EC tells Europe and ICANN to make peace
Better the devil you know
The ever-present issue of who gets to run the Internet is coming to a head and the European Commission has made it clear it wants the arguments sorted out sooner rather than later.
Erkki Liikanen, the EC member responsible for the Internet, among other things, gave a recent speech titled "Internet governance: The way ahead" and fired warning shots across the bows of both the American Internet overseeing organisation - Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) - and the top-level domain owners of European countries.
In it, Liikanen gave a careful rundown of where the EC stands in relation to Internet governance. And it is this: ICANN was set up to do the job of running the Internet and it will stand by it, despite the mistakes, and so long as it continues to make changes. In the meantime, the companies from different European country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) are going to have to come to agreement with ICANN or the EC will lose patience and governments will step in (and that role will most likely come from a very eager and prepared International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
In other words, Liikanen was banging their heads together to get ICANN and ccTLDs to work together in their own interests.
There are some tough criticisms in the speech. Calling ICANN "a unique experiment in self-regulation", he reflects: "The expectation among governments at the outset was that ICANN would provide a neutral platform for consensus-building... It was also hoped that ICANN would provide a way for the US government to withdraw from its supervisory role. In this way, we could achieve a greater internationalisation and privatisation of certain key functions... It has yet to fully deliver on either of these objectives."
Without any pussyfooting about, Liikanen then jumps to the core problem of the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) - which is the ICANN supporting body for different countries around the world. The ccNSO has so far been boycotted by many of the most important countries because they don't wish to lend it credibility.
"There is clearly some way to go before the rest of the Community are fully integrated in the ICANN process," Liikanen surmises, stating that this is worrying for two reasons: European ccTLDs make up most of the non-global domains in the world, so ccNSO cannot be viewed as legitimate unless they sign up; and, if ccTLDs don't sign up, governments will conclude that ICANN hasn't worked and will step in.
Liikanen also raises the significant and still unclear role that the US government continues to maintain over the Internet, saying that "the absence of any clear picture" about its intentions is "not helpful".
"ICANN needs to continue to improve," Liikanen states and promises that the EC "will play our part to ensure that ICANN receives the support it needs from public policy makers to do its job". But, he adds, "the critics of ICANN are numerous and include governments not convinced that self-regulation is the best model for governance."
As for his preferred method of compromise, Liikanen points to the functioning of the European Union and its principle of "subsidiarity" - effectively that big important decisions are made in the centre by one body and then every country is given the leeway to apply that how they wish in their own country.
The great transatlantic thaw
So, with the EC threatening to put everyone out their misery unless they start agreeing with one another, we thought we'd asked ICANN and one of leading ccTLDs, Nominet (which runs the .uk domains), how they saw things developing. We were pleasantly surprised by what we found out.
At the end of October last year, ICANN finally realised that it had to have a presence in Europe and opened an office in Brussels. It was one of the reforms brought in by the new ICANN head Paul Twomey who had taken over in March.
Twomey is a man used to diplomacy and governmental interaction and far removed from the often snide behaviour of ICANN's previous heads drawn from the IT community.
Within three months of taking his post he publicly announced that ICANN would not dictate policy over the rest of the world's countries - something that the organisation had been trying to introduce for a while - and immediately calmed a heated situation. ICANN would only claim ownership of: "the IANA function" i.e. the basic database of all domains which designates which servers in the world are used to run the Internet; and interoperability, so the Internet stayed working as a coherent whole.
Twomey also chose the man to head up the new Brussels office - Paul Verhoef - a technically minded and highly capable man again with government and diplomatic experience.
Dr Willie Black, executive chairman of Nominet, and a leading figure in Europe's Internet community would later describe both Twomey and Verhoef to us as "men I can do business with" - a reference to Margaret Thatcher's comment on Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped bring the Cold War to an end.
What does ICANN make of it?
We spoke to Paul Verhoef - who was present when Mr Liikanen gave his speech - and asked him what he made of it. "I don't think it was a shot across our bows," he said. "He was saying the industry will need to get together; that criticising may be fun but it doesn't help anybody. He was saying that if [ccTLDs] don't partner with ICANN, the alternative is something they would not like at all.
"It was not a shot at ICANN but at critical elements that find it more convenient to criticise rather than make it work." Liikanen, he says, has stuck his next out to support the self-regulation that ICANN represents against other parts of the world, but if Europe can't be seen to get it to work, then it leaves him with few arguments.
Unlike the ICANN of old, Mr Verhoef accepts that some of the ccTLDs criticisms may be justified, but he insists on ICANN the organisation being separated from ICANN staff. ICANN is made up of the supporting organisations and as such only it is able to change things like its notorious bylaws, he argues. The staff are just there to do the will of the organisation.
