ICANN prez welcomes new era of internet
Paul Twomey discusses ground-breaking VeriSign deal
The deal struck between ICANN and VeriSign in a meeting late on Monday has welcomed in a "new era" of the internet, president and CEO of ICANN, Paul Twomey told us last night.
Admitting that it has been a very long negotiation, and one that was not over yet, Twomey was nevertheless delighted that "the VeriSign-ICANN war has come to an end". Something that he says has obvious benefit to the wider internet community.
That community has broadly welcomed the deal. All have pointed out that VeriSign negotiated a windfall with its continued ownership of dotcom - particularly the clause that lets it raise prices by seven per cent each year - but by ICANN finally gaining control of the root zone, the internet as a whole is better off.
There is some criticism of a gagging clause in which VeriSign pledges to support ICANN publicly - something that has clearly written in to aid ICANN in the ongoing WSIS process. The deal also restricts the ability of third-parties to interject, sparking ICANN critic and one-time ICANN Board member Karl Auerbach to argue the deal was like "duct tape around dynamite".
ICANN observer Brett Fausett said in his regular podcast that ICANN had "pretty much got everything it wanted", but bemoaned the fact that the status quo had stayed the same. Professor of Internet Governance and Regulation at Oxford University, Jonathan Zittrain, agreed: "So long as this overall structure isn't changing, the only reason I can see to begrudge the deal is about money - other registry candidates who think they could run .com for less than VeriSign, and customers who may thus overpay VeriSign (and, through its tax, ICANN) for registering or renewing names there."
Zittrain argued that the deal isn't surprising, "and while one might envy VeriSign's lucrative franchise, it's only money. Matters like VeriSign essentially taking all unregistered names and using them itself appear to be resolved, and in ICANN's favour."
The entire settlement is currently out for public consultation, so changes could theoretically be made.
The deal's evolution
The deal itself stemmed from the two companies' lawyers discussing ways of ending a vicious legal battle that began when VeriSign introduced its controversial SiteFinder service in 2003 without consulting anyone. Twomey put his foot down and ordered VeriSign to pull the service, sparking a long-delayed confrontation between the two organizations.
VeriSign did pull the service but sued ICANN in February 2004. ICANN countersued. All those lawsuits were dropped yesterday, VeriSign agreed to hand control of the root zone file over to ICANN, and was rewarded with an extra five years' control of the dotcom registry.
The deal was also inevitable, according to Twomey. "It is the inevitable process that takes place in any market. Look at telecoms - the incumbent is always fighting every change, always fighting against the forces trying to deregulate. At some stage the incumbent says 'we ought to accept this new regime and find ways to work with it'. And we're at that same stage now."
Twomey rejects any suggestion that the extension of the dotnet contract was part of that deal. "There is absolutely no tie betwen this and dotnet - absolutely none. We kept the process completely isolated. And we made it very clear in any discussions with VeriSign that there was no way the two could be tied. The dotnet process was completely independent."
As for the extension to dotcom, Twomey points out that the contract was due to expire in 2007 and that VeriSign had an automatic presumptive right to continue its ownership. "Essentially all we did was pull forward the negotiation process by about six months," he said.
The new dotcom contract extends until 2012 and also provides a presumptive right over continued ownership so long as VeriSign doesn't breach contract conditions. The contract is out for public comment. Twomey points out the presumptive clause appears in a number of other top-level-domain contracts including .mobi, .travel and .jobs and that there has been "no reaction from the community" about the clause.
Under the new agreement, disputes will be dealt with either by a relevant country's public authority in the case of competition, or by a new international technical body in the case of technical problems. The new chair of this body will be agreed between bodies and will choose 20 international experts who will be held on a retainer for fast dispute resolution. Twomey says this will enable a new registry service to be evaluated in just 90 days.
He is also keen to point out that the process itself stresses some of the points ICANN has been making to world governments while they discuss the future governance of the Internet. "Here is another instance where we've been able to work through an outcome and get a solution applicable throughout the world. It was not a mistake or disaster that we were in court. We were able to use ways of resolving private contracts to get this good outcome in a relatively short period of time."
If this same process had been run through an inter-governmental body, Twomey argued: "A: How do you do it time-wise? It would be impossible. And B: How do you get leverage over one particular company?"
Which inevitably leads to the question of the WSIS process and arguments surrounding the future of internet governance. "In some respects, we have to sit there and watch that [process]," Twomey said. "We are recognising this as a discussion between governments."
Asked whether he supports the US government's status-quo model or the EU's expanded model, he is diplomatic. "ICANN has to get along with all governments. We understand what the Europeans are saying about one governent, and we understand what the US government is trying to say. But our focus is on completion of the MoU and continuing to internationalise ICANN itself."
The MoU is the memorandum of understanding between ICANN and the US government, due to expire next year, and which was supposed to move ICANN to a position of autonomy, although recent pronouncements from the US governments have put that assumption under risk.
Twomey refused to be drawn on whether ICANN saw the end of the MoU as its birth as an autonomous body. "It is too early to come to specifics. Completion is what is important will have those discussions next year."
And so it's still all to play for. ICANN is much stronger after the VeriSign deal, but whether it's strong enough to protect itself against the world's governments is quite another matter.