Former ICANN chairwoman Esther Dyson last week appeared to distance herself from controversy over the body that oversees the basic functions of the Internet as she outlined the challenges to faced in reforming the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
As ICANN searches for a new structure and constructive rapport with the Internet community, the reform is being closely watched because it affects how the most basic structure of the Internet works, and who controls it.
Speaking in the Oxford Union at a meeting of the Oxford Internet Institute, Dyson said the organisation has in the past been driven by conflict and hostility, due mainly to the self-perpetuating nature of its governing board and the fact that many of its meetings have been behind closed doors.
Her comments drew incredulity from some in the industry. Dr Willie Black, chairman of the .uk country code top-level domain (ccTLD) registry Nominet, said he was confused by Dyson's speech. "She was saying 'I didn't know what we were doing', but she was the chairman of ICANN then," said Black, a vocal critic of ICANN, speaking to ZDNet UK after the conference. "It confirms to me that the board is not acting together as one team -- it is not performing the true function of a board of directors of a company." In her speech, Dyson said the next version of ICANN is unlikely to be perfect, but said, "We may succeed in pulling out ICANN 2 that will someday lead to ICANN 3."
The most important feature of ICANN's reform, said Dyson, is that there will be a new board, although she said it still will not be elected by the public -- a contentious point for many ICANN critics. "Some of them will be the same old insiders, some will be nominated by a board," she said. "I hope some of the hostility and distrust will end. Despite the board still being self-perpetuating, it will be more open."
Dyson ruled out direct elections for ICANN board members, saying there is no clear electorate. "The reality is that it will be a negotiated price. It would be nice to create a structure that would work and guarantee an open ICANN that is accountable, and that comes up with policies that reflect the community."
The problem appears to be defining what the community is. Dyson admitted that currently ICANN is unduly US-centric. "It is based in Los Angeles and has too high a proportion of US staff," she said. "It is moving in the right direction, but it does still have a US mentality. The idea was to have it created by the Internet community -- it has not quite worked out like that."
The big issue, said Dyson, is dealing more efficiently with ccTLDs. "In the past ICANN has gone to ccTLDs and said, 'sign here, we'll tell you what to do.' We should have asked them to come and join us and build consensus-driven community."
On 3 and 4 March, ICANN is due to meet the ccTLDs at a meeting of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva. Dr Willie Black, who is to co-chair the meeting, has some fundamental disagreements with Dyson's views and those of the ICANN board.
"Dyson said ICANN was established to do policy, even if it is just a very thin layer," said Black. "Well, ICANN was set up to sort out technical issues -- protocols and DNS server issues. It could be argued that there could be a policy element involved in dong these things, but really disputes over IP addresses are a matter of process."
"To me, policy is about other issues, such as privacy," said Black. "The only privacy issue ICANN has to deal with is in the whois service. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with using the word 'policy'."
While Dyson and ICANN drive for a consensus-driven community, its own board seems to have an almost total lack of consensus on what the organisation is there for, say critics. "It should be a technical coordination function," said Black. "They need to be asking: what is the minimum we need to do to make sure the system works."
One answer could lie in closer cooperation with the ITU, which ICANN will discuss at the Geneva meeting. "That (the ITU) is what ICANN should have been," said Black. "A nonentity in the background that people don't worry about because everything just works. But ICANN got itself up on it hind legs and said almost it will be a fight with the community."
According to Black, ICANN is currently in danger of going the way of the Mary Rose, where they kept adding extra cannons until it tipped over because it was so heavy. "I think the nominating committee of the good and the great nominating others will sink from its own complexity," he said. Instead, ICANN should pare down its remit. "It should only do the minimum, make it non-threatening, and only recover costs to do what has to be done. Currently, ICANN's attitude is one of: 'we're going to do x, y and z and you guys have to fund it.'"
Richard Hill of the ITU said the model has worked for international dialling codes for the telephone system. "We allocate phone numbers -- 44 for the UK -- but nothing else," said Hill, speaking at the Oxford conference. "We do just the absolute minimum necessary, so a UK telco could say they'll use a different number from 1 to dial the US, and I might send a letter suggesting they might like to change their mind, and the regulator might have something to say about it, but nothing else will happen. There is a strict separation of duties. The staff do not make policy. Experts make policy."
The ITU is not proposing to take over ICANN, said Hill, "But we do propose increased cooperation -- there are lots of thing the ITU knows how to do very well that ICANN could learn from."