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Will the internet die in September?

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That's what ICANN wants or is willing to discuss. Here is what people will actually want to discuss, however:

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Stuart Lawley from ICM Registry will be attending and he is still annoyed at the outcome of this debate. As are many governments, who are angry at the US government's direct interference in the process. As are ICANN constituencies, who see the whole issue as just another example of them being bypassed because of behind-the-scenes deals. Internet New Zealand, I see, has vowed to bring it up.

The VeriSign dotcom contract
Again, the contract has not gone through. Rumours are circulating as to why, but the fact is that CFIT, ICM Registry, and many US net companies have used their democratic processes to thwart the contract at the US government level. This is a double-edged sword. One, it is good that people with authority to stop it are looking at the contract and asking the questions that ICANN staff and board have so carefully ignored from everyone else. At the same time, however, it makes a mockery of ICANN running the internet. That such a bad contract is only properly discussed in the corridors of Washington DC is a clear example of what depths internet governance has dropped to. There was an interesting article last week in Business Week by Congressman Rick Boucher in which he outlined why the VeriSign deal should be stopped. But the question is more fundamental than that. It is no coincidence that a 2001 paper by Michael Froomkin, "A Wrong Turn in Cyberspace", has suddenly become required reading. In it, Froomkin, a legal expert in this area, outlines how US government oversight of ICANN violates the US Constitution.

But though these will be hot topics on people's lists, there is one issue that every single person at the meeting should be concerned about:

The United States government's expiring contracts with ICANN, both the Memorandum of Understanding and the IANA contract
The MoU by which ICANN draws all of its authority, and by which the US government asserts control over the internet, will expire on 30 September. IANA is the contract to run the database that specifies where everything is on the internet. It is the fundamental internet directory. The contract that ICANN has to run IANA - granted again by the US government - was extended almost arbitrarily to coincide with the MoU's 30 September expiration date.

What is incredible about these two contracts is that even though they will expire in three months, there has been absolutely no public discussion of them. I personally have asked US government officials and ICANN about what the plans and intentions are, and have yet to receive a single piece of useful information.

This is the last meeting of ICANN before that expiration date. The contract is of such fundamental importance that, if it were not renewed, ICANN would effectively cease to exist and all the planning that has gone into the December Brazil meeting would have all been for nought. The US government refuses to state what everyone knows its intention is: to renew the MoU with itself in overall charge, because that will infuriate everyone that isn't the US government. The US government has also made vague noises about accepting a different company to run the IANA contract, but with that contract expiring in three months, it is more than likely just waving the IANA contract about as another way of fogging the issue so the hard questions aren't asked and it can award it back to ICANN.

This would not be so bad, except for the fact that ICANN was always supposed to become an automonous body. When the US government created the organisation back in 1998, the stated intention was that when the contract expired in 2003 the US government would cut itself out of the internet. But the Bush administration then decided it didn't like this arrangement and reneged on the deal. It looks certain to do the same again. And if there is any doubt that this is not the right course for the entire internet to follow, it is highlighted in the fact that not a soul will discuss it.

So that's the question I will be asking everyone at ICANN next week. Let's hope the people entrusted to oversee this revolutionary medium don't get distracted with the small battles and forget the bigger picture. ®

Kieren McCarthy will be writing stories and a blog from the Marrakech meeting.

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