Interview In his most revealing interview since taking charge of internet overseeing organisation ICANN in March 2003, president Paul Twomey has accused governments looking to subsume ICANN into a UN body as "living in a political fantasy land", while at the same time being thankful that the internet community doesn't have tanks.
Just months before the future of the internet is decided at a world summit in Tunisia, Twomey also tackled the US government's recent assertion of control over the foundation of the internet, plus internal criticism of the organisation's expanding budget and the recent process that handed ownership of the dot-net registry to VeriSign.
- Accused some governments of being short-sighted in their aims
- Offered reform of ICANN's governmental advisory committee (GAC)
- Praised the "robust and colourful" internet community
- Called for greater interaction in ICANN's decision-making processes
- Promised that ICANN would focus on improving its core technical functions
He also outlined how ICANN was now entering the world of inter-governmental negotiations as the internet grows from its roots of being an engineer and academic-created network to a global medium with vital implications for worldwide education, information and commerce, plus the role he expected to play in keeping ICANN's best interests at the top of the agenda.
But first, with the UN's Working Group on Internet Governance (WGIG) report just published in which it outlines four models for the future of the internet's administration, only one of which sees ICANN retain its autonomy, Twomey was keen to point out the distinct advantages that the current model has for world governments.
"I think ICANN came out of that very intense investigation pretty well - pretty damn well actually. The question is now really focusing on what is the appropriate place for governments where they can interact.
"I think it’s very important that in this single interoperable internet that doesn’t know boundaries, that has been built up through the academic and private network, that handles huge numbers of resolutions today, is very much a source of innovation, it’s a bit useless just to have governments in a room - you’re going to have to go through a multi-stakeholder process just to inform everybody people about what is going on.
"In that sense I am much more a pragmatist than a purist, I think that the pragmatic benefit to the international community is to have a multi-stakeholder focus for discussion."
And, of course, Twomey sees ICANN's own Governmental Advistory Committee (GAC) as providing governments with the ideal entry point into that process. He is happy to see changes if they eleviate governments' current concerns: "If they wish to change the name of it, that’s up to them inside the GAC. If they want to revise how it works, that’s up to them. But it strikes me it would be exceptionally short-sighted of a government to say ‘I want to get rid of this’ for whatever political theory reason when actually it’s a mechanism whereby they can ensure that something that they cannot guarantee will be put in place."
And by "cannot guarantee", Twomey is quite explicit: "The internet is well over 200,000 interconnecting private networks. Nobody owns the whole thing. ICANN has contractual agreements - has over 500 of them - with registries and registrars which help set frameworks for how those functions work across those networks, and those are contracts written in international private law.
"One of the key provisions of every contract we sign is that the party agrees to abide by consensus policy. And consensus policy is a process outlined in our bylaws whereby all the various parties, stakeholders in ICANN, can come together and agree a consensus around some policy that needs to be implemented. Once they agree to this consensus policy - that applies to every contract we have."
Contrary to one of the models outlined in the WGIG report, Twomey argues that the GAC cannot be pulled out of the current mechanism. "The government advisory committee is an essential and integral part of ICANN. It's not a separable part." And as for the plans to break ICANN apart completely: "If the UN decides to go with one of the other plans, they could throw a very important baby out with the bathwater."
Besides, the alternative to the GAC and ICANN process is, in real terms, non-existent. Governments could of course bring out their own legislation to cover different elements of the internet, but "they would only apply in their jurisdiction. A few countries would try to have extra-territoriality and we'd just ignore them.
"[Alternatively], they could try to pass some international treaty which is then going to bind private companies, but we’re talking political fantasy land. There is no indication as I can see that there is going to be any sort of support for a binding international treaty that going to cover all countries of the world and bind all of the companies involved with the internet through that treaty - I just don’t see it happening. The internet fundamentally was built through private contract."
On top of that, Twomey points out that the GAC already has a tremendous amount of power in the ICANN system: "There’s no instance that I know of - and I should know because I was chair of the GAC for four years - no instance I know of where the GAC has not got what it’s asked for."
