Jan Aart Scholte.
Jan Aart Scholte.

Certainly 1 October 2016 was a milestone for Internet governance. The so-called ‘IANA stewardship transition’ was completed. Oversight of certain core technical functions of the Internet were transferred from the United States Government (USG) to a new so-called ‘multistakeholder’ arrangement.

The old unilateral USG control was widely rejected as illegitimate. After all, how could it be right for one state to control a global resource like the Internet? But will the new multistakeholder regime obtain greater legitimacy which USG dominance lacked?

The three IANA functions cover numerical addresses, domain names, and data transfer protocols. Together, these arrangements make a possible the single global digital communications infrastructure called the Internet. Behind the technicalities lies a straightforward political fact: whoever or whatever rules the IANA functions holds a lot of power.

The Internet began in the 1960s within the US military. In the 1990s – when the Internet was increasingly being used in academic and business circles – control of the IANA functions moved from the US Department of Defense to the US Department of Commerce. In 1998 the DOC contracted operation of the IANA functions to a private agency, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Although ICANN executed the IANA functions from its headquarters in California, the USG through its control of the IANA contract remained the ultimate authority over this key part of global Internet infrastructure.

Unilateral USG oversight drew much global criticism, culminating in heated arguments at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005. Delegitimation of USG formal control of ICANN intensified again at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in 2012 and still more following Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013 about the US National Security Agency’s surveillance of the global Internet.

In this environment the Department of Commerce announced in March 2014 its intention to let go of the IANA contract. The handover was completed in October 2016, as the Obama Administration neared its end. Thus the USG lost the legal control of the IANA functions that it had held since the beginnings of the Internet.

Where does that control lie now? When announcing the transition in March 2014, the USG specified that oversight of the IANA functions should not pass to an intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations. Instead of ‘multilateralism’, global governance of the Internet should embody ‘multistakeholderism’. On this principle, the Internet should be run by representatives of the different groups who ‘have a stake’ in the Internet. These ‘stakeholders’ include business (of various kinds), civil society associations, engineers, governments, and individual users of the Internet.

Two years of deliberations finally produced a consensus proposal in March 2016 for new multistakeholder oversight of the IANA functions. Under these arrangements, which were implemented as from October 2016, ICANN continues to hold the IANA contract. However, ICANN is no longer accountable to the USG for its execution of the IANA functions, but to ‘the multistakeholder community’.

So the focus now is to construct a new legitimacy of IANA governance – and global Internet regulation more generally – around the multistakeholder principle. This model is claimed to realize three commonly cited institutional sources of global governance legitimacy: namely, democracy, technocracy, and fairness. Multistakeholderism, so its proponents argue, is a new kind of democracy, one that allows due participation and control by all affected people. Multistakeholderism is also claimed to be more efficient and effective at reaching decisions and solving problems, since the model uses the people who are most acquainted with how the Internet works. Multistakeholderism allegedly promotes fairness as well, since the model is said to operate without prejudice and to provide maximum benefits for the maximum number of people.

Yet what is the practical reality? Certainly most ICANN insiders have deep confidence and trust in the new multistakeholder arrangements. ICANN celebrated the IANA transition with countless congratulatory speeches, receptions and commemorative pins. Enthusiasts claim that the successful IANA transition proves the promise of multistakeholderism for governance of a full spectrum of global resources.

Still, critical questions can be raised. Regarding democracy, for example, current ICANN multistakeholder processes offer limited voice and influence for people from the global south, non-professionals, and non-English speakers. Regarding technocracy, multistakeholder processes at ICANN can be slow and resource intensive. Regarding fairness, ICANN insiders can jealously guard their privileges, and financial gains from the post-transition IANA regime will likely concentrate with the corporate Internet giants.

So, to quote Larry Strickling, Assistant Secretary of Commerce who oversaw the IANA transition for the Obama Administration, ‘the legitimacy point is perhaps the most critical component, as we think about extending the multistakeholder process.’

Jan Scholte