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ICANN CEO: 'We owe Asia a big apology'

U.S.-based Internet administrator will decentralize with new EMEA and Asia hubs as part of wider plans for greater inclusion, says Fadi Chehade who will personally move to Singapore to support this strategy.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

SINGAPORE--As part of efforts to become less U.S.-centric, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is looking to set up two new hubs in Singapore and Istanbul to serve the Asia-Pacific, and Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) markets.

"Asia has not been well-embraced by ICANN in the past. We owe Asia a big apology," Fadi Chehade, CEO of the organization responsible for administrating the world's Web traffic, said in an interview with ZDNet here Monday. Prior to his visit in the city-state, Chehade said he had been travelling this week to China, South Korea, and Japan to share how ICANN planned to grow its Asian presence.  

Its plans include an Asian hub, of which its first choice of location is currently Singapore and this will be finalized once a last round of discussions are held this week with local parties and the community. He said Singapore was chosen as its top choice after a review of the country's legal, business and cultural environments.

Singapore, Istanbul as hubs

Fadi Chehade
ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade

Common language

"I come from a different background, I arrived to the U.S. as an adult and I didn't even speak English," said Chehade, referring to his relocation in 1980 when he was smuggled out from Beirut at the age of 18.
The ICANN chief, who took on the job in July 2012, said: "I bring to ICANN a sensitivity that the world has diversity which needs to be embraced and I lived this myself--I felt excluded myself in places. I don't think we can continue to say ICANN and its sister organizations are truly the world's organizations unless we embrace the world."
The CEO explained that was a key reason for his personal move to Singapore, where he would stay for part of the year, dividing his time with Istanbul and Los Angeles.
"I want to show through my own leadership I am now rooted to the world, not in the U.S.," said Chehade.

The proposed Singapore hub together with another in Istanbul are part of ICANN's plans to reshape the organization to be more global and inclusive. Ahead of ICANN's 46th annual meeting to be held in Beijing, China, in April, Chehade hopes the details will be ironed out and the hubs up and running no later than July 2013.

"This is not an office, this will be an actual hub and part of the core fabric of how we run ICANN," he elaborated, adding the hubs would handle the same operations as that of its current Los Angeles, U.S., headquarters. "In Singapore we may be supporting Asia, but at different times of the day we may be supporting Europe."

The CEO said there would be offices or satellite-engagement areas built around the hub--for the region, this would include Beijing and Tokyo. These offices would help facilitate engagement activities with stakeholders, development, training, and collecting feedback from the community.

ICANN is currently interviewing people in Singapore this week to head its Asian hub, and Chehade said he had received overwhelming response from "good candidates". There will also be many more executives and vice presidents hired to engage various countries in Asia, he added.
To underline the push in the region, the CEO himself has pledged to move to Singapore once the hub is up and will ask some fellow senior executives to follow suit.

To reshape the organization to be less U.S.-centric, there will be a focus on diversity in the composition of staff such as having more Asian employees, including more industry voices such as the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), and allowing governments to participate in its processes through boards or on councils.

The non-profit ICANN has been the subject of criticism by several emerging countries including China, Russia, and Brazil, for perceived U.S.-bias, despite the organization's claims it receives no funding from the U.S. government. Their criticism comes amid a backdrop of strong growth in Chinese Internet user base which is currently over half a billion, and exceeds the entire U.S. population.

Rollout of gTLDs not a rush

The news comes ahead of the introduction of a new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) initiative, which could be launched as early as April 2013 and will include TLDs in Chinese and other languages with non-Latin characters. These allow domain names to be entirely written in native languages.

So far there are 116 registered internationalized domain names (IDNs), of which 70 are Chinese, said Chehade, adding these would be prioritized in the rollout. He hoped the community would come together to support more scripts such as Thai and Vietnamese.

The gTLD program, though, has received criticism by various industry players which expressed reservations over whether the fundamentals are in place. Some pointed to the ongoing call for public feedback of closed-generic domains as an indicator of a "half-baked" process. Closed-generics include common terms such as .shop and .store, which some applicants have noted interest in keeping private and not to be shared with other brands.

Chehade said: "My feeling is that it is currently conflicted, how do you define what's generic or what's not?" Referring to the outcome of the decision on closed-generics, the ICANN chief said the process as far as possible would be one that catered to consensus and public interest.

In response to the criticism and doubts over the gTLD rollout, he noted: "It is seven years in the making already [so] you cannot say we rushed it. It's a long time--debating, discussing, and building it."  

However, the CEO admitted when he first took the job in July 2012, his "emotional instinct" was that more time was needed. Since then, however, he noted "great progress" especially in one area which he thought would be hard--the business and legal framework which defines how the industry works.

Intellectual property rights conflicts will not be the main obstacle when the gTLDs are rolled out, Chehade said, noting that the setup of a trademark-clearing house was already underway. This was a global precedent and a "remarkable effort", he added.

"What I see as the main issue is instead how businesses using all these gTLDs will serve their communities and their markets. Will they do well, will they do these in a sucecssful way, that is out of my control," he said. "We are hoping all the businesses and people behind these new gTLDs will make all these a meaningful addition to the domain name system."


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