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The Domain Name Multistakeholder Theatre

At the early stages of the Internet, domain names (example.com) were the point of entry for the majority of people’s online presence. As a result the allocation of these domain names mattered for the Internet. The general public, using the Internet for personal growth and development and citizen journalism cared about their domain names. Small businesses cared as well about their domain name, if the amusing case of armani.com is any indication

1998 saw the creation of a new body that, at a high level, would govern overall the allocation of domain names.  It was called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. For the reasons outlined above, ICANN mattered a lot to the Internet, so its policies affected a large number of people on the Internet. 

That has changed. The Internet has developed such that, while the Domain Name System is ever more important to technical operation, the role of ICANN (while still critical) has been diminished. Most of the time, people’s point of entry to the Internet does not expose them to domain names anymore.* 

Despite this change, some at ICANN still believe that ICANN is in charge of security and stability of the Internet as a whole and believe there is much at stake at ICANN. They also believe that the multistakeholder model that ICANN runs can only be done through bloated layers of processes and bureaucracy. This was evident in the recent ICANN Hague meeting which happened last week. 

For any issue that ICANN has to deal with, it comes up with an elaborate process that involves a wide variety of stakeholders (though it is dubious what stakes some have) and a very detailed process that will take months to operationalize. This was obvious from the re-opening of the issue of Closed Generics, a term for an obscure operational wrinkle where allocation of generic names such as .books to corporations like Amazon is disputed.  While the policy development group did not come up with a resolution on Closed Generics, the Board (instead of making a decision) sent the issue back to the community to make a decision. The community obviously came up with an elaborate process of having a facilitator, a bunch of representatives and so on.  

The problem with having a multistakeholder theater is that it leads ICANN away from its important but narrowly-limited mission. There are a bunch of regulators around the world that want to see things are happening. If ICANN is not doing that narrow, limited mission that it has, then the regulators will regulate. So while it is very gratifying to be transcribed, have high level panels with distinguished stakeholders and talk about issues and reopen them many times, we might have an irrelevant multistakeholder body soon. 

 

*This might be anecdotal but a cursory look at the number of domain name registration (from Verisign report) is indicative of such change: “New .com and .net domain name registrations totaled 10.6 million at the end of the fourth quarter of 2021, compared to 10.5 million domain name registrations at the end of the fourth quarter of 2020.” https://www.verisign.com/assets/domain-name-report-Q42021.pdf we can compare this number to Facebook’s new users which is 500,000 every day. https://backlinko.com/facebook-users, another reason might be that while apps and other Internet services use domain name system extensively, the general Internet user doesn’t use it directly.

About The Author

Farzaneh Badii

Digital Medusa is a boutique advisory providing digital governance research and advocacy services. It is the brainchild of Farzaneh Badi[e]i.Digital Medusa’s mission is to provide objective and alternative digital governance narratives.

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