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United States cedes control of the internet - but what now?

Review of an extraordinary meeting

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In a meeting that will go down in internet history, the United States government last night conceded that it can no longer expect to maintain its position as the ultimate authority over the internet.

Having been the internet's instigator and, since 1998, its voluntary taskmaster, the US government finally agreed to transition its control over not-for-profit internet overseeing organisation ICANN, making the organisation a more international body.

However, assistant commerce secretary John Kneuer, the US official in charge of such matters, also made clear that the US was still determined to keep control of the net's root zone file - at least in the medium-term.

"The historic role that we announced that we were going to preserve is fairly clearly articulated: the technical verification and authorisation of changes to the authoritative root," Kneuer explained following an afternoon of explicit statements from US-friendly organisations and individuals that it was no longer viable for one government to retain such power over the future of a global resource.

Despite the sentiments, however, it was apparent from the carefully selected panel and audience members that the internet - despite its global reach - remains an English-speaking possession. Not one of the 11 panel members, nor any of the 22 people that spoke during the meeting, had anything but English as their first language.

While talk centered on the future of the internet and its tremendous global influence, the people that sat there discussing it represented only a tiny minority of those that now use the internet every day. Reflections on the difficulty of expanding the current internet governance mechanisms to encompass the global audience inadvertently highlighted the very parochialism of those that currently form the ICANN in-crowd.

When historians come to review events in Washington on 26 July 2006, they will no doubt be reminded of discussions in previous centuries over why individual citizens should be given a vote. Or, perhaps, why landowners or the educated classes shouldn't be given more votes than the masses.

There was talk of voting rights, or what the point was of including more people in ICANN processes, and even how people could be educated sufficiently before they were allowed to interact with the existing processes.

Ironically, it was ICANN CEO Paul Twomey who most accurately put his finger on what had to be done. One of the most valuable realisations that ICANN has ever come to, he noted, was that when it revamped itself last time, it recognised it hadn't got it right. Even more importantly, Twomey noted, was the fact the organisation recognised that "it would never get it right. And so ICANN put a review mechanism into its bylaws".

The reason Twomey's observations are particularly noteworthy is that it is Paul Twomey himself who has consistently - and deliberately - failed to open ICANN up, keeping meetings secret, and refusing to release information about discussions either before a meeting and, in some cases, after the meeting.

A stark warning came from the Canadian government - the only government except for the US government invited to speak. Recent arrival, but highly knowledgeable representative, Bill Graham was extraordinarily clear. "It is time for ICANN to recognise that it is in many ways a quasi-judicial body and it must begin to behave that way," he said.

"The ICANN board needs to provide adequate minutes of all its meetings. There needs to be a notice of what issues will be considered, and the timeframe when a decision is made. A written document needs to be posted setting out the background and context of the issues. There needs to be an acknowledgment and a summary of the positions put forward by various interested parties; there needs to be an analysis of the issues; there needs to be an explanation of the decisions and the reasons for it; and ultimately there needs to be a mechanism for the board to be held accountable by its community."

Everyone recognised the meeting as an historic turning point in the future of the internet, causing a strange amount of one-upmanship among those taking part, most of it covering how long they had been involved with ICANN. Paul Twomey referred to the Berlin meeting (1999); an irregular ICANN contributor (on the panel thanks to US governmental influence) spoke of "being there before ICANN was even created". The swagger got so bad that several well-informed contributors were forced to apologise because they had only been to three ICANN meetings.

Ultimately, what came out of a gathering of the (English-speaking) great and the good regarding the internet was two things:

  1. That the US government recognises it has to transition its role if it wants to keep the internet in one piece (and it then has to sell that decision to a mindlessly patriotic electorate)
  2. That ICANN has to open up and allow more people to decide its course if it is going to be allowed to become the internet's main overseeing organisation

If you ignore the fact that the conversation only happened within a tiny subset of the people that actually use the internet, everyone can feel quite content in walking away feeling that at least people now understand their point of view.

As a rare non-US contributor, Emily Taylor, Nominet's lawyer, UK citizen, and a member of the IGF Advisory Group told us she felt that "the fact that the meeting took place was as valuable as anything that was discussed".

That much is certainly true. The US has recognised that it can no longer hope to control the internet. The next step is for everyone invited into the party this time to recognise that they too play only a small role in the global revolution that is this jumble of interconnected computer networks. ®

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