US government finally lets ICANN go

update In surprising move, U.S. government says it is ready to relinquish power of organization that oversees global Web traffic to "Internet users everywhere".
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

update The U.S. government has finally relinquished ownership of the organization responsible for administrating the world's Web traffic, putting a surprise end to a heated debate that has raged on over the past several years.


Paul Levins, ICANN

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has inked a new document that gives the non-profit organization sovereignty for the first time, effective Oct. 1. The announcement effectively ends an 11-year direct relationship between the U.S. government and ICANN, outlined under the Joint Project Agreement (JPA), which expires today.

In a phone interview with ZDNet Asia late-Wednesday, Paul Levins, the ICANN's executive officer and vice president of corporate affairs, said: "There's not going to be any agreement. It's over. It's done. There's not going to be a JPA."

A new document, labeled an "affirmation of commitments", will now take the place of the JPA starting Oct. 1, marking the day the ICANN will operate as a private sector organization.

"It's a huge moment for the Internet," Levins said. "It really means that this resource is free from control, it's not being directed by any one entity but will be coordinated by stakeholders for all Internet users everywhere," he said.

A more global Internet

The worldwide Internet user community surpassed 1 billion users early this year, with the majority--at 41.3 percent--based in the Asia-Pacific region. China accounted for the largest number of users globally, housing 17.8 percent of total unique visitors. The U.S. ranked in second, at 16.2 percent.
China toppled U.S. in April last year to become home to the world's largest Internet population.
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. In spite of the sizeable number, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, China's Internet penetration rate remains relatively low at 23 percent, compared with 74 percent in the United States.

Asked why now, he replied: "Because the JPA expired, that's why now. It was always going to end today. It was 11 years ago that this model was established and it's a very powerful message now, 11 years later, that we have the support from the U.S. government that this is the right model moving forward."

Established in 1998 under the U.S. Department of Commerce, the ICANN oversees the infrastructure that matches Web addresses to their corresponding IP addresses. It coordinates these identify-and-match tasks, enabling Internet users anywhere to locate and access a site via a decipherable Web address, rather than a string of numbers.

The U.S. government has long been criticized for refusing to relinquish control of an entity responsible for overseeing the world's Web traffic.

Its critics, which included the United Nations and European Commission, say the ICANN failed to consider international requirements, neglecting critical issues such as multi-language support, leaving some non-Western countries "disenfranchised".

According to Levins, one of the ICANN's upcoming major initiatives is the internationalization of main domain names such as .org and .info, which Internet users currently cannot input using non-Latin characters such as Russian, Chinese or Korean. Provisions next year will be established to support this, he said.

Perception it isn't global
The ICANN has "always been an independent organization", where decision making has "always been decentralized", he noted. He said the organization operates on a set of bylaws and is administered by a board of 21 members, representing all parts of the world, and who are selected for their geographic diversity.

"But, there has been a perception, because of the JPA, that there was some form of oversight under the U.S. Department of Commerce," he said. "Today's announcement marks the internationalization of the Internet. If there was a perception that it was managed by one government, that perception is now dead."

So who owns the ICANN now? The world's Internet community, Levins said, adding that anyone can attend an ICANN meeting anywhere in the world for free. Online users can participate in any ICANN discussion or debate¸ and can make their comments known on technical and government policies, he said.

"Everyone has an equal voice. And today's announcement confirms that."

However, this "internationalization" could pose several challenges and raise questions pertaining to funding and speed of deployment.

Mark Lim, director and head of intellectual property, media and entertainment department at Singapore law firm, Tan Peng Chin, said it is good, in principle, that the ICANN is no longer controlled by any one government since its activities are international and affect all countries.

"But, having said that, if you have major decisions to be made in future, it's going to be interesting to see how the conflicting interests can be reconciled, and whether the ICANN can move forward as quickly as it should," Lim told ZDNet Asia in a phone interview.

"Funding will be an issue as well because now, there's no one person in charge. It creates issues," he said.

He also noted that while accountability would be heightened because the voices of more stakeholders would now be heard, at the same time, due to the divergence of interests, he questioned how decisions will be reached. "I'm sure though that the board will exercise some control in such circumstances," he said.

According to Levins, this will not spell an end to ties with the U.S. government. "We want to be accountable to everyone, including the U.S., and to have a continuing relationship with the U.S. government. We don't want to sever that relationship," he said, noting that this addresses concerns among some American politicians who had urged for the ICANN to remain under U.S. custodianship to "ensure ongoing stability and security".

The U.S. also has a seat on the organization's Governmental Advisory Committee.

Before today's turn of events, Professor Ang Peng Hwa, director of Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University, had anticipated the JPA to be renewed. In an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, Ang said the U.S. government would likely argue that the JPA would be good for cybersecurity.

He noted that there are issues that would need to be resolved if the ICANN is internationalized.

"If governments are involved, how can we as users be assured that the decisions are indeed based on technical and wider social and economic benefits, and not because they are the most politically expedient," he questioned.

When asked, Levins said the organization's review process looks closely at balancing economic and social benefits, as well as the cost of implementing certain proposals.

"We're committing to do those [review and analysis] for every major decision the ICANN takes," he said. "What will keep us honest of that is the participation of world governments, community at large through public comments, our review teams, and so on."

A report released last week by the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA) called for the U.S. government to run a full-scale audit of the ICANN's structure, governance and oversight mechanism.

Calling the ICANN "broken", CADNA President Josh Bourne highlighted ten issues that needed to be addressed, including the lack of transparency and internal accountability mechanisms to ensure the organization is operating honestly.

Following today's announcement, the coalition released a statement noting the lack of accountability and provision to empower entities overseeing the ICANN to follow through commitments. Bourne said: "The Affirmation of Commitments document missed the mark by failing to create accountability for ICANN. The points addressed and the intent expressed in the new agreement touch on the many issues that are important for a stable and transparent Internet. However, without proper oversight and accountability, ICANN is not beholden to follow through on any of the promises made in the [new agreement]."

Bryan Tan, a Singapore-based lawyer who specializes in IT, said the CADNA report calling for a full-scale audit carried fair comments for the ICANN "in the spirit that they can be looked into and rectified".

However, he noted that the ICANN is still a relatively young entity. "It has not been around for that long and like any organization, especially one so diverse but with so much responsibility and operating in a changing environment that no one has operated before--they need to be given time and constructive feedback," said Tan, who runs his own practice, Keystone Law.

Upon learning of the ICANN announcement, Ang expressed surprise and said the move bodes well for the Obama administration, which has demonstrated its willingness to let go a legacy left behind by the Bush administration, that had behaved as if the ICANN equates to the United States.

"It gives the moral high ground to the U.S., which could not preach democracy if it did not act democratically in an area that the world had said should be done democratically," he said. "Had status quo been maintained, it would have been bizarre for China to tell the U.S. to be more democratic."

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