Time for U.S. to stop saying ICANN

This week marks the first time Barack Obama stood in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his inaugural address before an international band of government bigwigs, the U.

This week marks the first time Barack Obama stood in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In his inaugural address before an international band of government bigwigs, the U.S. president championed a "new era of engagement" and global cooperation based on mutual interests and respect.

"The United States stands ready to begin a new chapter of international cooperation," he promised, admitting that America had "acted unilaterally without regard for the interests of others" on some key issues--the country's 2003 invasion of Iraq undoubtedly bears on most minds.

"We must embrace a new era of engagement based on mutual interests and mutual respect, and our work must begin now [but] make no mistake, this cannot be solely America's endeavor," he urged. "Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges."

Obama's declaration couldn't be more timely for the tech industry, specifically, the online community.

In less than a week, an agreement between the U.S. government and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will expire, and some observers are reiterating calls for U.S. to hand over ICANN's ownership to a global entity.

Established in 1998 as a nonprofit organization, ICANN oversees the infrastructure--comprising 13 root servers--that matches Web addresses to their corresponding IP addresses. It coordinates these identify-and-match tasks, enabling anyone to locate and access a site via a decipherable Web address, rather than a string of numbers.

Although it manages an infrastructure that very clearly is critical to the global community, ICANN remains solely under the purview of the U.S. government.

The United Nations had called for the U.S. to surrender ICANN's administration to an internationals body, but the previous Bush administration had steadfastly rejected such proposals.

I penned a commentary discussing the issue in 2005. Today, almost four years later, little may have changed regarding ICANN's ownership but the same can't be said for the Internet landscape.

In 2005, U.S. was home to the world's largest population of Internet users. That is no longer true today. China toppled U.S. in April last year, accounting for the most number of online users globally.

In fact, the majority of Internet users now reside in the Asia-Pacific region, making up 41.3 percent of the worldwide Web population of over 1 billion users.

Figures from the China Internet Network Information Center in January this year put China's online population at 298 million, a 42 percent increase from the previous year. And this number is set to grow further as figures from the Pew Internet and American Life Project indicate that China's Internet penetration rate is still relatively low at 23 percent, compared with 74 percent in the United States.

In its report released on Tuesday, the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) urged the U.S. government to run a full-scale audit of ICANN to reassess the organization's structure, governance and oversight mechanisms.

Noting that "ICANN is broken", CADNA President Josh Bourne said there are several problems in how ICANN is run. Among these, CADNA said ICANN is "not independent", "not transparent" and lacks internal accountability mechanisms that ensure the organization is operating honestly. "ICANN refuses to release transcripts of its board meetings, thereby shrouding the rationale behind its policy decisions and avoiding public accountability."

CADNA did not call for ICANN to be handed over to an international body but if there's any truth in its allegations about the organization's mishandlings, then ICANN's current guardianship under the U.S. clearly needs reevaluation. And the global community must have a right to demand that one is done.

If the Obama administration is sincere in its desire for a more cohesive global community, then it needs to prove that it is.

In his U.N. address, Obama urged the world not to engage in "reflexive anti-Americanism". But he also needs to realize it'll take more than lip-service to rid this global skepticism and demonstrate that the U.S. is indeed ready to take on a more participatory role.

If, for whatever reason, the U.S. government is reluctant to hand over the reins and ICANN's ownership remains status quo after Sep. 30, Obama needs to ensure there's more international involvement as well as influence in the organization's decision-making process.

While it can be argued that America had championed the Internet evolution, the country no longer has the market numbers to lead it.

I said this in 2005 and I'll say it again, it's time the U.S. government recognize a new cyber reality--one that is inherently global.