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ICANN helps bust Russian child porn ring

Kevin Murphy, October 24, 2013, 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.