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ICANN pitches the internet's future

Ten years late. But better late than never

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ICANN - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - which oversees the Internet in all its manificent lunacy, has just published a Strategic Plan, in which it has outlined what its direction and goals are for the next three years.

In reality though, the strategic plan is a sales pitch to the world. And it should be read by anyone who wants to know the kind of people who will be running the internet for some time to come.

As a sales pitch, it is charming, convincing and considered. And as a sales pitch it is also simplified, one-sided and vague. Its job is to persuade you that ICANN is the best choice in what could become the greatest auction in history. The prize is control of the internet.

But do we rush out and put in an order for ICANN now? Or look at the other options, first?

One alternative, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), is a well-established giant looking to steal the market. The ITU has pretty much run all international communications networks since the invention of the telegraph. The internet caught it on the hop and it has been trying to fight its way back into the market ever since.

A second option may arrive following a lengthy review of internet governance by the United Nations which will report in November 2005. This review may decide to put its weight behind ICANN, the ITU or propose something entirely different. We don't know yet.

But we do know the future of the internet will be decided on 30 September 2006 and that there can only be one winner. On that date, the memorandum of understanding between ICANN and the US government will end; the world's only superpower will then presented the internet as gift to the planet, a symbol of more gentle and co-operative times.

ICANN in its Plan, makes no pretence about the fact that it expects to be the body left in charge once the US government takes its hands of the tiller. In a bold box on the first page of the Preface, the Plan's plan is clearly stated: "To enable ICANN and its structures to serve a global Internet community in fulfilling ICANN's Mission, and to complete the initiating MoU process, by establishing an effective, international, inclusive, stand-alone ICANN."

But it is fighting a battle against the previous six years of the organisation, which saw a self-selected elite of American technologists attempt to protect their vision of their baby, but instead managed to alienate the rest of the world. It was only in March 2003, when someone from outside that elite - Australian diplomat Dr Paul Twomey - was made CEO of ICANN that it began at last to operate with the professionalism that was so sorely needed.

It is no coincidence then that the first page of the Plan declares: "This Strategic Plan does not revisit the reform process but focuses on defining strategic priorities for administrative roles only..." In other words, forget about the past and judge us only on what we offer you now.

And what a lot it does offer. It is safe to say that the new ICANN has listened to all the main complaints about it and struck intelligent compromises right across the line.

ICANN never listened to complaints. We'll have not one but two new complaints procedures, a new management structure and more staff to deal with queries.

ICANN never told us what was going on. We'll have new, extensive reports covering what we do made publicly available.

ICANN tried to force us to do what it wanted. We'll change the old contracts and open up the decision-making process.

ICANN tried to take over every aspect of the internet. We'll only act in an organising and supervising role and take all our policies from you.

ICANN is completely US-centric. We'll open up new offices across the globe and make all our materials available in different languages.

ICANN is too secretive. We'll change our website, post more information about what we're doing, actively seek to expand and educate people from across the globe about what the internet and ICANN are and do.

ICANN has made odd decisions behind closed doors. We will produce clear guidelines about how we make decisions and stick with them.

The list goes on and on. For every criticism made of the old regime, the new crew has taken it on board and sought compromise. There is even a new slogan, which like all the best slogans says everything and nothing at the same time: "Coordination, Colloboration, Cooperation."

It's only when you get to the list of "ICANN's core values" and realise that there aren't 10 but 11 - because, like some Spinal Tap flashback, 10 isn't good enough for ICANN, it needs one more - that the strange feeling you get when political party manifestos appear on your doormat starts rising up your spine.

New ICANN, Old ICANN

Is New ICANN the same as Old ICANN but with a shinier coating? Yes and No.

New ICANN is what Old ICANN was supposed to become before stubbornness and egotism got the better of it. All the fury directed at ICANN from its creation in 1998, which increased year by year, came as a result of people's inability to understand why the organisation wasn't changing with the times, and in particular why logical alterations were dismissed with high-handed disdain.

What Twomey and the new staff that he has brought in to run the organisation are offering is what should have been available all along. The internet is of too much importance and size to be run by individuals - it has to be run by an organisation, a system, in which the individuals are administrators rather than creators.

There is a grand difference between this form of ICANN and the behemoth of administration that is the ITU, however. Despite a massively enlarged role taken by governments through ICANN's power GAC (Governmental Advisory Committee) body, the opinions and beliefs of those that built the Internet - the technologists, computer scientists and geeks - are built into the ICANN system. With the ITU, governments are all-powerful.

As such, given the options, ICANN as sold and packaged in this Strategic Plan, is the best choice for the internet as a whole. Our conclusion, and ICANN's future, rests on the organisation delivering some of the promised changes before the 2006 deadline. Chief among them must be the long-promised Ombudsman, the touted Independent Review Panel, and a long overdue transparency and openness in ICANN's adminstration.

You can download ICANN's Strategic Plan at http://www.icann.org/strategic-plan/strategic-plan-16nov04.pdf, and you can read public comments on it here. ®

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