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UN report to leave ICANN’s balls intact

But wider public policy hopes stymied

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A sneak preview of the UN’s report into internet governance has revealed that ICANN will retain its position as the lead technical body for the Internet. However, the organisation’s dreams of becoming a quasi-governmental body overseeing the future of the internet have been dealt a heavy blow.

Chairman of the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG), Nitin Desai, spoke at ICANN’s bi-annual conference in Luxembourg this morning and said that 70 to 80 per cent of Internet governance did not concern ICANN at all.

He highlighted the threats of cybercrime and spam as examples of where a broader forum, including existing international organisations such as the UN, would be making the key decisions.

He also outlined a brand new forum in which ICANN would play a role alongside other major players such as WIPO and the ITU. That forum would not have decision-making powers but would supply a single source of authoritative advice to the UN.

The news has not come as a surprise to ICANN with insiders saying the report - which should be published on Friday and officially handed over to Kofi Annan on Monday - was pretty much what they expected.

The report, while outlining that the “names and numbers” of the internet will be almost exclusively left under ICANN’s control, gives four scenarios for the wider public policy issues thrown up by the internet. Head of the report Markus Kummer told those assembled these ranged from “status quo plus” up to heavy government involvement.

The report, after a period of public comment, will go to a Prep-Com3 conference in Geneva in September and finally end up at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis in November, where the world’s governments will decide how they wish the future of the Internet to proceed.

After the meeting, Nitin Desai told The Register that it was simply a matter of things having changed. “The system is changing. It is no longer just a technical or academic network. But the scientists’ culture has remained and that somewhat anarchic approach no longer works. There are over a billion people using the system now. You can’t expect governments to just stand there.”

Desai provided other examples of where the internet has stretched far beyond the original approach taken by technologists across the globe. “Many standards are now created by commercial companies. Look at the music industry - that has been completely changed by the Internet - and maybe soon the film industry will be too. I don’t care about the system working behind the Internet because I just type what I want into Google. Search engines are replacing the DNS function in that sense.”

However, the process itself has been a great success, he explained. “People are less suspicious of each other. And governments have learnt that they should not get involved in technical and operational matters. Again, the main concerns are things like cybercrime and spam - none of these are to do with names and address.”

As for the recent statement by the US government that it intended to maintain control of the root zone file, Mr Desai was careful to avoid inflaming the situation. “What we have to look at is the internet of five years’ into the future. I do not expect to see this [root zone file ownership] resolved soon. But before now the US government has exercised its responsibility fairly. I have no criticism of what has happened in the past. It did so much earlier helping to build the infrastructure.”

The big push, in Desai’s mind, is to extend the internet to the world, rather than focus on the already sophisticated system in the West. “The growth from now on will be in developing countries -where English is not the first language, not even the second.”

But the "great advantage" to the Internet is its universalism, Mr Desai said, so it looks as though ICANN need not worry about its future.

Paul Kane of CENTR, an organisation that represents many of the world's top-level domains was pleased with the news. "I am delighted to hear that the WGIG committee has recognised that ICANN should focus on its core technical functions of names and numbers, and leave the public policy processes to wider international discussion groups," he told us. "This is something we have been arguing for for years."

And so it seems that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - our old friend ICANN - is going to do exactly what it says on the tin.®

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