A new front has opened up in the global battle for control of the internet, with a heated exchange of letters between two of the main players.
The chairman of Centr - an organisation representing the needs and wishes of a large part of the world's internet registries - has fired a broadside at internet overseeing organisation ICANN following a letter from ICANN that dismissed his organisation's complaints.
In the most recent letter, dated 29 April, Centr chairman Paul Kane made his points bluntly, accusing ICANN of being a quasi-regulator and a "United States private-sector company" from which sovereign nations would not accept orders. He outlined the main concerns with ICANN and made it clear that unless ICANN started accepting a relationship of equals, it would not get the support it needs.
The strongly worded letter came in response to an earlier letter [pdf] sent to Centr from Paul Verhoef, ICANN vice president and its man in Europe, on 18 April. That letter complained that comments made publicly and in private by Mr Kane at ICANN's recent Argentina meeting were "a misrepresentation of the realities at hand".
The disagreements are not new but are coming to a head for two reasons. First, patience with the new ICANN administration brought in by president Paul Twomey in March 2003, is running out. While Twomey promised a much closer, more trusting relationship between ICANN and the rest of the world, many feel there is no actual proof of that happening.
The second reason, explicitly raised in Kane's letter, is political. ICANN's very future is being assessed by the United Nations at the moment, its contract with the US government is running out, and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is making a concerted fight to take over overall control of the internet.
The letters concern themselves with three main stumbling blocks:
- ICANN is trying to gain too much control over other countries
- The basic internet addressing service - called the IANA function - is running far too slowly
- The supporting organisation set up specifically for other countries by ICANN is not functioning properly
The first issue has seen two countries - Poland and Switzerland - sign up with the ITU. ICANN accuses Centr of implying this was because the two countries were annoyed with ICANN's efforts to make them sign contracts that gave ICANN rights of authority over them.
ICANN says this is not the case, that the two countries have "re-confirmed their interest to commence a bi-lateral dialogue with ICANN" and that they only joined the ITU because of ongoing work with ENUM.
Centr says it never made such an implication (both Poland and Switzerland are Centr members) and that it was only the ITU's inevitable spin. However, it says the reason they are joining the ITU is over the far weightier issue of Internationalised Domain Names - namely, making the internet work with languages other than English.
The whole matter also revolves around ICANN's Strategic Plan which is still being argued over and which Centr wants to make several changes to before it accepts it.
The IANA function - basically the vital and every-day changes made to the internet's infrastructure that define where certain servers are and who is in charge of them - have been a traditional sticking point.
Rather oddly, ICANN in its letter refuted Centr's assertion that IANA was still far too slow, despite the wealth of evidence that Centr is immediately able to draw on, and argued that according to its own figures, the service was getting better all the time and it had had no complaints.
Centr in response simply asked its members for evidence of problems and then listed seven of the largest, including one simple change taking seven months to happen. Others were: four months with two reminders, and two months with three reminders. As Centr pointed out, "prior to ICANN coming into being, the previous contractor... undertook simple tasks.. within 24 hours in a fully automated manner."
The IANA function is however an absolutely essential political lever in the ongoing poker game for internet control. It basically decides the layout of the internet and control over it grants significant power. Centr has consistently offered to help and to pay for improvement in IANA, but ICANN will not let anyone near it for fear of losing its grip.
Equally contentious is the supporting organisation set up by ICANN for different countries which it keeps portraying as representative of the wider world in an effort to legitimise its processes.
Unfortunately for ICANN, only 15 per cent of countries have joined up, and none of the largest and most important countries will have anything to do with it until ICANN makes big changes. Centr states quite explicitly: "If the changes are not made to the current process, I am afraid the perceived risks for ccTLDs will almost certainly out-weigh the perceived benefits." It says ccNSO "must focus on becoming a non-threatening forum".
Again, the ccNSO is a political lever that ICANN maintains lends it authority for the whole internet community. However, with the reality so far from the truth, it has still to persuade anyone of the ccNSO's legitimacy.
The arguments between Centr and ICANN, as fierce as they are getting, are still a political tussle. Centr ultimately wants ICANN running the show and not the government-led ITU. At the same time, unless ICANN can get the other countries around the world lined up behind it, its power and authority will be greatly diminished.
ICANN instinctively will not want to make any changes requested by Centr, but Centr feels that its hand is being strengthened by very real and large question marks over ICANN's head. ICANN's robust letter dismissing Centr's claims was insensitive and has backfired. Whether Centr's letter will have the same effect, we will know soon enough. ®