The US government and its 'principles'
But, of course, ICANN had reckoned without the US government announcing just a few days before the WGIG report was published, a series of four "principles" in which it stated it will "maintain its historic role" overseeing the internet's root zone file.
None of the UN's four models of future internet governance see the US government retain overall control. The report even goes so far to say: "No single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to international internet governance."
This puts ICANN in a difficult spot, especially with Twomey having gone on record numerous times in the past as saying he expected US control to be handed over when ICANN's contract with the government (a "Memorandum of Understanding" (MoU)) ends late next year.
Twomey says he was surprised at the media reaction, which reported the announcement as a US government refusal to hand over control of the internet. He is more circumspect: "The first three principles are written in the present tense or the near future tense. They are a statement of the present state of what they do.
"The key thing about such documents is not what they say, but what they don't say. It doesn't say anything about the MoU. This is not a bad thing - contrary to what’s in the media. We have an MoU that still goes through to September 2006, it’s an established document, we’re working towards that. Do we see this as some sort of radical disenfranchisement of ICANN? Absolutely not. I think some of the media misinterpreted it as being a document directed towards us. I suspect it was a document directed towards other governments. "
What Twomey is saying is that the first principle which has caused the fuss is a bargaining tool with the UN as the future of internet governance is thrashed out. There is no suggestion that the US government will continue to insist on control of the root zone once the WSIS process is complete.
Here is that first principle: "Given the internet's importance to the world's economy, it is essential that the underlying DNS of the internet remain stable and secure. As such, the United States is committed to taking no action that would have the potential to adversely impact the effective and efficient operation of the DNS and will therefore maintain its historic role in authorizing changes or modifications to the authoritative root zone file."
Twomey is bemused: "I don't think anybody should be surprised that the United States government would come out with this statement now as a set of principles with which it could then go and talk to other governments. And I suspect that is the process happening at the moment."
If ICANN has found itself under the spotlight from outside, it is also under stronger criticism from within its own organisation. In particular, its ever-expanding budget and the recent process by which VeriSign was handed back control of the dot-org registry.
Twomey begins with an observation of the internet community as a whole. "There's no point in having a thin skin in this game. In the internet community from the very beginning it’s robust. Some of our friends from the diplomatic community that have come to watch ICANN meetings have sat there somewhat shocked. I suppose one thing about the internet community is that we don’t have tanks. If you’re a diplomat and you start talking like that, you know, next week the tanks are rolling."
But such fireworks serve a purpose: "It's very useful because it brings up problems, it's a way of solving problems. But yes, there's still personalities, and yes I suppose they are going to continue and they are going to continue to be noisy and that's fine. I have experienced in my own previous life as a government officials, the full and varied and colourful vitriol that Australian citizens can come up with when dealing with the elected representatives and their officials. I think it’s healthy. It means issues come out quickly."
And nowhere has that criticism been as strong as in the recent retendering process for the dot-net process. The rage was such that chairman Vint Cerf himself apologised at the start of a public meeting for how the process had been handled.
Twomey however insists that there was no wrong-doing. "The whole dot-net process was this 18-month process with a lot of open consultation and a lot of open transparent processes to put that together. In any environment where people are going to win and lose, people are going to criticise. But I think the process has pretty much stood up.
"Whatever came out, whether VeriSign was to be successful or someone else was successful, people would have had various alternative conspiracy theories. And there’s nothing we can do about that. All we can do is follow a process and put it through.
"I can tell you - and I am absolutely personally emphatic about this - we ran a process, the process was evaluated, the evaluators came back and gave us their report, there was a decision made, and there was absolutely no influence, and no thought throughout that whole process over who should the winner be."
Alot of the criticism, he claimed, is actually criticism of the outcome. "If you didn’t like the outcome, I can understand that. Some people win and some people lose, but I don’t think it justified the process was flawed."
The difficulty - and a major issue with ICANN - is that there while the process itself is open for comment, for one reason or another, people failed to provide significant input until the process was completed and the decision made. In the case of dot-net, large changes were made unilaterally by ICANN staff but these were either not noticed or not commented upon during the period made available for feedback.
