Special Report – ICANN: New CEO, New Government Role, Accelerated International DomainsPublished on 6 July 2009 @ 4:52 pm
By Monika Ermert for Intellectual Property Watch
With three important processes coming to a head at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) this year, it is difficult not to overlook some changes in the private body, which oversees the internet domain name system. At ICANN’s recent board meeting, the appointment of a shiny new CEO, former United States Homeland Security Department cybersecurity director Rod Beckstrom, drew attention away from top issues, which include the introduction of new top-level domains, ongoing institutional reform, and the looming September expiration of the ICANN-US government agreement.
The ICANN-US Joint Project Agreement (JPA) expires on 30 September. Beckstrom, the former director of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) National Cybersecurity Center, took office on 1 July.
The former DHS employee also has been an entrepreneur, was an activist for the peace network of CEOs in the India and Pakistan conflict in 2003, and sits on the board of the Environmental Defense Fund. He was not selected for being American, stressed an ICANN Board member talking to Intellectual Property Watch. Rather, choosing from “hundreds” of candidates it was not his “US homegrown” aspect, but his “fantastic” leadership quality made the difference.
Yet a former DHS official might come handy after the US Congress in a recent hearing harshly questioned Beckstrom’s Australian predecessor, Paul Twomey, about how much time he spent at ICANN’s headquarters in Marina del Rey, California. Beckstrom, entering in the midst of a busy ICANN year, will be assisted by Twomey, who served ICANN as the first chair of its Government Advisory Committee (GAC) and as CEO since 2003. Twomey was elected as “senior president” until the end of the year.
Beckstrom himself was careful in his first press conference not to take sides when the US-ICANN Joint Project Agreement and internet internationalisation (beyond the original US-centric internet) questions came up. He rejected reports that he had favoured the continuation of the agreement, which is one of the contracts linking ICANN to the US government (which created ICANN in 1997). In the press conference, Beckstrom instead said with regard to an earlier request by EU Commissioner Viviane Reding, that, “Clearly ICANN is optimistic that we will find a constructive way forward.”
Meanwhile, he said, a separate contract with the US government that tasks ICANN with the management of the internet root zone – the so-called IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) contract – is “a very important contract” that will come up for renewal in 2011. It forms “part of the relationship in the context of ICANN’s international government relationships, and obviously in that case with the US government which funded the initial development of the internet protocols and systems.”
Enhanced Role of Governments
ICANN’s Board Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush at the closing press conference of the 21-26 June ICANN meeting in Sydney reiterated the statement that ICANN’s request to end the Joint Project Agreement (JPA) had nothing to do with becoming independent from US oversight. “The JPA does not equal oversight,” he said. “The ending of the JPA does not equal ending of oversight.”
Yet, Dengate Thrush added, the whole idea of ICANN was to be a global “self-regulating, multi-stakeholder, bottom-up” organisation accountable to the community with oversight coming from the “media, governments, registrants and ISPs [internet service providers].”
“We do not want to be some outside, separate, independent, aloof company or body or government or a body of governments,” Dengate Thrush said, adding that if well functioning it might be a “model that is going to be copied“ for future use. “It is not that we do not like oversight by governments,” he said. “It’s only that in our view, in our experience, it’s an old way for doing things.”
Despite this description of the ideal ICANN, some board members think the steps following work of the President’s Strategy Committee (PSC) that deals with oversight and JPA questions are not bold enough. “I think that we are missing a chance for making some more progressive and more important statements,” said Italian Board member Roberto Gaetano at the concluding meeting of the board.
With the transitions from Twomey to Beckstrom and from an old US adminstration to a new one, he and the community were looking foward to more courage and precise statements, for example, with regard to a possible second, international headquarters. One step taken toward internationalisation by the board was the passing of a resolution in Sydney to set up a joint GAC-board working group that will talk about the “future role of the GAC.” This had been requested by the GAC members gathered in Sydney.
Beckstrom reflected that vision of a possibly enhanced role of the GAC in his first comments, saying, “There is already a mechanism for international participation“ as the over 80-member GAC feeds comments into the ICANN Board. „Everyone at ICANN hopes that all nations come and participate,” he said. The job of the ICANN Board and his own job is to support governments’ work in their role. The stronger GAC certainly could be seen as the indirect answer to Reding’s demand for a “Group of 12″ government body to oversee ICANN.
A stronger role for the GAC is one issue of the ongoing morphing of ICANN into its 3.0 edition. An issue that drew controversial statements at the Sydney meeting was voting seats in the new board for the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), representing end-user organisations in ICANN. The board did not agree on whether it should commit to zero, one or the two seats requested by ALAC itself and postponed the issue to the next board meeting. The decision on this question is dependent on how the board itself would be restructured, board members said at their meeting.
