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The Internet - cheap at twice the price

ICANN buys round of drinks, hopes others will arrive to celebrate

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has just finished its bi-annual five-day meeting in Kuala Lumpur and it's feeling pretty good about itself.

What in retrospect may be seen as the organisation's most vital period has gone off without hardly a hitch. Its head, Dr Paul Twomey was already calling the "best ever" ICANN meeting at the Friday close press conference. ICANN meetings have always promised thunder and lightning yet provided sparks, but there was a big difference this time that everyone had noticed - it had actually achieved something.

There was of course Board approval of the contentious budget for next year, which will see the cost of running the Internet miraculously double over night. It was an achievement that ICANN managed to get very worried registrars back onside by making minor alterations to the charging scheme. But the proof will be in the pudding - will companies actually cough up what ICANN has awarded itself?

However, what marks out this ICANN meeting was the lack of bile. People discussed matters and got a few answers (even Milton Mueller was pleasantly surprised). Broad agreement was reached. Technical issues went through with a sense of a job well done. ICANN did seek to catch the limelight a little with the "news" that IPv6 had been added to the Internet. IPv6 is a change to the basic Internet infrastructure that will allow millions more devices to attach to it. It is essential if the Net is to continue to grow and it is far more of a challenge for those actually running the domains than ICANN, but nevertheless, here was an example of the Internet overseeing body aiding and overseeing - almost as if the past six years had never happened.

There was a day-long, and it would seem extremely productive, conference on Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) - the introduction of foreign characters into the Internet so different languages can be properly represented. Paul Twomey made a point of highlighting a report on the difficulties in introducing IDNs produced by the Japanese and Chinese contingents saying if was of the "very best examples of technical work and co-ordination" that ICANN had ever seen. Here, it seemed, was a man that was genuinely interested in the world outside the US (and English-speaking nations). Not many have seen that in an ICANN staffer before.

He went further and said how pleased he was that a representative body of Africa had come together and was seeking to become part of the organisation. Even when this reporter rained on the parade and asked what ICANN was doing to encourage more countries to join its Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) to give it more an air of legitimacy, Twomey was understanding. Getting the world's countries on board was a "key process" and the "continuation of a troubled journey" but countries would join when they were ready and that he looked forward to a truly global ICANN.

Even the events that would have normally caused disquiet - Board decisions made on ICANN-commissioned reports - were accepted calmly. Normally, ICANN either embraces a report that says what the Board wants to hear and dismisses anything that it doesn't. This time, the report on VeriSign's hijacking of .com and .net domains (SiteFinder); the WIPO report on why big companies should be given priority over individuals on the Internet; and the OECD report that suggested future top-level domains should be auctioned and not subject to ICANN's opaque decision-making were all dealt with fairly.

Even the UN Working Group that is looking at Internet governance and may yet still decide to effectively write ICANN out of the history books when it reports next year was dealt with something akin to respect. The Board "acknowledges the value of the provision to the UN Working Group as well as participants in the WSIS process". And it will help in whatever way it can. You almost believe it.

Enter dinosaur Vint

All this co-ordination and agreement appeared to be too much for ICANN chairman Vint Cerf however. As an ICANN old head, Vint clearly pined for the old days when everyone would complain about injustices and the ICANN Board would get to say "tough" and do whatever it liked.

On the first day of the meeting, an op-ed written by him appeared on eWeek that appeared to follow the very finest traditions of Old ICANN. Namely that it was so full of nonsense that you have to wonder whether it was an elaborate spoof, or had woken up in a parallel universe.

But in place of Old ICANN's approach - which was to say what it wanted you to believe so many times and without any regard to what had just happened that you started to doubt your own ears - New ICANN appears to be genuinely listening and interested in reaching workable compromises.

You could almost hear Twomey's eyes roll to the back of his head when Vint Cerf was asked what ICANN would do if people just refused to pay what it was demanding in the new double-budget. "If we have unco-operative elements, I think would should bring back the practice of public flogging to make them more co-operative," he said, not even half-joking.

Perhaps they keep him on board just to demonstrate how different ICANN really is these days. He may be the "Father of the Internet" but Dad has started to get a bit embarrassing.

So, ICANN has fought off an attack by the people that provide it with most of its current power and money - the registrars - by including some of the changes they asked for. It has got the ccNSO up and running to some degree, and will no doubt be hoping to sign up more at a joint meeting with the ITU tomorrow (Twomey claimed that "three or four" countries had approached him to say they were going to join up to the support organisation). And it can claim to have held a meeting with a genuine international flavour that possibly for the first time counted the world outside the US as equally valid.

Twomey summed up with a point that may yet see him pull off a persuasive coup of magnificent proportions: "When Jon Postel was running the Internet, he could do most things with a handshake or a phonecall. Now there are billions of users and we need to have pieces of paper." He was answering a question about the hated ICANN contracts of old that try to make the rest of the world beholden to ICANN. But what he really did was make afresh the argument for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

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