Picking on one small point, Twomey explained: "We put the RFP up for comment. Nobody wrote in and said 'hang on one of the principles of the RFP should be to ensure that dot-net is held outside the United States'. We didn't even get that to consider to put into it."
Twomey accepted there was a problem with communication. "There is an issue about that at the moment. We've got to work more on ways of getting more people participating. It is a bit frustrating. We've got to run a proper process but we’ve also got to be an efficient process. We can't put some principle in that says 'well we won't stop this until we have 60 responses'. We've got to say the process of consultation will last four weeks or six weeks and once you get that period of time, it's over."
And as an example of how ICANN is trying to improve, he refers to the ongoing strategic planning process. "We are doing a process in three languages - English, French and Spanish. We are using a group software process where people can come in and can respond in immediate terms what they think. We’re trying to use these sorts of tools, challenging people to come, to force the feedback rather than post the document waiting for responses, not get many responses, go to a meeting and get savaged. There’s something broken about that so we're going to try to find an alternative, use alternative tools."
Another bone of contention is ICANN's budget. The projected budget for 2005 was double the previous year at $15.8m, causing significant anger in the community who accused ICANN of empire building and who will be asked to stump up the money for it. Now it appears even that figure was conservative with it expected to come in at $23m, possibly even more.
The outcry has caused the ICANN Board to promise to hold back several programmes - in particular spending on regional offices - until agreement is reached with all constituent parts. Twomey is unrepentent.
"One of the things you have to be careful with in the internet community and ICANN is that there's a great ease in saying ‘we’re got to do this, this, this, this and this’. The meeting finishes and I sit there thinking 'oh well there's another two million dollars worth of costs, I don't know what I'm going to do'. That happens a lot. I mean, a lot of people want a whole lot of things - and you've got to pay for it somehow or other."
Twomey denies the empire building accusation. "Sheez, if I wanted to build a financial empire I'd go out in the private sector and at least get options for it. I've been trying to solidify the financial basis and get the budget in place. That's not because I want to build any damn empires."
As for widening ICANN to the rest of the world, Twomey sees it as vital. "Part of our experience of having people working in Europe is being in timezones. It's a big issue if people can ring someone in their own timezone and deal with in their same timezone. It's a big issue that they can interact with someone, it's a big issue that they can interact in the language that they speak, it's a big issue that they understand the culture that they are coming from.
"It's also important to recognise that there are communities that are not yet represented here who want to be represented, but will not necessarily have the same resources. And that’s an enablement chance for us. An outreach chance.
"Nitin [Desai - the UN special advisor on internet governance] has said that the growth in the internet is in the developing countries. They’re going to want to be heard, they want a seat. They don’t think of themselves as second-class world citizens."
The future and the Twomey legacy
The next four months are going to be vital for ICANN. It is now under blatant discussion by the world's governments and in November they will decide exactly what happens to the seven-year-old organisation. It hasn't exactly passed Twomey by.
"We’re now in a very different environment. We’re back in the fairly close inter-governmental negotiating environment. It will be interesting to watch in the two weeks in September [Prep-Com3] to see just where the main players have gone and how the discussions go."
Twomey also recognises the reason he's is on board as ICANN's president is precisely because of his wide experience as a government official. "I suspect if you were to ask the Board members, if you were to ask Vint Cerf and others, why did you choose a certain man as president. I suspect the choice of who they chose for president was an indication of the Board understanding the environment they were having to work in. They knew what sort of skills they needed to have."
Having been in charge of ICANN for nearly two-and-a-half years, Twomey says he still far from leaving but he already has some reflections on his time spent at the top: "There are clearly people that disagree with parts of what they think I’ve been an agent for. I know there are people out there who aren’t necessarily happy with things they think I’ve been pushing. But I think alot of people have been on a common view of the common need, I mean, my real thing is to take this back to the common need."
And as for lessons learnt: "Three-quarters of the things I’ve learnt I probably can’t repeat in public."
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