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ICANN helps bust Russian child porn ring

Kevin Murphy, October 24, 2013, 13:22:03 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN recently helped break up a Russian child pornography ring.

That’s according to a remarkable anecdote from CEO Fadi Chehade, speaking during a session at the Internet Governance Forum in Bali, Indonesia today.

The “investigative effort” took “months” and seems to have entailed ICANN staff sifting through company records and liaising with law enforcement and domain name companies on three continents.

Here’s the anecdote in full:

We participated in a global effort to break down a child pornography ring.

You think: what is ICANN doing with a child pornography ring? Well, simple answer: where does child pornography get put up? On a web site. Where’s that web site hosted? Well, probably at some hosting company that was given the web site name by a registrar that is hopefully a registrar or reseller in the ICANN network.

We have a public responsibility to help with that.

We have some of the smartest people in the world in that space.

It took us months to nail the child pornography ring.

It took us through LA to Panama. We had to work with the attorney general of Panama to find the roots of that company. One of our team members who speaks Spanish went into public company records until he found, connected — these are investigative efforts that we do with law enforcement — then we brought in the registrars, the registries… and it turned out that this ring was actually in Russia and then we had to involve the Russian authorities.

ICANN does all of this work quietly, in the background, for the public interest.

Wow.

At first I wasn’t sure what to make of this. On the one hand: this obviously excellent news for abused kids and ICANN should be congratulated for whatever role it took in bringing the perpetrators to justice.

On the other hand: is it really ICANN’s job to take a leading role in covert criminal investigations? Why are ICANN staffers needed to trawl through Panamanian company records? Isn’t this what the police are for?

ICANN is, after all, a technical coordination body that repeatedly professes to not want to involve itself in “content” issues.

Session moderator Bertrand de La Chappelle, currently serving out his last month on the ICANN board of directors, addressed this apparent disconnect directly, asking Chehade to clarify that ICANN is not trying to expand its role.

In response, Chehade seemed to characterize ICANN as something of an ad hoc coordinator in these kinds of circumstances:

There are many topics that there is no home for them to be addressed, so ICANN gets the pressure. People come to us and say: “Well you solve this, aren’t you running the internet?”

We are not running the internet. We do names and numbers. We’re a technical community, that’s what we do.

But the pressure is mounting on us. So it’s part of our goal to address the larger issues that we’re not part of, is to frankly keep us focused on our remit. In fact, ICANN should become smaller, not bigger. It should focus on what it does. The only area we should get bigger in is involving more people so we can truly say we’re legitimate and inclusive.

The bigger issues and the other issues of content and how the internet is used and who does what, we should be very much in the background. If there is a legal issue, if we are approached legally by an edict of a court or… if it’s a process we have to respond to it.

We don’t want to be instigating or participating or leading… we don’t, we really don’t.

A desire to make ICANN smaller doesn’t seem to tally with the rapid expansion of its global footprint of hubs and branch offices and the planned doubling of its staff count.

Indeed, the very next person to speak on today’s panel was Chehade’s senior advisor and head of communications Sally Costerton, who talked about her team doubling in size this year.

I don’t personally subscribe to the idea that ICANN should be shrinking — too much is being asked of it, even if it does stick to its original remit — but I’m also not convinced that it’s the right place to be be carrying out criminal investigations. That’s what the cops are for.

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Comments (9)

  1. Jean Guillon says:

    Someone speaks Spanish at ICANN?
    I am impressed.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      LOADS of ICANN people speak Spanish. Beckstrom was fluent.

      • Jean Guillon says:

        Are you serious????
        You mean that there are people at ICANN who can speak other languages than English ????
        Gosh: I am SO SO impressed.

        but then…maybe they speak French too? Maybe they can even write it…

        So: do you think that, we, French, will ever get the chance to have the French version of the Applicant Guidebug translated? Because the only version available for us is dated September 2011. The last English version is dated June 2012.

        I think this is ICANN’s next challenge.

        😉

        • Rubens Kuhl says:

          ICANN CFO is from France and speak French, besides Fadi himself who also speak French if I recall correctly.

          Considering the registry agreement is only available in English, and there are differences from the AGB to the agreement that can make a huge impact, applicants with no English knowledge are out of luck.
          I’m from a non-English speaking country, and yet I don’t see this process happening in other language than English. It might be a mistake to start translating the AGB and then stop updating the translations; point by point summaries of the AGB dispositions available at 6UN+PT languages would probably been better than outdated translations.

          There are lots of ICANN staff not born in the US, including Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and many other countries… but having specific languages spoken by specific employees doesn’t give capabilities in translating documents, specially legal documents.

          • Jean Guillon says:

            I understand there can be an “internal” language common to all but what about the fact that there is no equal opportunity for English- and non-English speaking candidates to obtain a new generic top-level domain name?

            But what a coincidence, this was posted last night on the ICANN blog: “Introducing the Language Services Team”.

            I am so happy to learn about “Maria”.

  2. Scott Pinzon says:

    I support ICANN shrinking. I like to think I lead by example.

  3. Dave Z says:

    too much is being asked of it

    And there’s the rub. That depends what one expects of ICANN.

    Those of us familiar with the domain registration business expect ICANN to stick to its documented, specific roles. Those not familiar with the business, however, may expect ICANN to do more in spite of what they said they can and don’t do.

    Personally, I hope ICANN is ready to deal with whatever happens. (although they – for the most part – seem to be, anyway…)

  4. Bertrand de LA CHAPELLE says:

    Faithful reporting, Kevin,

    I indeed asked Fadi to clarify because this was an illustrative case in the context of the initiative he recently launched.

    Many actors in the ICANN community (registries, registrars, ISPs, etc…) have indeed been cooperating informally with law enforcement in cases like these: child abuse images rings, phishing, etc…

    Because this is clearly content-related, it does not actually fall within the mandate of ICANN and both its CEO and the Board do want to maintain the limited remit and avoid mission creep.

    The difficulty is there are currently no alternatives: these types of problems are not solved by UN resolutions or mere law enforcement cooperation. Active involvement of the DNS operators – and other actors – is needed. But there is yet no available multi-stakeholder framework to organize this needed cooperation between heterogeneous actors.

    In this context, as ICANN is around, involves most of these actors and is gaining operational credibility, pressure is mounting to ask it to take more part. This is a delicate double-bind: bowing to this pressure would unduly expand ICANN’s remit; refusing to do so leaves critical topics unaddressed and individuals harmed.

    This picture is one of the key rationales behind our recent initiative calling for new multi-stakeholder mechanisms to address such issues. ICANN cannot – and should not – become the one stop shop for all problems related to the use of the Internet. But they cannot be left unaddressed and ad hoc solutions such as the one described by Fadi in his comments can only go so far. They are not scalable.

    We therefore need new multi-stakeholder frameworks to handle governance ON the Internet (as distinct from Governance OF the Internet). Otherwise, the danger is not some “overtaking of the Internet by the United Nations – or the ITU”; it is more the proliferation of uncoordinated, potentially conflicting and incompatible national legislations.

    The above hopefully helps clarify one important point: our recently announced coalition/initiative/platform is not really about changing ICANN itself. It is about drawing lessons from what it does well (and maybe also less well) to contribute to the development of additional mechanisms to address broader issues that are currently handled mostly ad hoc and need more procedural frameworks.

    Thanks for the opportunity to clarify. I hope it helps.

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