Is There Such a Thing as Technical Internet Governance?

CircleID CircleID: In ICANN’s “President & CEO Goals for Fiscal Year 2021”, Göran Marby went out to make a curious distinction in the document’s second stated goal, according to which he intends to “Implement a common strategy for Internet governance (IG) and technical Internet governance (TIG)”. Proceeding to state that “we will begin by identifying the most important issues we need to address, followed by an assessment of where and how we can intervene, the venues we should use, and the resources required to be effective”.

While it is common to separate technical and content matters within Internet Governance, the term Technical Internet Governance and particularly the acronym TIG are not widespread, finding little usage in relevant IG literature. This raises the question of what Marby intends to accomplish by making that distinction and how the broader community should understand this in terms of ICANN’s position in the ecosystem?

According to the same document, the background for this objective is that “over the last few years, we have seen an increase in legislative proposals that affect ICANN’s ability to form policies and make decisions. We are also seeing proposals through standardization forums that can have absolute effects on how the Internet is technically operated”.

It can be surmised that the situations being referred to here are the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and its effects on ICANN’s data governance; and the deployment of DNS over HTTPS (DoH, RFC 8484) and its impacts on ICANN’s capability to remain the sole authority in the supervision of the root name servers’ operation.

While the impact of the GDPR over WHOIS has been widely discussed, DoH (as well as the similar DNS over TLS) is a potentially more relevant question that has been lurking in the background without any process being started by the organization to formally discuss or interact with it. Under DoH, authoritative name servers are not queried directly, with DNS queries being sent and receiving responses over HTTP, obfuscating the user’s queries. This feature is rapidly moving towards becoming enabled by default in most, if not all, browsers.

While this has very clear privacy and security advantages, it also means that the DoH provider becomes the de facto gatekeeper of the DNS, being able to override decisions made by ICANN and maintain a spin-off version of the DNS if they so desire. I, as well as other researchers have argued that this direct control, this policy through gatekeeping, is exactly what sets ICANN apart from other institutions within this ecosystem and gives it teeth. Losing grip over that final authority would mean a significant loss of enforcement capability.

With such concerns looming over the horizon, Marby’s second goal seems clearer, albeit the reaction is quite belated. Both situations have already slipped past ICANN’s influence sphere and all that is left for the community is to react rather than preempt, a posture that has been required for the past several years. It makes a lot of sense to look towards the future and anticipate issues, but this should have been a top concern in the least since the IANA stewardship transition.

This distinction between IG and TIG could be derived from the fact that the organization’s strict stated mission grows blurrier by the day, whether it wants that to happen or not. The “DNS Abuse Framework”, an industry-organized initiative that started in 2019, already includes clear cases where specific webpage content should result in a takedown from the DNS, such as is the case with human trafficking. With the increase in pressure for Trusted Notifier programs, this tendency is bound to only grow.

ICANN exerts a disproportionate amount of influence over the Internet in relation to its size exactly due to the fine line it walks between acting as a technical body and, at the same time, having quite a direct impact over what content is reachable over the global network. Other technical bodies have more subtle ways to affect content and policies, such as in the case of HTML5’s incorporation of DRM in its standards or even DoH itself, but only ICANN can literally flip a switch and make a website disappear.

Let us not forget that this comes almost a year after ICANN applied to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) for ITU-D Sector membership, which was already a signal of its intention to have more formal representation within other transnational bodies. This approach, taken as a whole, points towards an admission that ICANN cannot exist in a bubble, needing to be present within both what it considers to be IG and what it considers to be TIG to thrive.

However, the TIG distinction itself puts ICANN in a bind. What is ICANN: IG or TIG? No matter what answer one is inclined to give, there are so many holes that can be poked at each option that the most sensical answer has to be “IG in the traditional sense” or simply that it is both. By making this distinction, ICANN itself might be failing to assert its role within the ecosystem, creating a division that only serves to further complicate its own claim to legitimacy. While in rhetoric, it has to maintain that it is strictly technical in every sense, the reality points towards a more mixed role.

It remains to be seen whether this term will be used consistently going forward or if it is an artifact of this specific document, but it certainly requires a more transparent definition for it to make sense and possibly find some sort of adoption. As it is, it raises more questions than it answers, perhaps even weakening ICANN’s position within an area in which everything is inherently interconnected. This, fortunately, or unfortunately, leaves open the inquiry of whether there is such a thing as a Technical Internet Governance.
Written by Mark Datysgeld, Incoming GNSO Councilor at ICANNFollow CircleID on TwitterMore under: DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

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