Internet battle lines were drawn at an extraordinary meeting in Geneva this week. The non-descript "ccTLD workshop" hosted by the International Telecommunication Union on 3-4 March attracted a stellar cast including ICANN president Stuart Lynn, ITU secretary general Yoshio Utsumi and leading representatives of just about every major organisation dealing with the Internet today.
Why the huge fuss? Because the meeting threatened to turn into a caucus where rising resentment against ICANN and its attempt to stamp ultimate authority over the Internet could have escalated into international agreement and action.
Many country domain managers are furious at ICANN's constant efforts to get them to sign up to a new set of ICANN terms and conditions - often under threat of withholding vital services - that would effectively hand over control of their domain to the organisation.
Many do not trust ICANN to use such power correctly and have good reason to be concerned considering its previous behaviour with regard to the wider Internet community.
An incredible 63 papers were introduced to the meeting, of which 17 were either implicitly or openly hostile to ICANN. ICANN retaliated with nine papers, most of them written by members of its organisation, that supported its position. The remainder were either academic studies or simply papers that more accurately fitted the full title of the meeting "Workshop on Member States' Experiences with ccTLDs".
In the end, however, hostilities were tempered by the absence of many authors of ICANN-critical papers and the clear lack of consensus among those representing country-code domains, often from developing countries, who admitted to not understanding the structure behind the Internet's overseeing organisation.
As such, controversial subjects such as ICANN control of the IANA function and its assumed authority over domain redelegation (essentially its control of the Internet's switchboard) were given short shrift and effectively dampened by ICANN representatives. They are unlikely to go away and may yet come back to bite the organisation.
Interestingly, for such a significant meeting, it appears there is to be no official record of discussions (we explain why at the end of this feature). However, all papers contributed are available on the Web, as is (at the moment) full audio coverage of the event.
However, in order to plug this gap, we felt we would provide our own report of the event from the perspective of the criticism and defence of the current system, alongside an explanation of the history that led us to this point. It can all be found below:
So what the hell was going on, and why?
To understand the significance of the meeting, you need to understand some of the history behind it - which is, in itself, a history of the Internet.
The ITU is the international body set up over 140 years ago by countries across the world in order to standardise telegram communication. The telegram was a great advance in communication but everyone soon realised its use was hugely curtailed if every country ran a different, incompatible system.
The ITU successfully introduced common systems and approaches and fast, worldwide communication was born. It then did the same job with telephones. And in fact has done the same with just about every bit of modern telecommunication, with TV the exception that proves the rule.
How then is ICANN and not ITU in charge of running the standardising side of the Internet? Well, ITU did attempt to set itself up as the main Internet body in the early days of the network. It offered a complex and fairly expensive solution that would be provided by telecoms companies.
But at the same time, the US government was funding early Internet networks with simpler and cheaper equipment and, crucially, insisting that the networks were freely available to everyone. The early pioneers of the Internet - universities and research labs - seized on this simpler, no-strings-attached technology and soon they had easily outstripped ITU's plans.
To this day then, the Internet community remains suspicious of ITU, even though it has since produced many of the subsequent standards that have contributed hugely to the Internet's success.
It was this victory that left the US government in effective control of the early Internet. Recognising that it could not be expected to run a worldwide network, the Department of Commerce set up ICANN, an organisation initially tied to it but which it hoped would become an international entity to look after the unique needs of the Internet.
ICANN has achieved the goal of expanding and encouraging the Internet but at huge cost to its reputation. Despite its stated aims of open, transparent and bottom-up consensus-making in all decisions, few independent observers would conclude that it has succeeded in fulfilling this brief.
After huge criticism, ICANN's unsuitability was implicitly recognised by its new president, Dr Stuart Lynn, who set about restructuring the organisation to keep the ICANN dream alive. Dr Lynn will soon leave as head of ICANN and his restructure will come into effect shortly after.
At the heart of ICANN's restructure however is an effort to extend its authority over the Internet in all countries of the world. Only in this way, it argues, can the Internet be held together and helped to prosper in the future. The problem is that a large segment of the Internet community does not trust ICANN or its staff, who have often been accused of bullying, obfuscation and obstruction in order to further their own aims.
ICANN has proven itself unwilling to listen to opinions outside its own sphere and despite promises that this is all due to change, those running Internet domains currently outside ICANN's control are wary of giving it ultimate control before they see more open democracy in action.
In fact, it is safe to say that ICANN is now viewed with the same suspicion that ITU was faced with when its attempts to gain worldwide control of the Internet faltered all those years ago.
To make matters worse, ICANN continually says that creating "global policy" is a vital element of its work. This policy element concerns itself mostly with the social, economic and cultural aspects of the Internet. As such, many would prefer the controlling, technical aspects of the Internet be given to a less political body and one that has experience in developing international agreement.
You won't be surprised to hear that the ITU sees itself filling this role very easily.
Right. So what does this have to do with Geneva?
So, back to this week's meeting, held at ITU headquarters in Geneva.
