The Internet is teetering on the brink of war. European forces amassed under the executive chairman of UK registry Nominet, Dr Willie Black, are poised ready to strike at the very heart of the Net and liberate its inhabitants following years of non-cooperation by the ICANN regime.
In a letter sent to the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the US Department of Commerce, Nancy Victory, Dr Black has launched a scathing attack on ICANN and suggested European top-level registries take over the technical task of running the Internet if ICANN cannot be relied upon to do a proper job.
Dr Black admits to "some concerns" over the department's attempts to hand ICANN effective control of the Internet for a further three-years following negligible discussion. Referring to the "IANA function" - namely, the technical task of arranging and maintaining worldwide Internet registries - he says: "I do not believe ICANN is the only body capable of carrying out the IANA function."
He continues: "Particularly in view of ICANN's track record of not clearly separating its policy consensus-making role from its operational role, I believe that some consideration should have been given to consulting more widely with the affected community... before entering into a three-year sole contract."
Dr Black then goes on to call for a proper tendering procedure with clear criteria announced in advance and a reasonable length of time to prepare bids. He also lambasts ICANN for failing to listen to any criticism, for abusing its position in an attempt to force its control over all Internet domains worldwide and for confusing its political policy-making role with the technical side of maintaining Internet registries.
Speaking to us today, Dr Black told us the letter was not offering a solution but was intended to meet the commerce department's own deadline to prevent an automatic hand-over to ICANN. "There wasn't enough time to get it around the world and get agreement, so a consensus was reached on the Nominet board about what sort of system we would like to see run."
However, he denied that a submission by European body CENTR would be pitched at taking over control of the IANA function. "I think we would all ideally like to see ICANN run it efficiently," he said, although when asked whether this was likely, told us: "I would like to hope so but past experience has shown that I should be less optimistic."
Taking ICANN out of the equation has been extensively discussed with global Internet bodies, Dr Black confirmed, by forming a distributed worldwide technical network. This would be "more tricky to manage" than the current system but preferable to the current system.
Dr Black's letter (published on ICANNwatch.org) follows a barely concealed attempt by the US government to secretly give ICANN exclusive three-year control of the Internet for free. On 28 January, the Department of Commerce released an obscure notice through its National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration division asking for feedback on its intention to give ICANN the role of managing all domain names, IP addresses and provide effective control over worldwide registries.
Laughably for such an important decision, the notice gives just 10 days for anyone else who believes that may be able to run the system to submit in writing "a written narrative statement of capability, including detailed technical information demonstrating their ability to meet the above requirements". If no such documentation arrives within the time period, the government will immediately hand control over to ICANN for free. Although, if a submission by some accident does arrive a decision whether to consider it rests "solely within the discretion of the government".
The notice was only discovered on 3 February by ICANN watchdog site ICANNwatch, and Dr Black's letter was sent on 7 February (exactly 10 days after the notice). In his letter, Dr Black says the body representing Europe's top-level domain managers, CENTR, is also sending a response.
Whether this approach will be deemed to be within the Department of Commerce's own deadline or whether the department even decides to consider any proposals remains unsure. Dr Black says he is still waiting to hear back. One thing that is for certain however - that ICANN will fight tooth and nail to retain the contract.
The IANA function, while seemingly technical, non-political and of little import with regard to influence is in fact the very foundation on which the ICANN empire is built. Without control over the Internet's main registries, ICANN can do little more than attempt to persuade concerned parties of the correct approach to matters.
While this would seem an ideal solution to outside observers, it is anathema to ICANN. The notoriously secretive organisation has often attempted to leverage its technical control to force through changes it wants to see. Top-level domain managers have been left livid in the past at delays of several weeks in changes to registries that would take only a few minutes.
Registries have been put under pressure to sign up to new ICANN terms and conditions that give the organisation overseeing control. Of most concern is ICANN's power to decide who runs and maintains each registry. "Is it appropriate for ICANN to decide who runs country's registries?" asks Dr Black. He tells us that, theoretically, ICANN could wipe any country off the Internet, although he doesn't believe it would ever do that.
The organisation also stands accused of extorting money from other organisations worldwide in order to maintain the registries. ICANN's accounts do not split costs and expenses between its strictly technical side and its wider (and vastly more expensive) political side. This has led many Internet organisations convinced they are subsidising ICANN's aim of becoming overall controller of the Internet.
Instead, Dr Black tells us he wants the different areas clearly separated. "First let's split the IANA function and then let's see what it really costs. I'm sure that the ccTLDs would actually pay for it themselves because we use it. Then there needs to be clear service levels to be expected."
An increasing level of hostility has been directed at ICANN since the February 2002 proposals by ICANN CEO Dr Stuart Lynn for fundamental reform of the organisation.
Far from tackling the range of concerns about ICANN since its inception in 1998, the proposals made it clear that ICANN saw its role as furthering its reach across the whole globe and setting itself up as a "super-registry". It also failed to address its biggest criticism - that it needlessly and detrimentally blurred the lines between strictly technical work and political, policy-making work.
CENTR's response to the proposals was detailed and damning. It concluded that: "The current operation of the IANA function by ICANN does not guarantee stable and secure management of the ccTLD registry functions, therefore we propose to return to the proven system that empowers the local communities, national law and service to the local internet communities."
It also called ICANN's policy goals "unacceptable" and said it would only fund proven expenses by the technical administration of the Internet.
Dr Willie Black has also become more vituperative in his comments on ICANN. Just last month in an article on Nominet's site, he asked and answered the question: "Is this a true Internet democracy or just a scramble for power and control and a desire from those already at the table to remain there?"
His letter sent to the US government on Friday marks a turning point in Internet history where a direct challenge has been made on ICANN's authority and the complicit relationship between ICANN and the US government laid bare.
Why the need to renew control of the Internet in secret unless there was significant reason to worry that a free and open process would see that control rescinded? Dr Black sees it as simply an attempt "to get themselves legal".
A brave US government would halt the contract renewal and use this as an opportunity to review where the Internet's current situation. But it won't. ICANN would be advised to listen to the concerns of the Internet industries operating around the world and behave in a less threatening and more consensual manner. But it won't.
So we can look forward instead to several years of Internet organisations tearing at each other before the Internet's command structure is finally rebuilt in the world's interests and not just those of an unelected elite. ®
Kevin Murphy of Computerwire has been in touch to point out that it was him that spotted the US government's attempt to sneak through the IANA contract approval, which ICANNwatch then spotted. Credit where credit's due.