Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2004/07/08/icann_budget/

How the world is learning to love ICANN

As ICANN learns to play fair with redelegations

By Kieren McCarthy

Posted in Media, 8th July 2004 12:13 GMT

In case you aren't aware, how the Internet is run and will be run for future generations will be decided in the next 26 months. When a three-year "memorandum of understanding" (MoU) between the US government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) ends on 30 September 2006, who gets to oversee this revolutionary medium will be decided. One way or another.

ICANN - a private Californian company - was supposed to have become an autonomous managing body years ago. The fact that it isn't, five years after it first signed the MoU, is an indication of how little the rest of the world has been willing to accept its authority. Why? Because until very recently it was run almost exclusively by North American computer scientists who showed almost no respect, and certainly no diplomacy, toward any views other than their own.

The distrust towards this supposedly global representative body grew as the Internet grew in importance and finally led to the situation that two months after ICANN signed the US government's MoU, the United Nations voted to set up an investigation into "Internet governance".

The “preparatory committee” for that investigation has just met (24-26 June 2004) and the final report will appear at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis on 16 November 2005. If ICANN hasn't managed to persuade the world of its importance and authority by then, it may become no more than a footnote in Internet history.

And waiting in the wings to take over is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which already oversees most of the world's communications technologies and also runs the WSIS meeting. With ICANN perceived as difficult, US-biased and unlistening, the ITU's support has grown dangerously in the past two years.

Unless ICANN can sway the world's governments, business and Internet communities right now, it may see itself consumed by the ITU and its dream of independence lost forever.

And so it does...

And that is precisely what it is doing. Dr Paul Twomey became president and CEO of ICANN on 27 March 2003. He has huge experience in ICANN but, vitally, comes from a diplomatic and government background. Within weeks of his appointment, Twomey realised what he had to do. He pulled in business managers and lawyers, instead of computer scientists playing at politics, and put performance before personality.

It is a tight schedule and the loss of techies at the top has niggled a few Internet old hands (the fact that an outage of the .org top-level domain this week was barely noticed by ICANN executives is telling), but it is having an effect and, incredibly, the world is gradually learning to love ICANN.

And if one issue strikes at the heart of the problems ICANN finds itself in, and demonstrates the changing environment, it is the matter of domain redelegation.

Every country has its own top-level domain (called a country-code top-level domain, or ccTLD) - .uk is for the UK, .de for Germany, .br for Brazil etc. But the way the Internet works, there is one authoritative record (or "root") of who runs all these domains. That root is owned and run by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). ICANN has very gradually, and against much opposition, taken over IANA and its role. And, in its desperation to be recognised by other countries at the Internet's authority, has abused the control IANA provides to get those running ccTLDs to sign contracts with it accepting its rule.

There are a large number of reasons why the person (or organisation) currently running a ccTLD would want it assigned to someone else, and more why someone else would want it assigned to them. The most significant movement at the moment is developing nations taking control of their own country's Internet presence after years of being run by knowledgeable Westerners, either for philanthropic reasons or for financial gain.

However, ICANN has in the past been guilty of only allowing someone else to take over the domain (for it to be "redelegated") if they sign up to its own contract, which gives ICANN significant rights over its status. This abuse even affected those that weren't asking for a redelegation. Ordinary maintenance of a domain, which sees large, key servers swapped occasionally, requires IANA to make changes. These changes were being delayed as a way of pressuring countries to sign up to ICANN's contract.

The bully-boy tactics backfired and for the rest of the world became a fundamental source of anger and mistrust against ICANN.

In the past month, and in the course of next month, however, this approach will finally - and belatedly - bethrown out the window. And, if ICANN's head of Policy Development Support, Paul Verhoef, is to be believed, the results of actions not words has already seen a positive response from the worldwide community.

Libya, Nigeria, Palestine, Chad and a dozen more...

On 9 June 2004, a six-year battle for control of the Nigerian domain name (.ng) was finally resolved. Six months earlier, the issues exploded onto the public stage with wild accusations of corruption, amid many others.

On 17 June 2004, the Occupied Palestinian Territory (.ps) was redelegated with little or no apparent fuss.

