Thursday, December 11, 2008

ICANN, accountability and capture

The folks over at Intellectual Property Watch have a couple of extremely interesting (if not very recent) pieces detailing recent discussions and ongoing controversies regarding participation, accountability mechanisms and the role for - and risk of capture by - governments in the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Key to these seem to be the role of the US Government in overseeing the formally private regulatory body. ICANN itself seems keen to distance itself from this oversight, while many industry actors, on the other hand, see it as essential to providing effective accountability for ICANN decisions, and to staving off the risk of capture by other foreign governments, and thus losing the benefits of genuinely private regulation.

In the meantime, to add to this complex set of tensions, some states and other public actors - such as, for example, the UN's International Telecommunications Union - have been highly critical of the current role afforded to governments other than the US through the ICANN's Government Advisory Committee, claiming that its contribution is merely "cosmetic". Which, of course, for the most part suits both industry and the US Government down to the ground.

Few cases exemplify better the "added value" that the shift to understanding global regulation as global administration can bring; or the complexities and tensions of the putatively emerging "global administrative space". We have a formally private body clearly performing a public governance function; its activities are the site of ongoing struggles over the best and most effective way of allocating participatory rights and accountability mechanisms between a wide range of different public and private actors; and its administrative activity - the regulation of the internet - is both evidently a necessarily global endeavour (which simply cannot be accomplished by individual states alone) and one that combines the logics of national security, market efficiency and morality (privacy, fairness, obscenity, etc.) in almost equal measure.

Much more research is needed on this particular topic: the IPWatch articles are, however, a good place to start, as are the chapters by Lorenzo Casini and Bruno Carotti (2.1, 5.4 and 5.5) in the GAL Casebook.