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How Russia and China could take over the internet!

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2014, 13:42:49 (UTC), Domain Policy

Do governments have too much potential power over ICANN, and do they need reining in before the US cuts itself loose?

It’s a question that’s emerging given the recent decision of the United States government to remove itself from stewardship of the domain name system root zone.

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration may have no intention of allowing other governments to replace it as overseer of the IANA functions, but that doesn’t mean that governments won’t be able to abuse their powers in future under ICANN’s existing structures.

Before getting into the arguments, I should first apologize for the misleading, clickbaiting headline on this post. It’s a sarcastic response to the misleading narrative that has been set by much of the mainstream media in the US.

For the record, I don’t think Russia and China are going to take over the internet, ICANN or the DNS.

What I’d like to look at here are ways in which the Governmental Advisory Committee might need to be reformed in order to maintain balance and prevent capture by any bad government in future.

And by “bad government”, I’m not just talking about Russia, China, Iran and any other boogeyman that may pop up in future; I could just as easily mean the United States and European Union member states.

I’m basing quite a lot of this on concerns raised by NetChoice Coalition’s Steve DelBianco in a Congressional hearing last week.

While DelBianco seems to be generally pro-transition, he outlined several “stress test” scenarios that he believes need to be addressed during the stewardship transition process.

Among other things, DelBianco said: “It will be important for the transition plan to prevent any government-led organization from replacing the former U.S. role after the transition is complete.”

Everyone, from the lunatic fringe of the US media that bases its reporting on GOP talking points to the senior management of ICANN and the NTIA itself, is on the same page here.

Nobody wants the US to be replaced by an intergovernmental alternative.

Indeed, baked into the NTIA’s proposal to relinquish its stewardship powers is an explicit promise that a government-led replacement will not be approved. It ain’t going to happen.

But governments already have a powerful voice within ICANN, in the form of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC

While all national governments are welcome at the GAC, it currently has around 130-odd listed members.

Typically, fewer than half actually show up to in-person ICANN meetings. DelBianco reports that there were 61 in attendance at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore two weeks ago.

The GAC has the ability to issue “advice” to the ICANN board of directors.

The board is free to accept or reject this advice. Rejection, which can and does happen, triggers a lengthy consultation process in which both parties attempt to reconcile their differences.

In practice, ICANN tends to bend over backwards to accommodate GAC advice, even to the point of occasionally willfully misinterpreting it in order to make it appear that it has been accepted.

Under Principle 47 of the current GAC Operating Principles it would be virtually impossible for a government or group of governments to capture the GAC. The GAC only issues advice by consensus:

The GAC works on the basis of seeking consensus among its membership. Consistent with United Nations practice, consensus is understood to mean the practice of adopting decisions by general agreement in the absence of any formal objection. Where consensus is not possible, the Chair shall convey the full range of views expressed by members to the ICANN Board.

If China and Russia managed to persuade every other GAC member to agree with a repressive policy they wanted to introduce, the United States could hold out and destroy consensus.

And, it should be said, vice versa.

How the GAC has used its power

The GAC has a track record of issuing advice, by consensus, that trickles down, via ICANN’s contracts with registrars and registries, to affect domain registrants and regular internet users.

Sometimes, the impact could be said to impact human rights issues such as free expression and privacy.

For example, when law enforcement agencies (LEA) such as the FBI and Interpol recommended that registrars should start logging their customers’ IP addresses and should suspend the domains of registrants whose contact information could not be verified, the GAC reissued those recommendations as “GAC/LEA” advice that ICANN eventually accepted.

One could argue that this has free speech and privacy implications, but it came via the consensus of a GAC that included nations with privacy rights enshrined in their constitutions and statute books.

In fact, the United States was one of the strongest advocates for the LEA recommendations becoming part of the registrar contract, as this report from the October 2011 ICANN meeting Dakar will illustrate.

Let’s be clear here: legitimate bloggers are having their web sites suspended today, right now, because of what the US did in the GAC.

I’m singling out the US unfairly here just as a counterpoint to the arguments, emerging in DI comments and elsewhere, to the effect that the US is some kind of unshakeable guardian of internet freedom. It ain’t.

In truth, the GAC’s pro-LEA position at first had majority support (pdf) then, after its Operating Principles were amended in 2011 to clarify what “consensus” means, consensus support (pdf).

All governments can be credited/blamed for this situation.

Blocking TLDs

The GAC also has a track record of compelling ICANN, via its advice, to prevent certain top-level domains from entering the DNS root zone.

In the current round of new gTLD applications, two strings have so far been killed off as a direct result of GAC advice and many more at at risk.