The first speaker was the secretary general of the ITU, Mr Yoshio Utsumi. "Welcome to Geneva, welcome to the birthplace of the World Wide Web," he began. Mr Utsumi gave a brief history of the ITU. Ten years after the birth of the telegram, ITU stepped in and standardised it, made it work worldwide, he explained. And 10 years after the birth of the telephone, ITU stepped in and standardised it, made it work worldwide, he continued. "Now we have a so-called Internet, which has become, in my opinion, a public utility."
You do not, by the way, get any points for realising that the Web is approximately 10 years old.
Mr Utsumi complained about the lack of consensus regarding the Internet, that ITU was being asked to act but not told what they should do. He explained that much of what ITU does is now Internet-related. He then finished, got up and left but not before inviting everyone to cocktails that evening.
Next up was the director of the Telecommunication Standardisation Bureau (TSB) - the part of ITU that could, for example, easily take over all the Internet's underlying architecture - Mr Houlin Zhao.
Mr Zhao welcomed the president of ICANN and the chairman and secretariat of possibly the most important advisory body to ICANN, the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). He said how much ITU supports ICANN and how he personally submitted his own paper on ICANN reform when it was under consideration two years ago.
He then explained what appeared to be a misconception. "We have heard that people believe if ITU intervenes, it will be the same as governments stepping in. But this will not be." If you were to start a pitch to the owners of country domains, fearful that governmental control was behind your offer, it would probably start similarly to this.
Mr Zhao also helped clear up another false belief: "ITU does not want to take over ICANN... we would like to assist ICANN." And then: "In my opinion, ICANN alone cannot solve all these problems. If it works with ITU we can find a new way to support each other."
Next up was co-chairman of the meeting Dr Willie Black. Dr Black also happens to be the head of Nominet (the people behind the .uk register) the outgoing head of CENTR (a body of 27 ccTLDs) and a well-known critic of ICANN policies. He outlined how the two-day meeting would pan out. The second day would be dedicated to those papers with "problems", "criticisms" or "issues" with the current system.
It is perhaps hardly surprising then that when president and CEO of ICANN Dr Stuart Lynn took the stage, he sounded nervous, lacking in his usual bluster and often stumbling over words. His performance was copied shortly after by the secretariat of GAC, Christopher Wilkinson, a man with endless experience of addressing crowds.
The ICANN view
Mr Lynn began by welcoming the "opportunity for frank and open dialogue". He stressed that the most important aspect for the Internet now was "stability and security". He then stuck a pin in ITU's claim to historical problem-solving. "Unlike the history of telegraphy, from the very beginning the Internet community has self-organised and self-standardised on its own fundamental protocol, TCP/IP that is used today. This defined and still defines the very meaning of the Internet."
TCP/IP incidentally is the system that the US government built the Internet from. ITU tried to introduce the more complex OSI stack.
He then introduced the arguments over why ccTLDs should sign up to ICANN's new ultimate control contracts. "No country is, or can be, an island of this globally interdependent [system]. A pre-requisite to global stability is interoperability, assured through the establishment of a framework of mutual accountability."
My Lynn then outlined the ICANN mantra that it is "open, transparent and fully accountable". The enormous criticism that ICANN has come under (of which this author is proudly guilty) is dismissed: "Anyone can, and indeed does, use the press to amplify their views. That is the price we pay for furthering the reality and not just the illusion of openness, transparency and full accountability."
ICANN acts as an "informed and neutral gatekeeper", it "cannot and does not act arbitrarily, although we are often accused of doing so". He then addresses the concerns that ccTLDs have traditionally being under-represented (often to the extent of being ignored entirely) in ICANN and that it would abuse it new-found power were it to be given it. "ICANN recognises the distinct differences between global policies and local policies. In my view, in the past ICANN lacked a sufficient mechanism for evolving global policy in as far as it affected ccTLDs." This will all be water under the bridge with the Lynn-designed reorganised ICANN.
He finishes with a biting comment, and soppy analogy (for which he apologised) aimed at Willie Black. "The Internet is a very special flower in the garden of the world's communities. One that needs continuous and careful watering. ICANN and all of us only play a very small part but an important part. We can play our parts wisely in the better interests of the global community, handing on a trust to future generations. Or further, at the other extreme, we can just further our own self-interests, in which case the flower will wither and fade."
And without the guff?
Put simply, ICANN is appealing to people's better nature, saying it has changed and improved, and will point at criticism and any attempted intervention in its big plan as going against the deeply ingrained Internet culture of consensus. On the other hand, those who stand to lose their independence point out ICANN's appalling record and wish to pull in bodies that have a history of trustworthy behaviour before handing over control to ICANN. They do not wish (yet) to break up or remove ICANN because of the deeply ingrained Internet culture of consensus.
So on with the show
The rest of the day was interesting but uneventful with regard to this article. What was interesting was when the more controversial papers were released the next day.
One of strongest and earliest was titled provocatively "Sovereign Domains - A Declaration of Independence of ccTLDs from Foreign Control", written by Kim G. von Arx of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority and Gregory R. Hagen of the University of Ottawa.
The paper made extensive use of quotes from the past few years to argue its case that the US government exerts too much control over an international Internet and highlighted the subtle and not-so-subtle threats that ICANN has used to pressure countries to sign up to ICANN's authority. It concluded that countries should announce their principled opposition to ICANN control of any form and insist upon technical independence.
