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EC tells Europe and ICANN to make peace

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The ever-present issue of who gets to run the Internet is coming to a head and the European Commission has made it clear it wants the arguments sorted out sooner rather than later.

Erkki Liikanen, the EC member responsible for the Internet, among other things, gave a recent speech titled "Internet governance: The way ahead" and fired warning shots across the bows of both the American Internet overseeing organisation - Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - and the top-level domain owners of European countries.

In it, Liikanen gave a careful rundown of where the EC stands in relation to Internet governance. And it is this: ICANN was set up to do the job of running the Internet and it will stand by it, despite the mistakes, and so long as it continues to make changes. In the meantime, the companies from different European country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are going to have to come to agreement with ICANN or the EC will lose patience and governments will step in (and that role will most likely come from a very eager and prepared International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

In other words, Liikanen was banging their heads together to get ICANN and ccTLDs to work together in their own interests.

There are some tough criticisms in the speech. Calling ICANN "a unique experiment in self-regulation", he reflects: "The expectation among governments at the outset was that ICANN would provide a neutral platform for consensus-building... It was also hoped that ICANN would provide a way for the US government to withdraw from its supervisory role. In this way, we could achieve a greater internationalisation and privatisation of certain key functions... It has yet to fully deliver on either of these objectives."

Without any pussyfooting about, Liikanen then jumps to the core problem of the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) - which is the ICANN supporting body for different countries around the world. The ccNSO has so far been boycotted by many of the most important countries because they don't wish to lend it credibility.

"There is clearly some way to go before the rest of the Community are fully integrated in the ICANN process," Liikanen surmises, stating that this is worrying for two reasons: European ccTLDs make up most of the non-global domains in the world, so ccNSO cannot be viewed as legitimate unless they sign up; and, if ccTLDs don't sign up, governments will conclude that ICANN hasn't worked and will step in.

Liikanen also raises the significant and still unclear role that the US government continues to maintain over the Internet, saying that "the absence of any clear picture" about its intentions is "not helpful".

"ICANN needs to continue to improve," Liikanen states and promises that the EC "will play our part to ensure that ICANN receives the support it needs from public policy makers to do its job". But, he adds, "the critics of ICANN are numerous and include governments not convinced that self-regulation is the best model for governance."

As for his preferred method of compromise, Liikanen points to the functioning of the European Union and its principle of "subsidiarity" - effectively that big important decisions are made in the centre by one body and then every country is given the leeway to apply that how they wish in their own country.

The great transatlantic thaw

So, with the EC threatening to put everyone out their misery unless they start agreeing with one another, we thought we'd asked ICANN and one of leading ccTLDs, Nominet (which runs the .uk domains), how they saw things developing. We were pleasantly surprised by what we found out.

At the end of October last year, ICANN finally realised that it had to have a presence in Europe and opened an office in Brussels. It was one of the reforms brought in by the new ICANN head Paul Twomey who had taken over in March.

Twomey is a man used to diplomacy and governmental interaction and far removed from the often snide behaviour of ICANN's previous heads drawn from the IT community.

Within three months of taking his post he publicly announced that ICANN would not dictate policy over the rest of the world's countries - something that the organisation had been trying to introduce for a while - and immediately calmed a heated situation. ICANN would only claim ownership of: "the IANA function" i.e. the basic database of all domains which designates which servers in the world are used to run the Internet; and interoperability, so the Internet stayed working as a coherent whole.

Twomey also chose the man to head up the new Brussels office - Paul Verhoef - a technically minded and highly capable man again with government and diplomatic experience.

Dr Willie Black, executive chairman of Nominet, and a leading figure in Europe's Internet community would later describe both Twomey and Verhoef to us as "men I can do business with" - a reference to Margaret Thatcher's comment on Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped bring the Cold War to an end.

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