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Is domain overlord ICANN the FIFA of the internet? We'll know this weekend

Future master-of-the-web heading down dangerous path

Special report When comedian John Oliver dedicated the bulk of his weekly show a year ago to soccer organization FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), he noted that most Americans had never heard of the organization.

Over ten minutes, Oliver eviscerated the "comically grotesque organization," highlighting how it creates and follows its own rules, makes millions on the backs of others' efforts, forces law changes on others to suit its own ends, and has a billion dollars in the bank despite being a non-profit organization.

How does FIFA get away with this? Because, Oliver noted, despite everything he knew about FIFA, "I am still so excited about the World Cup. It's hard to justify how I can get so much joy from an organization that has caused so much pain."

FIFA has the sole exclusive rights to decide all aspects of Football World Cup, held every four years. From that, everything else has stemmed.

Less than a year after Oliver's show, FIFA entered the world's wider consciousness when a corruption investigation by US authorities saw the arrest of multiple FIFA executives at their annual meeting in Switzerland. The organization has been in a slow implosion ever since.

But the question on many people's lips when FIFA was finally tackled by the authorities was: how did FIFA get here? And why was nothing done before, despite years of warnings and controversies?

The internet

This Friday and Saturday, roughly 30 people will meet at Le Meridien Delfina hotel in Santa Monica, California, to thrash out details for how the organization that will soon have sole exclusive rights to decide all aspects of the internet's naming systems, ICANN, needs to be improved to account for its new powers.

The reason for the meeting is simple but concerning: ICANN's Board and staff do not like the changes that the internet community, over the course of a year, have devised in order to keep them in check.

  • They – ICANN Corporate – don't like the fact that the community working group (CWG) has proposed that the "member organization" be given real members so that a group other than the Board and staff has a legal right to demand changes.
  • ICANN Corporate also doesn't like the fact that the group has recommended the internet community be given an emergency veto power over the organization's budget.
  • And ICANN Corporate doesn't like the proposal that the internet community would be able to remove individual Board members if they fail to act in the internet's broader interests, rather than only the organization's.

Each of these three key proposals was designed to ensure that the organization does not get corrupted by the power it will soon wield when it takes over the US government's role at the very top of the internet.

Rather than accept the changes as a necessary counterweight to a significantly increased level of responsibility, however, ICANN Corporate has tried to undermine the changes and impose its will; its behavior highlighting the very reason the changes are needed.

In an unsettling meeting earlier this month, the ICANN Board effectively discarded the proposals and pushed its own hastily drawn-up replacement ideas. Incredibly, it did so while simultaneously claiming to be in full support of the group's goals.

Shortly after that meeting, the Board then sent a formal response to the group's proposals, in which it threatened to derail the entire process unless its concerns were met, and it provided additional detail over its own plans.

We believe that if the Sole Membership Model is the only proposed path forward, it may be prudent to delay the transition until the Sole Membership Model is in place and ICANN has demonstrated its experience operating the model and ensuring that the model works in a stable manner.

That threat to delay the process of handing over control of the "IANA contract" from the US government to ICANN was almost certainly a bluff – ICANN is desperate to get a permanent hold on the functions, without which most of its authority, and hence power, would dissipate.

While the Board goes to some lengths to speak in a single voice, the community working group is a diverse and disparate group; a fact that ICANN Corporate has long used in its favor.

The Board then proposed a two-day meeting at ICANN's home in Los Angeles later that month – all expenses paid – to discuss the issues in greater depth. Despite many of the group expressing concerns about being railroaded, its co-chairs felt they needed to take up the offer.

And so the internet community is sleepwalking into a carefully orchestrated meeting that looks set to put ICANN on an inevitable path to becoming the internet's FIFA. An unaccountable organization with money and power and in control of something everyone wants: the internet.

The journey to itself

It's an unspoken truth that the reason it has taken 10 years longer than originally anticipated for the US government to hand over control of the "IANA functions" to ICANN is because the govt agency in charge – the National Technology and Information Administration (NTIA) – has always been mildly despairing of how its experiment in representational democracy has turned out.

Far from creating an organization that was able to reflect the extraordinary collective effort that made the internet possible, ICANN has become an unwieldy monster: riven with politics, brimming with self-importance, driven almost entirely by status and insider concerns, and never looking outside its own bubble unless under threat.

ICANN is a dangerous size: large enough to envelop its adherents with reward and status, yet small enough to avoid the penetrating gaze of society. It makes decisions that impact huge numbers of people outside its walls, but spends most of its time focused entirely on itself.

And just like FIFA, ICANN gets away with this because the thing it is in charge of largely runs itself.

(There is, of course, no suggestion of any criminal wrongdoing at ICANN.)

The World Cup happens every four years not because FIFA expends enormous energy bringing the world's teams together, but because everyone wants to see the World Cup. Likewise, the internet and the domain name system is not in any way reliant on ICANN to hold it together.

In both cases, the organization formed to pull a complex global system together has largely done its job and now spends the bulk of its time enriching itself, devoting more and more time and resources to things that matter only to itself.

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