On August 4, before recessing for the holidays, the U.S. House Committee that oversees the Commerce Department published their opinion, under the chairmanship of the powerful Democrat congressman Henry Waxman, proposing cementing the US-government oversight of ICANN by making the JPA (Joint Project Agreement) permanent, and ending the current “transition phase”. This opinion triggered many comments, although probably due to the August recess, not a lot of public discussion. The public debate will pick up in September.
Waxman’s opinion could be interpreted in various ways. The most likely interpretation is that it was a preemptive move by the trademark lobby, aimed at maintaining the status quo of the Internet Domain Name system. Almost any change in the scenario of ICANN could lead towards more diversity in domain names, increasing the difficulties for trademark businesses to enforce control of big trademarks. One can also argue that it is part of a political signaling strategy aimed at getting the reaction of public opinions both in the USA and globally.
However, so far, there are no comments discussing a very simple question – Is the proposed solution (permanent JPA) going to serve US interests?
The answer is NO
. Putting ICANN under permanent US control won’t serve US national and public interests. This would be the result of any objective and rational policy analysis. Obvioulsy, one should be careful with "rationality" in politics. Politics is not very often rational, coherent and logical. If we can paraphrase an old master of politics, Bismarck, politics (law-making) is like sausages. It is better not to see them being made. While we should understand the limitations of logic and rationale in politics, we should not stop bringing them into the political discussion. They are the dialectics of political life. What would an objective analysis of the US public and state interests when it comes to ICANN, JPA and IG in general show us?
Making the JPA permanent is not in the US national and public interest. The political cost for the US would be too high. While other governments might tolerate the “process” and “horizon/moving targers”, they would not be ready to accept the JPA as a definite and permanent resolution of the ICANN debate. Would it be of an interest of the USA to fight this battle of making the JPA permanent? The first question is, what should the US fight for? What is it going to protect? What is the nature of the US power over ICANN? Why should the US make this “power” permanent? As I argued previously, the US power over the root server is paradoxical. The potential power of removing a country from the Internet (by deleting the country’s domain name) can hardly be qualified as a power, since it has no effective use. The key element of power is forcing the other side to act in the way the holder of the power wants.
The use of US “power” over the Internet infrastructure could create unintended consequences, including countries’ and regions’ establishing their own Internets (balkanization). Incidentally, we might re-consider the use of this term “balkanization”, since the Balkans have become – to the surprise of many – quite rational in organising regional cooperation
In the Internet disintegration scenario, the main loser would be the US. The US benefits from an integrated and global Internet on many fronts. Most of the Internet industry is based in the USA, coincidentally, in congressman Waxman’s state of California. Google, Yahoo, Facebook to name a few directly depend on existence of the Internet in its current form. The more disintegrated the Internet becomes, the less business they will have.
Apart from business, the dominance of the US in the Internet is linked to the English language and socio-cultural and socio-political values. The status of English as a global language was clearly established with the Internet era. Individualism, freedom of expression and democracy, to name a few core values of the US political system, have been disseminated through the Internet as a tool of empowering millions worldwide. One can continue with arguments that basically say that the main and overarching US interest is to preserve the global and inclusive Internet. It is not matter of altruistic or utopian approaches, but a clearly defined interest.
Morgentau, the father of the realist school that explains international relations through power, would come to the same conclusion. All other objectives are less important. A striking concurrence is that US interests (based on this analysis) coincide with the interests of many people worldwide who would like to see a global, open and creative-driven Internet. For the US it can be an ideal scenario in which the national interest coincides with global interests. During his first six months in office, Obama has been trying to do exactly that – to align US national interests with global ones (Cairo speech, financial crisis, climate change to name a few). Has there been any attempt in the USA to explain this rather simple truth? Politicians will understand it easily. They understand the language of interests and power.
Waxmans’ Opinion for a permanent JPA does not contribute to the main US goal – preserving a global and open Internet. A historical, emotional argument could also be re-visited (frequently used in Congress): Is it more important to keep the Internet under our control since we invented it, or to preserve the Internet the inventors created? What is in the best interest of the USA? None would be in position to feel like a traitor, “one who would sell the Internet”. The Internet will become even more anchored in the US economic, social and scientific fabric. The price of – if it is needed – having ICANN headquarter move from Marina del Rey - would be a token payment for many other gains.
Are there any attempts to explain this to the US political, economic and social elite? Are there any attempts from the US Internet industry to push this? Once the Internet is re-nationalized I do not see why the national or regional Internet would need a global Facebook or Google or other application. What about academics and think tanks? Is there any paper analyzing the ICANN/JPA/IG debate from a pure interest or cost-benefit perspective?
As in many other issues, and even more dramatically in this one, the US national discussion will affect all Internet users. In this context, it is important that IG scholars from the USA try to rationalize the policy debate by anchoring it in discourse about its impact on the national interest discourse and in a cost/benefit analysis. The efforts to rationalize policy debate are worthy. In this case they are not necessarily utopian, given the overall atmosphere in Obama’s administration.
As far as I can see from the Internet Governance Caucus (IGC) governance list and few other attempts, the discussion is too focused on questions of California law and contracts. It should be zoomed out to the larger political interest, in language that politicians can understand. Once the open and inclusive discussion establishes what the US public and national interest is, it will be much more difficult for various lobbyists to push their very narrow interests and agenda through the Congress and administration. Ultimately, decision-makers will have to decide if they want to protect trademark interests or the US national interests. The same can apply to other conflicting interests in the USA IG-debate.