Next year could be the year in which new models of internet self-government really come into their own, according to the president of the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers.
In September, the latest in a series of memorandum of understandings between ICANN and the US government, essentially the documents that gives ICANN its powers over the internet domain name system’s root zone, comes to an end.
But it is not yet clear what will happen after that time. ICANN president Paul Twomey has repeatedly expressed that this MoU is the last one, and he said so again in an interview with ComputerWire on Sunday.
The notion has long been, ever since the Clinton administration called for ICANN’s formation in 1998, that the US Department of Commerce would give up its oversight role over ICANN when a series of tasks outlined in the MoU were accomplished.
ICANN, at that point, would be flying solo. But the Bush administration this July seemed to switch policies, saying the US would maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file.
Twomey said that ICANN has completed all but two of the MoU tasks already. It has the next three quarters to continue to negotiate stable agreements with the world’s country-code top-level domain operators, and with the 13 DNS root server operators.
There was a lot of preparation work this year with the CCs, Twomey said. One of the key things was to put it back in the hands of CCs and see what they’d like to see in the agreements.
ICANN already has a handful of written agreements with some ccTLDs, but nowhere near all of them. There are 246 country-code TLDs, such as .jp and .uk, but so far ICANN has written understandings with only about a dozen.
The key thing is commitment, I don’t think there’s an expectation on our part or by the US Department of Commerce that 246 signatures have to appear on 246 pieces of paper, but I think it should be comprehensive, Twomey said.
While dealing with ccTLDs has a host of political and cultural barriers, agreements with the root server operators, the organizations that run 13 logical root server clusters around the world on a not-for-profit basis, will be a somewhat less political problem.
We want to ensure that whatever language frameworks emerge with the root server operators completely reinforce longstanding culture, longstanding agreements, Twomey said. We don’t what to put any additional risk in that formula… We’re respectful that these people were doing this function a long time before ICANN existed.
Even if ICANN manages to fulfill the MoU requirements before September, there’s no guarantee the US government will stick to its promise to decouple itself from ICANN.
It is broadly speculated that the administration’s apparent policy u-turn in July was mainly a tactical maneuver to strengthen the US hand at the negotiating table at the World Summit on the Information Society.
WSIS, a UN-backed meeting of governments that wrapped up in Tunis a few weeks ago, was broadly seen as a power play by certain governments and international entities that wanted to insert themselves between ICANN and the DNS root.
By committing itself to continue to oversee ICANN, the US set the ground rules for WSIS, and ensured that the final agreement, the Tunis Agenda, did not do anything to substantially change existing internet management mechanisms.
What it did do was to commit the UN to create a body to be called the Internet Governance Forum, in which stakeholders including governments will have a discussion forum for cross-border internet policy issues.
Preliminary discussions on IGF were to take place in New York this Tuesday. Twomey called on participants to recognize the role for the new types of governance model embodied by the likes of ICANN, which don’t fit into traditional definitions.
I continue to thinks the UN’s traditional distinction between government, business and civil society is an anachronistic taxonomy in the internet age, Twomey said.
It’s a battle of ideas… Essentially, the old economic political model is battling a new model of technology driving the new economy, Twomey said. It’s top-down, with governments in command, versus bottom-up, with stakeholders driving policy development, he said.
The internet is powerful because value is created at the edges, so a Skype can appear out of nowhere, Twomey said. ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model is a reflection of that, he said.
The IGF will not replace Commerce in overseeing ICANN, Twomey said. The IGF is not an oversight body, he said. We’re not going to become an intergovernmental organization by the back door, an international treaty organization by the back door.
So, if the MoU expires and if it’s not the US overseeing ICANN, not the UN, not IGF, then what? Full independence?
Whatever we evolve into will have to have some kind of expression, some kind of institutional expression, Twomey said. What that may be remains to be seen.