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ICANN meeting, Rio de Janeiro

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Here's an April Fool's joke for you: What entirely Internet-based organisation fails to use Web technology to keep people abreast of what it is up to?

The answer is: ICANN.

Of course, it's not very funny, but it is April and we're all fools.

The most recent meeting of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in Rio de Janeiro finished on Thursday 27 March 2003. Since we couldn't attend in person, we followed it virtually over the Internet and learnt - well, virtually nothing.

Gradually, during the course of the five-day meeting, odd presentations would pop up on the single Web page dedicated to the event. Many of them the day after the event, many more several days after. We couldn't get the live webcast to work - at all. And nearly a week after the meeting has finished, the organisation charged with looking after the entire Internet has not posted any audio or video coverage of the meeting, nor any transcripts of what was discussed.

What we have instead is a hotch-potch of presentations and a summary of the ICANN Board's deliberations and decisions written in impenetrable pseudo-legal language.

Instead, to find out what this "global, consensus, non-profit corporation" whose meetings are "subject to full and open public discussion" decided concerning the future of the Internet, we have had to rely on a small group of blogs, ICANNWatch and the press-release-fed troops of Internet journalism. Not terrific for a company that somehow gets through $6 million a year.

So what actually happened? And what was decided?

Well, to start with the two most controversial issues: new domain transfer rules and the creation of new global top-level domains.

As we depressingly predicted, the two-year study into the vital problem of transferring domains from one registrar to another - a study that has been achieved approval by everyone on its long long path to the ICANN Board - was delayed again as the Board deemed it necessary to be considered by the Governmental Advistory Committee (GAC).

Why it felt this was necessary is something that no one can adequately explain, especially since very similar reports were passed through on the nod. As we suggested in our article, VeriSign for one would have sought to use its special relationship with ICANN to put adoption of the new rules off since it stands to gain somewhere in the region of $500 million per year as a result.

This delay was officially rendered: "The Board also approved resolutions that would make it easier for registrants to transfer their domain names to other registrars." A statement that would appear to be somewhat misleading.

The creation of new gTLDs is a hot potato. Outgoing CEO Stuart Lynn randomly decided last year that he would approve more top-level domains but only "sponsored" domains. He also wants them to be decided upon in a beauty contest fashion - a system in which the ICANN Board will get to decide which domains to go with, but without the burden of explaining why.

Veteran ICANN observers were not surprised then when the issue of new "sTLDs" was suddenly added to the agenda on 25 March - when the meeting was almost finished - and the paper agreed entirely with Dr Lynn's proposals. This he assured reporters at the meeting's end was "no conspiracy, just the pressures of time". Although no one asked how come a public forum on the paper was started on 21 March yet no one knew of it or had seen the paper prior to the 25 March. The public forum has since took on a life of its own with one or two people pointing out that the paper actually goes against all the advice so far thrown at the issue.

Maybe it was the size of the dissent that stop the motion being rubber-stamped into existence within just a day of its existence but it will be certain to appear again, probably with an ICANN sub-committee unsurprisingly agreeing with every word.

But now the good news (and, incidentally, the only news from the entire meeting to make the Internet press and in a few rare cases, the printed press). The approval of Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs). This means that countries across the world will be able to incorporate their language characters into domain names. So it's welcome to Chinese characters and Arabic alphabets - the Net just included the world.

This has been years in the making but that is not wholly surprising since it is technically a very challenging task to find methods to expand systems to fit in different global languages. But the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) pulled it off and new CEO Paul Twomey suggested that new IDNs could be available "within weeks" in Asia.

ICANN observer Brett Fausett also explained in his meeting summing-up that the issue was far from decided coming into the meeting and that quite a few last-minute changes were necessary before it got passed. What we may have seen her is the first example of a truly positive decision made through the ICANN meeting system - will wonders never cease?

What else? A new committees on privacy that will create all sorts of arguing over the course of the year and a small effort to appease furious country-code domains by speeding up the way changes are made to the Internet infrastructure (the IANA function). This is a positive sign that ICANN can at least see the danger of dismissing the rest of the world but goes nowhere near far enough.

And that was basically it. We should note that Brett Fausett felt the meeting was a great success, finishing his summary with a quote from ICANN's new CEO: "This week we saw ICANN as a forum instead of ICANN as a solution."

Well, since he was there we shall defer to him but from the outside, ICANN still looks as fickle, unaccountable and elitist as it ever did. ®

Related links

ICANN Board gibberish summary
Rio meeting in all its glory
Brett Fausett ICANN blog

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Is this the end of the domain transfer nightmare?

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