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The US Is Losing Its Grip on the Names and Numbers of the Internet

ICANN's moves to lose the US contract are a step toward globalized internet governance, but it's not easy, or quick.

Fadi Chehadé, president and CEO of ICANN. Image: Wikimedia Commons/ICANN

This week, over 3,000 people attended ICANN 50 to discuss issues facing the internet’s global domain name system and the organization that coordinates it. One issue dominates the agenda: globalizing internet governance. 

“The internet has become a global resource, a resource for everyone. Its governance needs to mirror that,” Fadi Chehadé, president and CEO of ICANN, told me in an interview this morning.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is a non-profit that oversees some of the technical infrastructure of the net; the names and numbers that make up the online system. It operates domain names (the site name you type into a browser, like a .com address), assigns IP addresses (the number allocated to devices), and helps develop internet policy. 

But ICANN has always been very closely tied to the US. While it’s a nonprofit, it’s under contract to the US Department of Commerce, and is largely based in the US. And recently, other countries have grown increasingly unhappy about that. In the post-Snowden world, there’s a feeling of mounting distrust around the amount of control the US is able to exercise over the internet.

A group of global organizations met in South America last year to discuss a more shared system of governance, and earlier this year the European Commission announced proposals to transition to a “more global model.” Both singled out the globalization of ICANN as a priority.

What ICANN does. Image: Wikimedia Commons/ICANN

But Chehadé told me that ICANN planned to globalize even before the whole NSA debacle was made public. He said it was important that internet governance become more globalized to reflect what has become a global resource.

“When we started, only four percent of the world was on the internet and half of it was in North America; now 40 percent of the world is on the internet and half of it is in Asia,” he said. “I think governance of the internet needs to mirror where the internet is and where it’s going.”

ICANN is on the path to sunsetting that special US arrangement by removing the contract; exactly how to undertake the transition is the main focus of the conference this week. It’s not a quick process. Neelie Kroes, the vice-president of the European Commission responsible for Europe’s digital agenda, said in a speech yesterday that she welcomed the transition, but added pointedly that, “It has been a long time coming, and in some quarters patience would wear thin if there is further unnecessary delay.” 

I asked Chehadé what role he thought governments should play in internet governance at all, and he said that depended on the situation and the stage of decision-making. “The government’s role in how we design a new protocol for the transport of packets on the internet is quite different to the government’s role in how we design a policy model for preventing child abuse on the internet,” he said. 

“Fundamentally though, I would say that every actor in the community has a role in the governance of the internet: governments, private sectors, technical organizations, academics, civil society—users, for that sake! We need everyone involved in internet governance,” he said. 

Fadi Chehadé's opening speech at ICANN 50

ICANN has a government advisory committee, and UK communication minister Ed Vaizey led a high-level government meeting in London earlier this week to work through some of the tougher issues. Again, don’t expect many solutions too soon. Speaking at the event, Vaizey extolled the virtues of global governance. “But let’s face it,” he added, “‘Rapid change’ and ‘inter-governmental agreement’ are not concepts that generally go well together.”

And as well as transitioning stewardship of important internet technicalities into a global framework, there are also pressing concerns around a load of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs, or the bit that comes after the dot in .com). Pressing concerns like, who should be allowed to use “.wine”?

This harks back to the decision to allow a load of new gTLDs, so you can have sites that end in .london or .today or .sexy. Chehadé told me the decision was made by the community and that not only does it allow for names in other scripts, such as Chinese, Arabic, and Cyrillic, but it “allows companies, communities to also provide authentication for their domains in a space that has become extremely crowded.” The idea is that, if you buy a watch from a .cartier website, you can be assured of its authenticity.

“The Catholic Church applied for .catholic and will use it in the same way—so it can give assurance to people who search for, let’s say, institutions associated with the Catholic Church,” said Chehadé. 

"Look, the model of consensus-based governance, which is what we use here, is a fragile model, almost by design."

But it’s not as simple as just giving brands and organizations their names in post-dot form; the application to create a new one costs $185,000, plus maintenance each year. Then there’s the problem over whether some names should be reserved for particular groups. And that’s why there’s a land-grab problem over some desirable domains.

Why is .wine so controversial? That ties in with the 'authenticity' notion. France is notoriously fussy about its wine regulations, and winemakers can only call something “champagne” if it’s grown in the right region, and so on. Some European representatives have raised concerns that allowing others to use “.wine” or  the French version “.vin” might threaten this. Neelie Kroes wrote a letter last year asking for applications for those gTLDs to be held until a consensus on the matter was reached. 

But in a communiqué just released by the government advisory committee, it looks like it’s still a stalemate, with the GAC writing that “no agreement was reached because of the sensitive nature of the matter.”

There’s a similar fight brewing over the .eco gTLD, with environmental groups suggesting that, if it isn’t safeguarded, corporations may try to use the suffix in an attempt to “greenwash” their image.

All of the above just demonstrates how tough it can be to get consensus on even matters that seem like relatively trivial issues; fair online governance isn’t easy. “Look, the model of consensus-based governance, which is what we use here, is a fragile model, almost by design,” Chehadé said when I asked what it was like to deal with so many different stakeholders. “But we have managed quite well, thank you, for the past 15 years.”