It is an ingenious argument in that it can prevent the staff from becoming personally involved in disputes and also lends weight to the idea that if the ccTLDs want to change ICANN, they need to do it from within by signing up to ICANN. But, like the UK system of Whitehall civil servants and the politicians that make up the government, it would be naive not to recognise where the real power lies.
Such an approach is already paying dividends after years of bitter fighting however. Verhoef accepts that ccNSO is a problem at the minute but says there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes that is slowly rebuilding trust after past events have left many suspicious of ICANN promises.
Nevertheless, he warns that some people's requests for watertight guarantees are unrealistic and people who are "not used to compromise" will have to find a way of doing just that. With the exception of Europe, the rest of the world is very keen on how ICANN is progressing, he says.
But, if Verhoef is to be believed, these tensions are dissipating. With a Brussels office, ICANN can communicate with the main European players face-to-face rather over the phone with a nine-hour time lag. This has led to promising bilateral discussions where there is more agreement than disagreement over how the Internet should be run and ICANN's role.
Verhoef refused to say which countries he was speaking with (but we can confirm that the two most important - the UK and Germany - are included among them), but said that more details will be given as soon as they are ready.
Promisingly, Verhoef agrees with Erkki Liikanen's "subsidiarity" model of Internet governance. "There are a number of issues that ICANN needs to decide. Addressing security and stability for example - there are technical choices to be made, with operating and cost implications, where if we don't have compatibility there will be problems. But as for the actual implementation, countries should be able to address that nationally."
So ICANN seems to be confident it can come to agreement. But what does the other side think?
What does Nominet make of it?
Dr Willie Black has been working with the Internet since its inception and has been a main figure throughout all that time. He was the head of ccTLD body Council oF European National Top-Level Domain Registries (Centr) until June last year and remains executive chairman of Nominet, the company that runs the .uk domains - the second largest ccTLD to Germany in size. He is also a consistent and resolute critic of some of ICANN's policies and decisions.
However, he confirmed that Nominet has had several productive and positive meetings with ICANN, with another one due in May. He also informed us that ICANN had met with the whole Nominet board in a constructive effort to sort out their differences - a significant change to the pre-Twomey ivory tower approach.
Nevertheless there remain several issues. "I don't want to go into the wording of the bylaws - I'll leave that to the lawyers - but instead of saying that it [ICANN] will not impose itself, why not just reflect that in the text?"
ICANN has been consistently guilty in the past of saying one thing and doing another to that extent that Nominet wants to see it in writing before signing up to anything. Apart from that, there are two barriers in the way of the UK and Germany signing up to ccNSO (and thereby ensuring acceptance of ICANN by other smaller ccTLDs).
The first is accountability. ICANN's funding and accounts has been a matter of some controversy for years. Particularly who pays what in and why, and where it goes. Aside from transparency issues, Dr Black doesn't think it fair that funds paid by Nominet to ICANN for running the Internet should be eaten up in, for example, the current legal battle it is having with the company that runs the .com and .net domains, VeriSign.
The second barrier is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function. Dr Black says he would be happy to pay for an independent IANA service that manages the Internet roots.
Heart of Internet governance
This is the core problem at the heart of Internet governance. ICANN is determined not to hand over control of IANA because it is effectively control over the Internet. There has been huge controversy surrounding the change of just a few numbers that will see all requests for certain Internet domains sent to a completely different server. Some countries have complained of excessively delayed changes while others have been afforded changes, following limited consultation, and not coincidentally, then signed up to accept ICANN authority.
ICANN will not hand over its Ace and other countries will not tolerate ICANN - and by one remove, the US government - having control over their entire country's Internet infrastructure. A recent example of how this system could break down was when the entire Libyan Internet disappeared for three days because of a dispute between two men who each claimed to have authority over the top-level domain.
Another worrying example was when the Afghanistan TLD was handed over to the US-backed interim authority after a letter allegedly signed by the domain's previous administrator was produced. In both cases IANA was not to blame but it did possess the power to decide what to do - or not to do.
This is the stalemate that everyone is trying to break, and which Mr Liikanen was referring to. It is also why Dr Black says that "so far, Nominet is not minded to join ccNSO".
Nevertheless, change is in the air and "positive discussions" are a world away from the situation just a year ago. There are also new ICANN directors drawn from a wider pool including, on the UK side, Tricia Drakes - chair of the English Internet Society. Dr Black says he is waiting to see if the apparent change in ICANN attitude is reflected in deeds as well as words. ICANN is talking of reaching compromises and understanding perspectives.
And the EC is telling them to get a move on before the rest of the world grows sick of the argument. The UN committee into Internet governance will be reporting in Tunis on 16 November 2005. If agreement isn't reached before then, all hell will break loose and ICANN could become no more than a historical oddity. ®
Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs)
International Telecommunication Union (ITU)
Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO)
Council oF European National Top-Level Domain Registries (Centr)
Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA)