Will the internet die in September?
We preview the agenda(s)
ICANN Marrakech There will be much to discuss at ICANN's Marrakech meeting which kicks off this Saturday, but one question rises about all others: what will happen to the internet on 30 September 2006?
ICANN has its own agenda to discuss, but that agenda and what people actually want to discuss are a little different. As is the fundamental issue that everyone at that meeting should be talking about. This is our account of what is likely to happen, why, and what it all means.
First off, here are the specific items on the ICANN check list:
Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs)
Otherwise known as the rest of the world being allowed the internet in their own language. This is one of the most fundamental areas for the future of the net, and one ICANN has failed to date. But, give it its due, the whole WSIS (World Summit on International Society) process had seen ICANN get its act together and it has been running IDN workshops every meeting for the past four meetings. Plus, in Vancouver, ICANN CEO Paul Twomey announced a Presidential Committee for IDNs. I just hope this time something real and tangible comes out of it. If it's just another three hour discussion about how "we can't get it to work", and "it's more complicated that you think", we might as well just split up the internet right now.
Countries signing up to ICANN
This is a big deal for ICANN: ccTLDs (country-code top-level domains) saying, okay then, we acknowledge that ICANN is in a position of authority. Following the German agreement - which has been very carefully worded not to have any legal tie-ins - other countries have also run to sign up: Latvia (or possibly Lithunania), Christmas Island, Norfolk Island and - amazingly - Namibia. Is Eberhard Lisse still in charge of .na? This gives ICANN a certain level of legitimacy that it has been sorely lacking. The real turning point will be when/if the UK's Nominet signs up.
This is a big issue, and a lot of time will be devoted to governments reaching agreement over how they are going to have a bigger say in how ICANN functions. It is absolutely vital that ICANN is able to announce a plan before its Memorandum of Understanding with the US government is renewed in September - it will be its only real defence when the Bush administration insists on retaining control. What is very, very annoying is that all of this will, as ever, be done behind closed doors.
ICANN doesn't really want to get involved with this because it means trouble: how much information on domain name holders should be freely and publicly available? ICANN doesn't really have any choice but to discuss it: the GNSO voted in a fundamental change after two years of work and that has to be acknowledged. The player to watch here will be the US government. If it is crazy enough to try to insist on keeping the status quo (where your home address and telephone number are available to anyone in the entire world), against the GNSO's own stated position, all hell will break loose. Of course, the US won't actually do that, it will instead try to muddy the issue, point to all the differences, and then say we need more discussion. But there is very little goodwill towards the US government at the moment following the .xxx debacle, so if it has any sense it will let it go. Here's betting it won't.
Otherwise known as "are we still discussing this?" Another example of how ICANN's processes clearly aren't efficient enough. This more secure and stable method of underpinning the internet should have been done and dusted two years ago.
The one good example of ICANN thinking straight. There are a whole range of new issues over domain names and ICANN is precisely the forum where they should be being discussed. There is a workshop, run by Jothan Frakes, and everyone of importance is slated to talk. If only ICANN meetings had more of these events. Frakes has talked a little about it on ICANNWatch.
That's what ICANN wants or is willing to discuss. Here is what people will actually want to discuss, however:
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.