Proposals 14 – 16 for ICANN: Become an Effective Participant in the Internet Governance Ecosystem by Decentralizing Accountability, Being Experimental, and Embracing New Evidence and Insights

These are the fourteenth through sixteenth of a series of 16 draft proposals developed by the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation in conjunction with the Governance Lab @ NYU  for how to design an effective, legitimate and evolving 21st century Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN). 

Please share your comments/reactions/questions on this proposal in the comments section of this post or via the line-by-line annotation plug-in.

From Principle to Practice

The concept of “multistakeholder governance” exists on many levels in the Internet ecosystem. The bodies that make up ICANN operate through their own multistakeholder models (e.g., the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) conducts policy-development using multistakeholder, bottom-up processes1, involving the many different stakeholder groups and constituencies in the Contracted and Non-Contracted Party Houses). The GNSO and other ICANN structures are all part of a larger multistakeholder model within ICANN, which involves other groups such as the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), for example, representing civil society, and the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), representing government. And ICANN itself is part of an even larger multistakeholder model (though at this point less well-defined), involving other “I*” organizations such as the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Society (ISOC), national governments (acting independently or in unison, e.g. through the EU), and international organizations (such as the UN or Interpol).

In light of this multistakeholder landscape – the challenge this proposal seeks to address is how ICANN can meaningfully participate in an increasingly global and diverse Internet governance ecosystem, without expanding its current remit. This means that ICANN must be understood in terms of its functions – standards, protocols, and policy coordination for the Internet’s unique identifier resources.2 —and how those functions impact and are impacted by other Internet governance activities (which can also be conceived as functions).

Diversity characterizes the Internet governance ecosystem. To make sense of and navigate this diversity, it may be useful to conceive Internet governance in terms of “layers” of issues, e.g.:

  • Infrastructure layer (connectivity, universal access, and net neutrality)
  • Technical layer (Internet names and numbers; protocols and standards)
  • Content layer (intellectual property, cybercrime, spam, and collaborative applications)
  • Social layer (trust and identity; human rights and digital rights; Internet governance principles)

These layers each interact with ICANN and are impacted by ICANN’s activities, and ICANN’s activities in turn impact each of these layers. There are several “zones of engagement” that can be conceived as being concentric around ICANN:

  • Stewardship zone (with ICANN’s SO/ACs, Registrars, Registries, and the GAC)
  • Coordination zone (with the ISOC, IETF, Internet Architecture Board (IAB), World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), and the RIRs)
  • Participation zone (with National governments, UN organizations, International organizations, and special interest groups).

This diversity of scale, issues, geography, and functions in Internet governance – sometimes called the “patchwork” of Internet governance mechanisms, characterized by “competing and co-existing legal regimes” – creates a complex governance challenge.

This proposal, therefore, recommends a distributed research-and-practice initiative to design a “distributed governance network” that addresses the diversity of actors and issues in Internet governance and the variable ways in which ICANN must: a) coordinate its work with other actors, and b) evaluate its own position in the Internet governance ecosystem to the end of becoming an effective participant in the Internet governance process writ-large. Consistent with all proposals made by our Panel, we believe any such “distributed governance network” for the Internet must be effective, legitimate, and evolving and must embrace the principle of subsidiarity to do so, meaning they operate within a remit comprising only those responsibilities or tasks for which their centralized or authoritative position makes them best equipped and most competent to handle.

Such a distributed governance network would have several characteristics, each of which is substantively supported by a set of concrete activities. These characteristics are:

  • Decentralized Accountability – This involves mapping the Internet governance ecosystem, its layers, the issues, and where these issues are being managed and/or generated. This also involves finding “principles for Internet governance,” aligning various stakeholder and governance incentives, and identifying roles and responsibilities of existing actors and also pertaining to existing issues.
  • A Culture of Experimentation –This involves creating a minimum or basic set of rules that set the standards by which bodies can be considered eligible to participate in the governance network – for example, “all bodies must adhere to the following absolutely basic things” to participate. This promotes a culture for experimentation within ICANN and across distributed governance network, which paired with an embrace of analytical tools and qualitative and quantitative frameworks, can help us collectively assess and share insights related to what’s working and what’s not to address various Internet governance issues in innovative and distributed ways.
  • A Systematic Embrace of New Evidence and Insights – This involves enabling the actual research that promotes change and evolution at the institutional level, to the end of achieving trust and interoperability across the ecosystem. Because of the internetworked nature of Internet governance, “embracing new evidence” at and across the governance-network level means there must be a certain set of common governance elements and functions in place. There must be ways to raise ecosystem awareness of these new insights.