On the other hand, the issue of representation of individual users in ICANN still needs to be carved out fully. Is it ALAC with its possible voting board seats that will represent individual users? Or is it the Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG) that will rule the future modified Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO) – the body that develops policies like the new generic top-level domain application process – together with the Commercial Stakeholder Group, the Registrar Stakeholder Group and the Registry Stakeholder Group? Top-level domains (TLDs) consist of web addresses under a certain suffix, like .com.
And there is more upheaval deep down in the GNSO architecture: the long-standing Non-Commercial User Consituency (NCUC) that rallied significant support from non-governmental and civil rights organisations for its new charter, continues to warn against constituency-based instead of stakeholder group-based voting for seats on the GNSO Council. Small lobby groups establishing constituencies could get away with a seat despite little user support and little support in the NCSG, according to the concerns from NCUC. More constituencies to be could be the City TLD Constituency, the IDN TLD Constituency and the much-debated Cybersafety Constituency.
One thing appears certain, ICANN 3.0 will not be less complex than ICANN 2.0. The new CEO himself acknowledged after his first meeting that he was overwhelmed by the number of participants and of different cultures clashing together at ICANN and the force and magnitude of the debates.
IDN ccTLDs will Overtake gTLDs
One of the seemingly everlasting debates saw a decisive turn in Sydney. After years of keeping to a joint timeline for new generic TLDs and the so-called fast-track internationalised domain name (IDN) TLDs, ICANN Chairman Dengate Thrush said that first announcements for the non-latin-based script country code TLDs (ccTLDs) could be expected at the next meeting in Seoul. Asian countries like Korea, China and Japan have pushed most heavily for the fast-track introduction of name zones that would be readable to their non-English-speaking populations. In fact, they started test-beds years ago that are in full operation now.
Dengate Thrush acknowledged that there were concerns in the GNSO that letting the IDN ccTLDs run first would give the ccTLDs a commercial advantage. “That may be the case,” said Dengate Thrush, “but our position at that stage is that the disadvantage that some commercial operators may suffer is a lesser disadvantage than holding back people from access to this technology.”
Potential new TLD applicants are realising that further delays to start the application process for the likes of .gay, .music or .eco TLDs are inevitable given the ongoing discussion on the “overarching issues” from concerns over trademark protection and fraud to checks on demand and economic effect and technical scalability of a massive extension of the root zone file. Therefore they, too, in Sydney continued to lobby for their own “fast-tracking.”
Eric Brunner-Williams, chief technology officer of the Council of Registrars, registry operator for several TLDs, presented the board with a “step-by-step proposal” for the introduction of new TLDs. Signed by a group of cultural and linguistic TLD projects (like .gal for Galician or the various city TLDs including Berlin, New York City, Barcelona and others), the proposal recommends to let the less contentious TLDs run first.
“The step-by-step proposal is an early window, nothing more, nothing less,” it said. “We are convinced that while the still unresolved issues are relevant, a fair number of applicants fall under the radar and are not affected and do not affect these open issues.”
Governments also asked to give non-commercial new gTLDs special treatment and separate them from commercially operating new TLDs, not the least with regard to costs. The “one and single fee structure” that was listed as one of many concerns by the GAC in its Sydney communique had not yet adequately addressed, they said. While asking for preferential treatment for the non-commercial, possibly linguistic zones, the GAC also wants the ICANN board to give more consideration to the “protection of geographic names (on the top and the second levels),” plus “delegation/redelegation procedures,” and better protection for intellectual property rights.
The much-debated report by the “Implementation Recommendation Team” was fought over heavily in Sydney between stakeholders and it will be difficult for the board to draw conclusions balanced enough to find acceptance on that by its next meeting in Seoul.
The GAC, moreover, is not making it easy for ICANN to stick to its gTLD application process guideline. In a rather harsh exchange of views between the representative of the European Union and the ICANN Board Chairman, the EU official rejected the idea that governments were prepared to “get in line with everybody else” when it comes to the objection procedure against new TLD applications. Governments have always voiced their concerns directly to the board, said EU Commission official William Dee.
When it comes to a future .sex or .gay, if there is a government opposed to having that in the root zone for everybody in the world, governments, according to Dee’s statement, would prefer not to go through a formal, not-cost-free objection procedure on public order or morality grounds. Instead, it would like to be able to kill the application by saying “no” to the board, a procedure that would go against what ICANN obviously intends to set-up, which is a more standardised process.
In any case, additional work on the Implementation Recommendation Group (IRT) trademark protection report, a report about possible technical effects and an ongoing debate if cross-ownership of registry and registrar companies should be allowed in the future, will cause ICANN quite probably to miss its self-set deadlines. Board member Raimundo Beca said in Sydney: “We are not really meeting the timelines we were expected to have since this process started.”
ICANN is holding a series of public consultations on the IRT report, such as in New York on 13 July and London on 15 July, and activists are organising to attend to promote a broader view than a narrow copyright industry perspective.
Monika Ermert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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