‘Wine is serious … we all like wine’, explained ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade in response to a French complaint ahead of last week’s ICANN50 meeting in London. Heralded as the largest-ever ICANN meeting, ICANN50 was charged with no less a task than addressing the multistakeholder organisation’s global accountability and the US proposal to relinquish its stewardship of the domain name system. What caused the French to chuck a wobbly is the recent decision by ICANN to authorise the .vin and .wine generic top-level domain (gTLDs) names. They fear that move could undermine international agreements to restrict labelling for products such as champagne and other geographically-specific goods. Calling ICANN’s decision-making process ‘totally opaque’ and threatening negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, France broke from its European partners to propose a ‘one country, one vote’ General Assembly system to govern ICANN’s strategy and budget, and address politically sensitive issues. While the future of the .wine domain might not keep many awake at night, France is providing ammunition to those who question the legitimacy of ICANN and the multistakeholder model as a whole.
To be fair, there are legitimate accountability concerns within ICANN. While France’s attempt to transpose gTLD geographic protections to second level domains (such as ‘champagne.wine’ or ‘porto.vin’) and transparency concerns are suspect, the demonstrated lack of redress to challenge ICANN board decisions is of concern. In fact on 26 June ICANN’s own Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) made an unprecedented unanimous decision (PDF) to such effect, calling for the ‘creation of an independent accountability mechanism’. That need for accountability and oversight is made even more pressing given the expected removal of the perceived US Department of Commerce ‘backstop’ authority.
That said, ICANN has long shown its willingness to adapt to those sorts of community concerns. The 6 June revisions of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition Coordination Group (formerly the Steering Group) are a clear example of this. This announcement adjusted the composition and selection process for the group, expanded its principles and mechanisms, incorporated the publishing of dissenting views, and approved an independent supporting Secretariat, all in response to community feedback.
Moreover, during the ICANN49 meeting in Singapore, ICANN initiated a process to address the accountability concerns of France and other states and community members. ICANN Board chair Steve Crocker stated that the process would ‘take an inventory of our existing accountability mechanisms … [and] explore the needs for new mechanisms’. That process, driven by public dialogue and community feedback, would see the appointment of a multistakeholder Accountability Working Group to enhance accountability measures.
While it’s reasonable to question the ultimate results of that process, at this point it does appear to be a transparent, good faith effort to address this area of concern. Herein lies the trouble with France’s reckless tactics. Rather than lodging its concerns through existing mechanisms, it has chosen to question the foundations on which ICANN’s multistakeholder model is built. In doing so, the .wine/.vin fight has become more than a simple issue of state prerogative in the case of geographical indicators. Instead, the response positions the state as the legitimate arbiter and oversight actor.
September 2015 looms. The Coordination Group responsible for assembling the transition proposal is set to meet for the first time in mid-July, already delayed from its planned inauguration last week. This is the first of what will surely be numerous hiccups and delays. While US Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary Larry Strickling has offered to extend the Department’s contract with ICANN in the absence of an acceptable proposal, that isn’t an ideal solution for anyone genuinely interested in decoupling ICANN from the symbolic US government role.
In the long term this issue may prove a blip on the radar, but with the IANA transition proposal process on the cusp of moving forward, France’s overblown response gives credence to those looking to boost state oversight over all aspects of Internet governance. By calling the system into question over a single, selfish dispute, France is undercutting the ICANN transition process before it even really begins. The core nose-to-the-grindstone work towards transition will commence in just over two weeks, and this rocky start doesn’t bode well for Internet governance reform.