How Do These Proposals Support Fostering a Distributed Yet Coordinated Internet Governance Ecosystem?

It may be useful to think about these three characteristics in terms of scientific process. In “decentralizing accountability,” we essentially mean that people must take stock of reality – e.g., the context, the resources, the environment, and the variables. By “being experimental,” we mean that people should conduct experiments with scientific rigor, so that they are replicable. This involves framing the process so that it is widely understandable using standard methods. Finally, by “embrace new evidence and insights,” we mean that, having taken stock of the context, and having done experiments in systematically rigorous ways, people should analyze the results and publish them in ways that are understandable by and useful to others, so that they can replicate and learn from them, and so that these insights can inform an entire field (in this case, the “field” or network of Internet governance).

Decentralized Accountability

  • Mapping the Internet governance ecosystem
    • This involves identifying a matrix of existing bodies and mechanisms in Internet governance. It also involves finding out how the current Internet governance ecosystem can potentially generate harmful fragmentation of the Internet. Situating issues and actors will allow for the identification of where coordination is needed.
  • Finding “principles for Internet governance”
    • This involves research. Many different bodies have suggested principles for Internet governance. 3 Our panel, too, has put forth effective, legitimate, and evolving as core principles.
  • Identifying roles and responsibilities of existing actors and pertaining to existing issues to reveal where more coordination is needed
    • In the Internet governance ecosystem it makes sense to decentralize accountability for the issues and priorities of Internet governance which themselves are decentralized. It makes sense to centralize accountability for the issues and priorities of Internet governance which themselves are centralized. A good example of a centralized priority is the stability of the Internet’s technical resources, e.g. the DNS and IP. A decentralized priority may be regional level priorities, e.g. different regulatory approaches to IPv6 adoption.
    • Such a mapping activity can help to identify how coordination can take place and at what “stage” of decision-making, e.g., agenda setting, report drafting, validation (decision-making), implementation, enforcement and evaluation or review.

Culture of Experimentation

  • Creating a minimum or basic set of rules that set the standards by which bodies can be considered eligible to participate in the governance network
    • This makes use of the “subsidiarity principle,” which, in the European Union context, means that “decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen and that constant checks are made to verify that action at Union level is justified in light of the possibilities available at national, regional or local level.” 4 Here, what is particularly important is that whichever authority can handle the matter effectively.
    • The goal of such an initiative is to create a rigorous and stable set of support mechanisms that allow different bodies to experiment to the end of finding out what works and what doesn’t and why. For example, there may be common guidance and advice on privacy and security, promotion of global interoperability standards, use of model metrics to evaluate where interventions are needed, public awareness campaigns and financial pools to increase access to the Internet, etc.
  • Leveraging incentives for experimentation and collaboration with common priorities in mind
    • There must be ways to experiment and innovate that balance the need for stability of the Internet and evolving its governance. Therefore it makes sense to provide necessary incentives and responsibilities in order to achieve objectives. Furthermore, these incentives must allow for adjustments of the experimental process along the way to accommodate new findings and developments.
    • Incentives may include, for instance, technical requirements, consumer expectations, and others. Responsibilities may include harmonization and compliance requirements, reporting on metrics, etc.

Systematic Embrace of New Evidence and Insights

  • Enabling change at the institutional level
    • Internet governance bodies must be able to make use of the evidence derived from experimental processes and research as described above. This means that there must be awareness of what kinds of evidence are useful for what kinds of bodies and mechanisms. This requires a common language – an agreement on a set of basic principles and understandings — that allows an entire ecosystem to benefit from new evidence, regardless of where this evidence is generated.
    • This means that various “layers” in the ecosystem must employ coordinated frameworks so that capacity development accrues to the ecosystem as a whole.
  • Raising ecosystem awareness of new insights
    • An important question is how to systematically add knowledge to a corpus or repository in a way that is sharable and where people are aware of new evidence being added and have meaningful and effective ways to access and use that evidence.
    • This involves dialogue functions (such as the Internet Governance Forum, and also other virtual means) to bring different bodies and actors together to enable global information exchange in ways that are equitable. These actors can coordinate their discussions with shared understandings of each others’ roles and functions, while allowing for devolved implementation and adjustments (this illustrates the notion of centralized vs. decentralized priorities).