The paper's forceful tone was lost however since the authors weren't there and so only a cursory, almost apologetic, summary was given by the meeting's chairmen (a trend that was to continue throughout the meeting and was hugely significant in ICANN's favour). A representative of the Canadian government stood up to say the paper did not represent his country's official views.
The same situation was repeated when a paper from ICANN director Karl Auerbach stated quite clearly that he believed ICANN was acting improperly by using the IANA function (the top level of the technical side of the Internet) to induce ccTLDs to sign up to ICANN terms and conditions. By doing so, ICANN was creating "a direct and significant danger to the operational integrity of the Internet". Mr Auerbach, was not present, his statement was not read out and an ICANN representative stood up to say that Mr Auerbach's viewed was not shared by the ICANN board.
Next up was Dr Willie Black, who took off his chairman's cap to don his Nominet cap and deliver three papers from Nominet, all of which argued that ICANN was not suited to running the IANA function, should not have the authority to decide who or who does not run a country-code domain and should not be entitled to decide whether to create any new global top-level domains such as .com or .org. Instead, a "treaty based international body" would be preferable to take over these roles.
This was supported. However, an increasingly confident Stuart Lynn put ICANN's view across. He argued that people misunderstood what IANA is and what it does. He claimed it performs well and many of the complained-of delays were due to local problems and not ICANN or IANA. It was "nonsense" that there were performance problems, and all companies that had gone through redelegation were very satisfied (presumably he meant the ones that had won control of the domain). Besides, GAC and the new ccTLD ICANN recommendation body - ccNSO - would smooth any future problems.
What could have become a heated debate was tempered however by a Kenyan representative who explained that such technical issues were of little import to him since his country was concentrating on trying to build its basic Internet infrastructure.
"IANA will become an issue for you in due course," commented Dr Black.
A paper asking ICANN to work with ITU was briefly introduced with no discussion. A paper from the International Chamber of Commerce supported ICANN. Again no real discussion.
Then came a paper from Syria that strongly argued ITU take over the technical aspects of the Internet. The reason was simple: the US Department of Commerce has final say on any matters with the Internet, with ICANN acting as it advisor.
It was therefore "not acceptable politically" for Syria to sign up with ICANN. More forcefully, the representative said for Syria to manage its own Internet domain it "does not need the permission of an organisation managed by the government of the United States". Instead, he argued, the GAC be turned into the policy-making side of ICANN.
The chairman of GAC said he "fully supported" the statement, but pointed out that GAC was only an advisory committee more concerned with bridging the "digital divide" that deciding on policy. "At present it is not an ideal situation but it is the only one that seems to be working".
The head of CENTR - an organisation representing 27 ccTLDs - Paul Kane said that ICANN was largely independent of the US government. And he looked forward to a transition to ICANN answering to the US government to being truly independent - something in which GAC had a key role to play. A representative from Sudan reiterated concerns over the US government control and said he hoped the transition would be short. This feeling was repeated several times.
Stuart Lynn again gave a lengthy explanation of ICANN's position in which he explained that ICANN had no intention of telling countries what to do. This was met with some disagreement. It was argued that countries were independent and should not be told how to treat their domains. An increased role for both GAC and the ITU was strongly argued for. Mr Lynn argued that while the ICANN board has ultimate decision-making power, it would seek to resolve any disagreements it may have with bodies such as GAC before making a decision.
And the rest of the meeting
The meeting continued in the afternoon. Not much of interest happened until the meeting was finally coming to a close, at which point a summary of all the papers contributed to the meeting became an issue of hot debate.
Some forceful attempts at re-editing were made by Stuart Lynn, including, incredibly, the exchange of the word "many" with the word "few", to which the author of the paper it related to - Professor Geist - took exception.
Eventually it was decided to drop an executive summary and simply run with a simple summary of all papers, approved by their authors.
Tellingly, requests from the floor for the production of a paper that summarised the meeting and the discussions was carefully bypassed by both the meeting's chairman and the ICANN contingent.
It is fair to assume that such a summary would have worked against both sides' interests. The organisers' efforts to build a consensus against ICANN's continued authority over the technical side of the Internet were stymied by the absence of key speakers and indifference from smaller countries not literate enough in Internet politics to make a judgement.
Equally, ICANN was unlikely to want an official document carefully outlining people's opposition to its policies. "Written documents tend to have a live of their own," argued Stuart Lynn. With what many may have mistaken for glee, he also noted: "There was no subject that I have heard that I could go away from this room and say there was consensus."
The suggestion that a similar meeting take place in a year's time appeared popular.
And so ended the potentially explosive ITU ccTLD workshop meeting. ICANN, highly trained as it is in controlling and leading meetings, was prepared and got off fairly easily, but its policy of promising a paradise at the end of its seemingly endless path, will not have convinced the more experienced hands. They will be disappointed with the lacklustre nature of the more combative elements of the meeting, especially considering the depth of feeling and well-argued criticism of some of ICANN positions.
It would safe to assume that next time they will be better prepared and more willing to argue their point. ®