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ICANN's man in Europe bows out

Paul Verhoef gives us an exit interview

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Internet overseeing organisation ICANN still has problems but it will come out of the UN's upcoming review into Internet governance with flying colours, the organisation's man in Europe, Paul Verhoef has predicted on the eve of his departure.

As the first staff member located outside of California, Verhoef has played a vital role in getting ICANN accepted globally. Seconded by the European Union in January 2004, he has been on the frontline as European governments have started to ask big questions about the Internet and domain registry owners continued to express their reservations.

With a very difficult patch coming up for ICANN, he himself admit that the timing is "far from perfect", but as from today he will head the European Commission's largest-ever project - the 3.5 billion euro Galileo satellite network, an upgraded version of the US' global positioning system (GPS). "Dream is a big word, but you can understand it's not something you really want to turn down," he modestly explained.

We had an exit interview with him.

What do you know about ICANN that you wished others did?

"Well, the most interesting thing for me was that it has been the subject of the most intense political scrutiny for the past three or four years. And it is going to come out of it very well.

"It has taken governments until a couple of years ago to realise that the Internet was important and when they started paying attention, the first knee-jerk reaction was 'well, we are going to need to control it'. I think that is being overcome - not quite yet, but we are getting there.

"I see it as an entirely new model where governments and private sector and civil society work together, where none of the three has a defined supremacy or primary role but where there is a genuine attempt between the three sides to decide what is the best way forward. Compromises are going to be needed and they are going to be complex - technically, economically and politicially.

"I think the whole difficulty is that people have no experience with this new model but I think understanding is growing that such a new model is necessary."

What do you feel has been your biggest achievement in the job?

"Successfully setting up the first international office. The very fact that this was done and people have been able to work in the same time zone - in Europe, in the Arab countries and particularly in Africa - and work in their languages, has contributed immensely in people feeling they have communication with ICANN. I would hope that ICANN moves very quickly to do that in other regions because I know there is an enormous demand for it.

"Obviously one of the more political manifestations at the moment is that ICANN is seen as a US organisation with links to the US government and based in Los Angeles, but ICANN has gone from a US organisation to an Anglo-Saxon one, and the next extremely important step will have to be from Anglo-Saxon to truly International."

What does the future hold in store for ICANN after the World Summit [on the Information Society] (WSIS)?

[Background: The second world summit on IT will take place in September this year, during which a consensus is expected to be reached on how the Internet should be run in the future. ICANN's entire future depends on it.]

"My assumption is that after the Summit things will go a lot better. At the moment there is a lot of positioning by people because they think they will still be able to influence the Summit to come out in their favour. I don't think this is very likely. I think the Summit will come up with some general language, I don't even think they will name ICANN in particular.

"But once the summit is over and ICANN has come out with flying colours, people will realise this is the place to be for these particular issues so we'd better go and make it work there because there is no other place."

What about the ongoing problem with country-code domains?

[Background: Nearly every major country domain (e.g. .uk and .de) has refused to join ICANN's representative body (the ccNSO) until changes are made that give them greater autonomy.]

"We have advanced a great amount. There are still one or two problems but I am not too worried about it. ICANN is under no illusion that it is going to make everyone happy, but we are steadily moving forward. Changing the bylaws will allow the majority of the Europeans to come on board, so I would say that in a year, that most of them would have done so."

What about continued accusations that ICANN is overly secretive and opaque?

"I cannot subscribe to that. I see it more of people not being aware of the processes. We have seen recently on .xxx [the controversial new domain recently approved for sex sites], people have been saying 'well, if we had known about it, we would have never allowed it'. The problem is the .xxx proposal has been in front of ICANN for 18 months , it has been published on the website, it has been the subject of press releases, there have been updates on it, any movement on it has been reported publicly - what more can we do?"

What advice to your have for your successor?

"You need to travel, you need to talk to people, you need to create relationships where people feel they have a link into the organisation, that they can talk to people, get rid of their frustrations and their issues and really listen to them and do our best to involve them in the process."

ICANN is advertising for a replacement for Paul Verhoef if you fancy the job.

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