Why Do These Proposals Make Sense Specifically for ICANN?

In the “Commentary on ‘The Quest for a 21st Century ICANN: A Blueprint,” Sam Lanfranco put forth a well-framed reasoning for why ICANN must focus on its role in the Internet governance ecosystem and how multistakeholder innovation can help ICANN become more effective, legitimate, and adaptable in carrying out its functions. He suggests that the Panel’s proposals should act as a starting point for strategies for:

  1. “Building a viable and effective multi-stakeholder system of ICANN governance”;
  2. “Using that to help position ICANN in the Internet ecosystem and system of Internet Governance”;
  3. “Strengthening Internet stakeholder awareness and engagement in both the affairs of ICANN and in Internet Governance.” 5

ICANN occupies a critical and foundational role in the Internet governance ecosystem, especially at the technical layer. However, one cannot neatly separate the content layer or the social layer from the technical or system layers of the Internet, and ICANN inevitably exists in a “web of relationships.”  6

This web can be characterized as being historically improvisational. For example, Milton Mueller argues that, “we have been improvising collective governance arrangements for 15 years, and these improvisations have so far failed to fully resolve the issues of legitimacy, adherence and scope on a global basis.”7 However, because actors and stakeholders on the Internet are extremely diverse and decentralized and yet share common priorities (privacy, security, intellectual property, economic growth, policy, culture, rights, consumer choice, safety, etc8), it makes sense that Internet governance accountability structures will be distributed, yet coordinated.

Therefore the Panel recommends an action-research approach that essentially parallels approaches to how scientific fields of knowledge are established. This is in order for ICANN to:

  • Make better sense of how it impacts Internet governance and how Internet governance impacts ICANN’s work;
  • Make use of this knowledge to the ends of evolving its own practices to more efficient and accountable ends; and
  • Take these insights and leverage them to benefit the Internet governance ecosystem writ-large.

This allows ICANN to:

  • Set up systematic ways by which to collaborate with other bodies and mechanisms in the Internet governance ecosystem under common frameworks;
  • Cooperate with those bodies and mechanisms in experimental processes that allow for evidence gathering;
  • Use the evidence from these experiments to build capacity across the Internet governance ecosystem; and
  • Finally, these initiatives would help ICANN to address issues within its remit in a way that lets ICANN determine how issues are located along different jurisdictional boundaries and how ICANN can best do its work while avoiding, e.g., harmful fragmentation of the Internet.

Implementation Within ICANN

It is important to recognize that ICANN is just one of various actors in the Internet governance ecosystem that serves a “stewardship” role 9  In particular, ICANN is responsible for the good management, use and evolution of a shared resource –the Internet’s unique identifier resources. However, stewardship roles in the Internet governance ecosystem tend to be shared or entangled because of the internetworked nature of Internet issues, actors, and mechanisms. Therefore, there are important questions about framing and inclusion that are relevant to this proposal for ICANN to participate in the development of Internet governance as a coordinated and coherent field. Specifically:

Decentralizing Accountability

  • There is a proliferation of conferences, panels, and research initiatives currently planned or in-progress, which should act as natural organizing platforms for this aspect of the proposal to map the Internet governance ecosystem. This mapping will obviously be a collaborative activity that is as open and transparent as possible. Many of the initiatives currently underway are directly related to previous events, such as the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2003 and 2005 or the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in 2012. Currently, for example, it makes sense to leverage:
  • In particular, there should be a high degree of coordination between these initiatives so that issues and actors can be situated both in long and short-term research and strategic initiatives that collect evidence and prevent redundant discussions and knowledge-gaps. It makes sense for these various initiatives to collaborate in the following regards:
    • Identifying areas where fragmentation is harmful and coordination is needed;
    • Identifying how coordination can take place and at what level (for example, agenda setting, drafting, validation, implementation, enforcement);
    • Identifying those actors that must be coordinated;
    • Creating expert networks can facilitate virtual community formation where necessary;
    • Producing discussion papers on these subjects which would be reviewed through further workshops at regional levels and in global meetings.