Applications for .thai and .gcc were both thrown out by ICANN because the GAC, by consensus, did not disagree with the objections of the Thai government and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Amazon.com’s application for .amazon is currently on hold because the GAC, again by consensus, thinks that nations such as Brazil and Peru have better rights to the term.

ICANN has still to make a formal decision on applications for .spa, which the GAC has advised (by consensus) be placed “on hold” until Belgium (unilaterally) decides whether to endorse them or not.

Several other applicants have voluntarily withdrawn their applications after receiving GAC consensus objections.

Many more face losing their deposits unless they comply with GAC advice on matters such as registrant credentialing.

If having a TLD delegated to the root zone is a free speech issue, the GAC already has the power to affect it.

What if Russia tries to ban gay?

Let’s take a hypothetical scenario: Russia wants ICANN to force registrars to suspend the domain names of web sites containing content it considers pro-homosexuality.

Today, Russia would have to get a consensus of the GAC to agree with it — that is, no government objections to its proposal — in order for full-fat GAC advice to make its way to the board.

That, clearly, would not happen. Non-homophobic nations in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and no doubt parts of Africa would not stand for such a thing.

There would be no shortage of governments eager to block consensus on such an appalling proposal.

Even if the GAC came to a consensus to ban the gays, ICANN’s board of directors would be able to reject the advice by going through the necessary motions.

If by some crazy turn of events the ICANN board accepted the advice, ICANN would still have to get the contractual changes past the registrars themselves, which would prove challenging.

But what if the GAC operated not by consensus but by majority rule?

What if Russia persuaded enough of its allies and client states to show up to an ICANN meeting to raise their hands at the appropriate moment? It could, conceivably swing a vote.

While the GAC does not issue advice by majority today, it would be a relatively simple matter for it to change its Operating Principles so that voting, not consensus, ruled.

In fact, the Operating Principles state that they can be amended by a simple majority. Principle 53 states:

A Member or Members may move, at a meeting, for these Operating Principles to be open to revision. If so moved, the Chair shall call for the movement to be seconded. If so seconded, then the Chair shall call for a vote to support the resolution. The deciding vote may be by ballot, by the raising or cards, or by roll call, and shall constitute a simple majority of the Members who are present at the meeting at which it was moved for these Operating Principles to be revised. If so resolved in favour of a revision of these Operating Principles, then the proposal shall sit for consultation for a period of sixty (60) days. At the next meeting following the sixty days, the Chair shall call for a vote for or against the proposal. The deciding vote may be taken by ballot, by the raising or cards, or by roll call, and shall be a simple majority of the Members who are present at the meeting at which the vote takes place.

This, the GAC’s current ability to radically change its voting procedures, is at the heart of some of DelBianco’s “stress tests”.

His example below concerns post-delegation censorship of the root itself, rather than individual web sites, but the same rules outlined above apply.

In his testimony (pdf) to Congress, DelBianco said:

a majority of governments in the GAC might advise ICANN to suspend a TLD that refuses to remove domains with content critical of governments (e.g., .corrupt ). Today, this kind of censorship routinely occurs at the edge of the Internet when governments block domestic access to websites, such as Turkey now blocking Twitter. But this scenario envisions censorship moving from the edge to the core of the internet – the root table of TLDs used by the entire world. It’s a critical stress test to examine how the new IANA mechanism could respond if a future ICANN board bowed to GAC advice for censorship at the root of the Internet.

DelBianco is not suggesting that the current ICANN board would cower over a matter of GAC censorship, but we’ve got no idea what the board is going to look like five, 10 or 20 years from now.

If the safeguard of US stewardship is going away, ICANN’s internal processes need to be tough enough to withstand a GAC that goes rogue and starts demanding things that further infringe liberties.

Does ICANN see a problem?

At a press conference during the Singapore meeting two weeks ago, I asked ICANN chair Steve Crocker and CEO Fadi Chehade if the GAC needed to be be reined in to prevent future abuse.

Crocker responded. I’m quoting my question (which wasn’t as detailed as to include references to GAC Operating Principles) so you know exactly what he’s replying to:

DI: This is about the IANA transition process. I was just wondering: the NTIA says they will not accept a multilateral or intergovernmental solution to this transition process, so does it not follow that there should be some safeguards to prevent the GAC becoming too powerful and stopping it becoming a mini-ITU within ICANN? Is that envisaged as part of this process, to put some kind of restraint on the GAC’s power?

CROCKER: As I said in my remarks this morning, the fact that the end result should not be multilateral or intergovernmental certainly did not mean that governments should not be involved. Governments have to be involved. You’ve asked about what happens if the GAC becomes too powerful.

