ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) faces a serious challenge. Twelve years after its creation, it continues to earn low marks for institutional confidence because it is widely thought to lack sufficient accountability, transparency, and legitimacy. What confidence it does engender may be diminishing, now that the Joint Project Agreement has expired and with it the authority of the United States government to oversee ICANN’s conformity with its institutional commitments.
Solving this problem without harming ICANN’s capacity to act effectively turns out to be perplexing. ICANN depends on institutional confidence to carry out its mission of maintaining the global interoperability of the Internet, and that confidence may be slipping away because of insufficient accountability. At the same time, some of the most widely considered reform proposals will not work. Replacing supervision by the United States with supervision or control by an international organization, or by transforming ICANN itself into an international organization, would exacerbate ICANN’s already prominent weaknesses by increasing the risk of bureaucratic sclerosis, capture, and corruption. The unworkability of these proposals appears to mire ICANN in an intolerable position. It must acquire the accountability it needs to survive, but some changes might make matters worse.
This white paper proposes a different approach. It aims to replace the previous oversight by the United States under the Joint Project Agreement with a fundamental reorganization of ICANN itself. Its structure should be reformed to ensure accountability, and its most basic structure and commitments should be reduced to a written charter. If ratified by a representative convention of ICANN constituents, such a charter could give ICANN the fresh start that the Affirmation of Commitments did not (and perhaps could not) accomplish. In this way, ICANN’s accountability, transparency, and legitimacy can be strengthened without sacrificing the original vision on which it was founded: a private organization can be trusted to manage the technical coordination of the Internet as a global “network of networks.” Understanding why such thoroughgoing reform deserves serious consideration requires an extended argument that describes ICANN today, the principal criticisms of it, how ICANN’s structure defeats any effort to improve its accountability, and the structural changes to ICANN that should be included in the ratified charter.