itself can be governed to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Chehadé said his biggest concern is making sure that "whatever structure we end with is a structure that is not captured by any special interest or special agenda."

An Inclusive System

The fact that ICANN has been able to keep the Internet stable over almost two decades is fairly remarkable. And Chehadé believes that stability can continue. "For the 17 years we've been around, the governance structure of ICANN has proven to be very, very resilient," he said. "With all these years behind us, no one party has had the ability to control the policies and the outcomes of ICANN. We have built, I think, an accountable, transparent, and inclusive system that includes businesses, the private sector, users, governments, that is private sector-led but listens to all parties. It includes all the views, and builds policy from the bottom up."

Perhaps the most ambitious aspect of ICANN is that it aspires to include governments without being governed by them.

"Governments at ICANN have a role like no other role they play on the planet," said Chehadé. "They will tell you that. They are advisors to a board that does not include governments. Their advice has an important weight. But their advice must only come to the board and is recognized in a certain special way by the board if it's consensus advice. Which means 151 governments have to build consensus between them before they can even give advice to the ICANN board. That is amazing. You cannot find that anywhere else, in any other system or institution on the planet."

For all his optimism, Chehadé acknowledged the difficulty of the balance ICANN must maintain between the Internet's diverse stakeholders. "We have 151 governments in ICANN, thousands of businesses, user groups, NGOs, technical community players, engineers, all of these people have their own voices in the system," he said. "And if we lose the balance that has worked for 17 years, I think the model will have failed. That is the trick. And I am confident we will not [fail], because everyone at the table knows it has worked."

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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