A big problem is getting more involvement of the GAC. We’re still in the process where the GAC is a maturing organization that’s come a long way and is making ever more contributions and we’re some distance away from being worried about whether the GAC is going to take over or become all too powerful.

The way ICANN is structured is very thoroughly multistakeholder and there are a lot of checks of balances built in so that no single constituency has the ability to become dominant or to take over. I think there would be very strong reactions if that ever started to come into play. So I don’t view it as a imminent concern.

We value and encourage the involvement of governments and we understand that for many many governments it’s a novel experience to participate in an environment in which they’re not the only ones speaking.

In short, he’s saying ICANN needs more government participation via the GAC, albeit carefully counterbalanced within the multi-stakeholder environment.

With that in mind, isn’t it fair to ask whether reforms to the GAC’s Operating Principles are a necessary component of the IANA stewardship transition process?

If ICANN is going independent, its structures need to be robust enough for the long term. Maybe that needs to mean a GAC permanently handcuffed to principles of consensus, to prevent capture.

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Comments (11)

  1. Aaron Strong says:

    The “power vacuum” that is left when US leaves ICANN will be filled with lies, deceit, corruption and eventual governmental control by a tyrannical dictator. To believe that the INTERNET will be better without some US oversight is ignoring world history and current government turmoil throughout the world………..

  2. Rubens Kuhl says:

    One curious issue I found reading your post and the bylaws: there is no difference in the bylaws from “GAC Consensus Advice” to “GAC Advice”. But in the new gTLD program, only GAC Consensus Advice has been taken as potentially blocking requiring either acceptance or consultations. There has been non-consensus advice, but it was rejected by NGPC without further due…

    … was that right to do, according to the bylaws ?

  3. ThirteenthLetter says:

    You know, you’re on the same page here with “the lunatic fringe of the US media that bases its reporting on GOP talking points” in not wanting the Internet to be taken over by tyrannical governments. It’s kind of foolish to deliberately put your thumb in the eye of people who are your allies on this issue even if you disagree with them on others.

  4. And what if you are wrong?

    I think history and present-day circumstances speak for itself. To risk the entire world economy and the livelihood of every single person reading this is absolutely insane and I think anyone that makes a living on the Internet or uses the Internet is an idiot for supporting it.

    Sorry it’s a black-and-white issue for me and the single most important issue that we have ever faced. Makes reverse domain name hijacking look like stealing a penny candy.

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      What do you think is the single most important thing that the NTIA has done during its stewardship of the root? Be specific.

  5. Adam says:

    From CircleID,

    http://www.circleid.com/posts/20140403_black_helicopters_for_the_dns_what_happens_in_2025/

    Bill Drake, responding to Steve DeBianco, who has making the same GAC panic remarks.

    GAC Math
    William Drake – Apr 05, 2014 5:55 AM PST
    NTIA’s Larry Strickling rightly noted in his Congressional testimony that nobody has presented a plausible scenario for an intergovernmental take-over. Yes, GAC Operating Principle 53 states that a Member or Members may propose a revision, and “The deciding vote…shall constitute a simple majority of the Members who are present at the meeting.” But after that, “the proposal shall sit for consultation for a period of sixty (60) days. At the next meeting following the sixty days, the Chair shall call for a vote for or against the proposal.” It is really rather difficult to believe that with this two-stage process and consultations in between a final decision to move to majority voting would ensue. How would this work—all the governments favoring the existing procedures would skip two consecutive meetings, there’d be no lobbying an pressure brought to bear, everyone goes to sleep, and voila, the GAC morphs into the UN General Assembly, and suddenly China, Russia and Iran are driving the process? Come on, this is Circle ID, not the Daily Caller.

    – – –

    A lot of FUD in Washington at the moment.

    Adam

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      Bill’s correct about the two-stage procedure and I think his interpretation is valid.

      But I don’t think it would be too difficult to to get a majority if only 60-odd governments can be relied upon to show up to meetings.

      Just consider that the EU has 28 member states plus the Commission, the Arab League has 22 and the African Union has 54.

      Amendments to the Operating Principles may also appear to be trivial and slip under the radar. Sexy enough to send a civil servant half way around the world to vote on? Some governments might not think so.

      There’s definitely a lot of FUD flying around at the moment, but I don’t think this is it. At the very least, DelBianco’s FUD is based on reality.

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      I have a hard time believing that ICANN veterans truly think that Russia and China are going to exploit this situation. What I do believe, though, is that currently the US government provides some oversight and that without USG it will be no oversight, which I agree would be bad. So in order to preserve this level of oversight, even not being much, they are spreading FUD that they do not believe.

      • Kevin Murphy says:

        Such veterans may be more concerned with keeping ICANN within US legal jurisdiction so their clients can sue ICANN if necessary.

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