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How the world is learning to love ICANN

As ICANN learns to play fair with redelegations

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In case you aren't aware, how the Internet is run and will be run for future generations will be decided in the next 26 months. When a three-year "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) between the US government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ends on 30 September 2006, who gets to oversee this revolutionary medium will be decided. One way or another.

ICANN - a private Californian company - was supposed to have become an autonomous managing body years ago. The fact that it isn't, five years after it first signed the MoU, is an indication of how little the rest of the world has been willing to accept its authority. Why? Because until very recently it was run almost exclusively by North American computer scientists who showed almost no respect, and certainly no diplomacy, toward any views other than their own.

The distrust towards this supposedly global representative body grew as the Internet grew in importance and finally led to the situation that two months after ICANN signed the US government's MoU, the United Nations voted to set up an investigation into "Internet governance".

The “preparatory committee” for that investigation has just met (24-26 June 2004) and the final report will appear at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis on 16 November 2005. If ICANN hasn't managed to persuade the world of its importance and authority by then, it may become no more than a footnote in Internet history.

And waiting in the wings to take over is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which already oversees most of the world's communications technologies and also runs the WSIS meeting. With ICANN perceived as difficult, US-biased and unlistening, the ITU's support has grown dangerously in the past two years.

Unless ICANN can sway the world's governments, business and Internet communities right now, it may see itself consumed by the ITU and its dream of independence lost forever.

And so it does...

And that is precisely what it is doing. Dr Paul Twomey became president and CEO of ICANN on 27 March 2003. He has huge experience in ICANN but, vitally, comes from a diplomatic and government background. Within weeks of his appointment, Twomey realised what he had to do. He pulled in business managers and lawyers, instead of computer scientists playing at politics, and put performance before personality.

It is a tight schedule and the loss of techies at the top has niggled a few Internet old hands (the fact that an outage of the .org top-level domain this week was barely noticed by ICANN executives is telling), but it is having an effect and, incredibly, the world is gradually learning to love ICANN.

And if one issue strikes at the heart of the problems ICANN finds itself in, and demonstrates the changing environment, it is the matter of domain redelegation.

Every country has its own top-level domain (called a country-code top-level domain, or ccTLD) - .uk is for the UK, .de for Germany, .br for Brazil etc. But the way the Internet works, there is one authoritative record (or "root") of who runs all these domains. That root is owned and run by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). ICANN has very gradually, and against much opposition, taken over IANA and its role. And, in its desperation to be recognised by other countries at the Internet's authority, has abused the control IANA provides to get those running ccTLDs to sign contracts with it accepting its rule.

There are a large number of reasons why the person (or organisation) currently running a ccTLD would want it assigned to someone else, and more why someone else would want it assigned to them. The most significant movement at the moment is developing nations taking control of their own country's Internet presence after years of being run by knowledgeable Westerners, either for philanthropic reasons or for financial gain.

However, ICANN has in the past been guilty of only allowing someone else to take over the domain (for it to be "redelegated") if they sign up to its own contract, which gives ICANN significant rights over its status. This abuse even affected those that weren't asking for a redelegation. Ordinary maintenance of a domain, which sees large, key servers swapped occasionally, requires IANA to make changes. These changes were being delayed as a way of pressuring countries to sign up to ICANN's contract.

The bully-boy tactics backfired and for the rest of the world became a fundamental source of anger and mistrust against ICANN.

In the past month, and in the course of next month, however, this approach will finally - and belatedly - bethrown out the window. And, if ICANN's head of Policy Development Support, Paul Verhoef, is to be believed, the results of actions not words has already seen a positive response from the worldwide community.

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