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ICANN comes to terms with country domains

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Internet overseeing organisation ICANN has backed down in its battle with the rest of the world and conceded that it cannot expect to dictate policy over countries outside the US.

The decision - ratified late yesterday by the ICANN Board of Directors at the ICANN meeting in Montreal - is a victory of commonsense and speaks volumes about the new president/CEO Paul Twomey's reign.

After four years of argument and an all-night session on Wednesday night, the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) was finally formed and ICANN's metamorphosis from flesh-eating maggot to the dragonfly of ICANN 2.0 was complete.

The decision has delighted linchpin of the world's country-code community, Dr Willie Black, who told us he was "very happy" with the decision. Although, he concedes, "we went in very heavy and said there was no way we would be bound by these rules. They had their backs to the wall."

The issues raised in the formation of the ccNSO are a microcosm of all of the wider problems of ICANN and the Internet. ICANN has spent years pressurising the rest of the world's domains - such as .uk for Britain, .fr for France - to sign a contract with it that would give ICANN ultimate control over their domains and what they did with them.

The concept that a US-based company, answerable to the US government, would be able to dictate exactly what every country in the world did with their Internet domains was ludicrous, but it didn't stop ICANN from using everything it had to force them to comply. It even started delaying changes to the technical side of the Internet - IANA. Countries retaliated by refusing to supply ICANN with money and threatening not to recognise ICANN at all.

How it ever got that far is testament to ICANN's arrogance. However, in what everyone is sensing is a sea-change, ICANN under new president/CEO Paul Twomey behaved pragmatically and conceded all control save over IANA and global interoperability - which is what ICANN was created for in the first place. "I don't think this is a big threat," said Dr Black.

ICANN, faced with outright refusal by countries to be controlled, initially argued that its policy diktats could be bypassed if the country's own public laws demanded it. Then it conceded that religious or cultural differences could justify not follows diktats too - but that it would have to give its permission each and every time. Eventually it realised the stupidity of its position and conceded sovereignty to, well, the sovereign nations.

This also means countries will not have to follow ICANN's flawed domain dispute rules (UDRP) or its Whois decisions (what and how much information about a domain name owner is displayed for public consumption).

With this settled, Dr Black said the UK would have no problem joining the ccNSO and it seems unlikely any other country will either. Although you can't help but laugh at those countries that did sign away their sovereignty to ICANN in return for seven pieces of silver - or in Internet terms, redelegation.

Australia signed up after the domain was redelegated to a new organisation filled by the old boys network. It has been handed several top jobs in ICANN as thanks. Burundi signed up at the same time as a redelegation of the domain. So did Hong Kong. God only knows what Japan and Malawi thought they were doing though.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, ICANN's official press release paints a slightly different picture of events in Montreal, but it is nowhere near its normal 1984's pronouncements: "ICANN makes landmark agreement with country domains."

"Finalising four years of dialogue and negotiation, the creation of the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) heralds a new era of co-operative and productive relations among ICANN and the country-code domain registries," it starts.

Up pops Twomey. "Today's agreement is a testament to how ICANN is seen as a forum the international Top Level Domain administrators can come together and jointly address issues," he says - which is true. And, "today's agreement represents both a historic achievement for the ICANN process, and a powerful vote of confidence in the newly reformed ICANN 2.0," - which is not. But one out of two ain't bad.

But, this sudden ability for ICANN to behave pragmatically and rationally is something that almost everyone has commented on. Even thousands of miles away and looking in from the outside, it is possible to sense a move from the clubby and spiteful atmosphere of ICANN of the previous five years towards a new professional, more consistent ICANN.

Don't make the mistake of thinking though that because ICANN is starting to behave less like a stroppy teenager and more of an adult that it is anywhere but light years from its original blueprint. ICANN is instead turning itself into a government. After all, this is all ICANN prime minister (more so than president) Paul Twomey has known for his whole life - he is a lifelong politician.

Every new person brought into the organisation (through its previous ruling class) is a government type. What we have is the same old ICANN, corrupt and run by insiders, but one that allows enough democratic input to prevent all-out rebellion in the ranks. It will also come with a hugely increased ability to hide its internal battles and gloss over mistakes. All it needs to do now is find a way to give everyday Internet users an impotent vote on how it is run, and we have the creation of the Internet Government.
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