On 29 June 2004, ICANN resolved an issue over ownership of the Libyan domain (.ly) that had also been bubbling under for six years and in April this year resulted in the complete disappearance of the domain from the Internet.

Yes, in the Nigerian case, ICANN stood well back and it took the country's President to personally step in to force agreement. And, yes, in Palestine, all the bodies appear to have been in agreement, but the resolution of ongoing problems from what previously appeared to be chaos have given other countries confidence in those running the show.

The new ICANN management is not proud of the organisation's past behaviour. "How it happened in the past caused a lot of country code managers upset," Verhoef admitted. "But that situation has changed significantly. We are about to ask the ccNSO [the country code supporting organisation within ICANN] what should be going into new 'accountability frameworks'. We'll have a new approach, a new slate." Twomey promised the same thing last week when he spoke about the issue of Iraq getting control of its own domain.

Verhoef's promise that something on that process will be made public is alluded to on IANA's website at the moment. On its front page it reads: "Posting of the new delegation data procedure document has been delayed as a result of the need to include suggestions received after the public comment period closed, and subsequent internal and external review of the final draft. We anticipate that the final version will be posted by 9 July 2004."

However, ongoing redelegations will still be completed using the current system, and that means more countries signing up to ICANN "memorandum of understanding" or "sponsorship agreement" - depending on whether it is the government or a third-party running the domain. Verhoef tells us that there are now 10 to 15 ongoing redelegations going on at the moment. "Every couple of weeks, there is another one," he says.

What he omits to say is that this is probably a backlog of redelegations which have been held off because countries do not want to cede their independence to an Internet overseeing body. The new approach is getting results and countries are starting to work with ICANN rather than against it. Verhof hopes the 'accountability framework' soon to be signed by Dutch domain .nl will serve as a best practice approach in future redelegations.

ICANN is trying to extend the olive branch and has actively promoted a workshop at its forthcoming meeting in Kuala Lumpur on 24 July that will "focus on the operation and practical operational issues facing the ccTLDs". To make the message clearer, the workshop will be jointly hosted with the ITU, and both Twomey and the ITU head honcho Houlin Zhao will give opening statements.

So everything's hunky dory now?

By tackling the issue of redelegations, ICANN will pull a significant thorn out of the paws of the world's countries. But its problems are nowhere near over.

Many of the most important ccTLDs are still refusing to join the ccNSO as they don't want to give it legitimacy. Others remain unshakeable in their belief that ICANN should not be dabbling with IANA at all. It has probably raised a few eyebrows that the person awarded the .ly domain was neither of the two people publicly fighting over it, who both had some claim to the domain.

It appears instead to have be given (at least "on a limited basis") to a Libyan ISP. Mr Marwan Maghur of the General Post and Telecommunication Company (GPTC) (whose website doesn't work) has been given "provisional redelegation". Maghur has complained about the situation where a UK company was running Libyan's domain since 2001, meeting an ICANN representative over the matter, according to his own minutes.

Plus there remains the question of transparency. ICANN stresses that it cannot make public the information provided for redelegations, usually quoting commercial reasons. Large numbers of Internet users would disagree with that straight off the bat. Why, if someone wishes to take over any entire country's domain, should they not be subject to the most intense scrutiny?

And while ICANN appears to be relaxing from its previous position of informing people after the decision is made, we only know that Chad is due to be redelegated because it appeared on the ICANN's Board meeting agenda. No decision on it was made (we can see form the meeting's very brief notes, but we may never know if this was because of disagreement or lack of time.

Verhoef says that "it is not our job to inform the public at large what is going on" because it might be "misinterpreted". It certainly isn't simple. ICANN chairman Vint Cerf said recently in a interview that: "The most knotty are things like re-delegation of a top-level domain. It is amazing how complex that can get." But they're not going away and many would argue open discussion will end up being more effective than closed.

Even assuming ICANN does manage to get the redelegation issue right though, it still faces a bigger and nastier hurdle in the meantime. And that is its budget for next year, which has almost doubled, already seen a fair amount of angry criticism and looks set to provoke some more.

But more of that, and Kurt Pritz's defence of his budget in another feature very soon. ®