 Culture of Experimentation

  • There must be open and collaborative processes by which various bodies and mechanisms in Internet governance can decide and establish certain standards or principles by which to devolve Internet governance experimentation. This means there must be a high degree of agreement, implying that there must be centralization of certain priorities, and consensus around those priorities.
  • This involves identifying a certain set of common governance elements and functions that need to be in place, developed and also overseen through global governance mechanisms (read: not intergovernmental, but multistakeholder).
  • A distributed research initiative (as described above) would identify some of the areas that demand national intervention or guidance and develop options on when and how global guidance and intervention, through a common framework, would support global information exchange, allowing for developed implementation and adjustment.
    • An assessment of these governance issues could be conducted using five layers or areas of concern (ACCTT):
      • Access to infrastructure
      • Code and standards
      • Content
      • Trust
      • Trade
  • Using these metrics, a distributed research initiative could generate regular “State of Internet Governance” reports to determine need for action or progress on certain metrics.

Systematic Embrace of New Evidence and Insights

  • In order to effectively leverage new evidence and insights to inform and benefit the entire field of Internet governance, it makes sense that a coordinated Internet governance ecosystem institutes the necessary incentives and responsibilities to achieve its objectives. Experiments should be framed according to the responsibilities and functions of different actors and stakeholders. Using these frameworks allows evidence gathered from these experiments to be meaningfully understandable in context. In turn, new insights would respect a set of fundamental principles or priorities (and therefore would not destabilize the Internet as a result of a lack of coordination).
  • A distributed research initiative could study various incentives (for example, technical requirements or consumer expectations) and various actors’ responsibilities (for example, harmonization and compliance or metrics-reporting) and identify a “toolbox of leverage points,” which allow for effective yet flexible ways of governing. In addition, these leverage points could be experimented with around specific (likely low-risk) use case scenarios.
  • Foundational to a distributed research initiative is stakeholder engagement, which allows for more legitimate and global outcomes. Much more innovation on how to solicit meaningful input and generate co-creation is needed. Please see the Panel’s other proposals for some ideas on how a variety of innovative participatory processes and practices can be used to experiment and get new evidence and insights.

Examples & Case Studies – What’s Worked in Practice?

Decentralizing Accountability

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – The UN model is often discussed in relation to ICANN, and the reaction thereto tends to be negative. However, there are important lessons ICANN could emulate from how the UN has been used and implemented in practice. The UDHR is not a treaty and is not binding in itself. However, it defines the meanings of “fundamental freedoms” and “human rights,” phrases, which are found in the UN Charter, which is binding on member states.
    • The UDHR is the foundation for two binding UN human rights covenants: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESC). This again illustrates the principle of centralized and decentralized priorities.

Culture of Experimentation

  • The Open Governance Partnership (OGP) – The OGP is an international, non-profit organization dedicated to improving governments by promoting transparency, openness, citizen empowerment, and accountability while also advocating the use of new technologies to strengthen governance. The initiative provides a structural framework for critical discourse and action, while also promoting dialogue between governments and civil society. To participate in the OGP, governments must meet eligibility criteria, which include “demonstrating a minimum level of commitment to open government principles in four key areas (Fiscal Transparency, Access to Information, Income and Asset Disclosures, and Citizen Engagement).10

Systematic Embrace of New Evidence and Insights

  • Skunk Works (Lockheed Martin) – “Skunk Works” is the official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs. It is a research and development laboratory characterized by quick turnout rates on advanced research and development projects. A skunkworks is usually highly autonomous and makes use of very original and creative input11 by avoiding bureaucracies that would otherwise impede development by imposing stability/innovation tradeoffs. Skunkworks projects tend to address extremely precisely-framed problems, inviting a range of potential solutions. For example, a skunksworks project may end when it has fulfilled its agreed-upon “exit-criteria.”
  • MacArthur Research Networks – The MacArthur Foundation hosts signature “research networks” which are intended to “identify a big problem and bring together researchers, practitioners, and policymakers from multiple disciplines to work collaboratively over an extended period of time, typically six to as many as ten years.”12 These research networks are very open and collaborative and members are granted a high degree of freedom in how they address big challenges. Pre-planning (e.g., research framing, network member identification, proposal drafting, and outreach to outside experts) ensures that the research network can make distinctive contributions to a field of knowledge, and also have real-world impact.

Open Questions – How Can We Bring This Proposal Closer to Implementation?

  • How can such a governance network be created from scratch and still achieve the legitimacy and compliance associated with more well-established forms of governance?
  • Who gets to participate in the initial set up and who will be excluded from that process? Who decides?
  • How can participation opportunities remain open while still manageable?
  • How could a global Internet governance network embrace new participants over time as the Internet grows and expands?
  • Which actors are empowered to make the decisions that establish the rules and procedures for all subsequent action?
  • How can ICANN invest in such “environmental protection” efforts while retaining trust from its global community that it will not expand its remit?
  • How can feedback loops be established in legitimate and effective ways, taking into account different digital communications technologies and the need to accommodate the many different cultures and languages embraced by participants?
  1. GNSO Policy Development Process.”
  2.  Bylaws for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. April 11, 2013.
  3.  Jeonghyun  Baak  and  Carolina  Rossini. “Issue Comparison of Major Declarations on Internet Freedom.” (Summer 2013).
  4. Summaries of EU Legislation: “Glossary”.
  5. Lanfranco, Sam. “Commentary on ‘The Quest for 21st Century ICANN: A Blueprint“. Distributed Knowledge Blog. (February 2013).
  6. See: Vinton G. Cerf (Chair) et al., “ICANN’s Role in the Internet Governance Ecosystem,” Report of the ICANN Strategy Panel, February 20, 2014: 48.
  7. Mueller, M. and Wagner, B. “Finding a Formula for Brazil: Representation and Legitimacy in Internet Governance.” Internet Policy Observatory. (January 2014) at 11.
  8. Global Commission on Internet Governance “Frequently Asked Questions“.
  9. ICANN Draft Strategic Plan, July 2011 – June 2014. (November, 2010) at 11.
  10. How to Join OGP.”
  11. Skunkworks.” The Economist. August 25, 2008.
  12. About MacArthur Research Networks.” MacArthur Foundation. January 15, 2014.

The Tags . . . .

One Response to “Proposals 14 – 16 for ICANN: Become an Effective Participant in the Internet Governance Ecosystem by Decentralizing Accountability, Being Experimental, and Embracing New Evidence and Insights”

  1. Chuck Gomes March 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    The line-by-line annotation plug-in doesn’t appear to be work for this document so I will enter my comments here.

    I definitely endorse the principle of subsidiarity if ‘best equipped and most competent to handle’ means consistent with mission.

    The panel says that “Such a distributed governance network would have several characteristics, each of which is substantively supported by a set of concrete activities. These characteristics are: decentralized accountability . . . ; a culture of experimentation . . . ; and a systematic embrace of new evidence and insights . . .” Decentralized accountability and a systematic embrace of new evidence and insights sound pretty reasonable but I think some caution is called for regarding a culture of experimentation because there is an awful at stake in what ICANN does.
    My concern is mitigated some with this qualification by the panel: “By “being experimental,” we mean that people should conduct experiments with scientific rigor, so that they are replicable.” Regarding experimentation, I support the panel statement that “there must be a high degree of agreement, implying that there must be centralization of certain priorities, and consensus around those priorities.”

    I strongly agree with this: “An important question is how to systematically add knowledge to a corpus or repository in a way that is sharable and where people are aware of new evidence being added and have meaningful and effective ways to access and use that evidence.”

    With regard to embracing new evidence and insights, the panel makes a good point in saying “Foundational to a distributed research initiative is stakeholder engagement, which allows for more legitimate and global outcomes. Much more innovation on how to solicit meaningful input and generate co-creation is needed.”

    In considering developing a governance network ICANN should apply these priorities: 1) it should first fulfill its primary mission well; 2) ICANN should obtain community consensus for actions it takes in the Internet Governance arena; 3) ICANN should be fiscally responsible in all IG activities it undertakes and use the resources it receives from the community with their concurrence.

Leave a Reply