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A personal report from the ICANN Meeting in Berlin

May 28, 1999

Ant Brooks <ant at hivemind dot net> travelled to Berlin for the ICANN meeting as the representative for the .za country code. He charactizes this report as follows:

It is nothing more than an attempt to express my personal views of the proceedings, and should not be read as anything more.

This material is Copyright © 1999 by Ant Brooks <ant at hivemind dot net>.

What is ICANN?

For those who don't already know, ICANN stands for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Although it is making serious efforts to have wide geographic representation, the primary driver of ICANN has been the US Department of Commerce. ICANN is gradually taking over the role of being the ultimate authority for IP addresses, domain names and the like on planet Earth (and presumably eventually other planets ;-). It is taking over this role from (nominally) the US government and (practically) from the pseudo-official groups (such as IANA) who have historically handled these tasks. I have not followed ICANN's creation process very closely, so there may be some inaccuracies in that explanation, but it should be enough for the rest of this report to make sense.

The Country Code Meeting

My primary role at the ICANN meetings was to represent the interests of the South African ccTLD (country code top level domain) -- ".za". The ccTLD constituency is one of seven groupings defined by ICANN's bylaws as necessary to provide guidance to the Domain Name Support Organisation (DNSO). The purpose of the ccTLD meeting on Tuesday morning was to somehow formally define this constituency, and present this definition to ICANN for acceptance. This process will allow the ccTLD constituency to have a formal say in the affairs of ICANN via the DNSO.

(If you are beginning to find all of these structures a little confusing or bureaucratic, you already have a lot in common with many of the people I met this week :-).

I do not know exactly how many country codes were represented at the ccTLD meeting, but I would estimate that 40-60 of the 246 assigned ccTLDs had some form of presence. Numerically, Europe had the most representation, but it was heartening to see people from almost every corner of the world. During the roll call alone, my geography improved in leaps and bounds :-).

The mood of the ccTLD meeting was basically "why is ICANN interfering with us at all?" Most ccTLD representatives seemed to think that ICANN shouldn't be meddling in the affairs of country code registries and should just mind its own business. One specific problem was the sticky issue of regional representation. ICANN's bylaws require a certain level of representation from around the globe, but in practice it is nigh impossible to come up with a framework for ensuring this. The Internet is, after all, borderless. The ccTLD representatives eventually decided to simply ignore the specific requirements of ICANN's bylaws. We felt that as an inherently diverse geographic group, our elected representatives would probably be regionally representative without any convoluted voting procedures. We decided that this was a non-negotiable position and that if ICANN wasn't happy with it, it would just have to change its bylaws!

After much, um, "rigorous" (?) debate, we eventually agreed on a fairly vanilla document loosely defining the ccTLD constituency. This was put forward to ICANN and should have been handled by the Board at its meeting yesterday morning. At this stage, the formalisation of this group is extremely unlikely to have any impact on individual ccTLDs, but it does give them a collective voice within ICANN. Assuming that ICANN approves the document, the next step is for the ccTLDs to elect three Names Council Members to represent the constituency at the DNSO level. No firm plans for this process were made during the ccTLD meeting, but I sincerely hope that it can be co-ordinated via the wwwTLD mailing list, and that it will not require another (expensive) physical meeting of ccTLD registries.

[I'd just like to voice my thanks to the folks who chaired what was a fairly difficult meeting, and to the CENTR team for their outstanding organisational efforts :-).]

Other ccTLD Issues

Those folks subscribed to the wwwTLD mailing list will be wondering what became of the RFC 1591 issue. Some background for everyone else: RFC 1591 was written by Jon Postel in March 1994, and "defines" the delegation of ccTLDs. Prior to ICANN's involvement, RFC 1591 has effectively been the policy document governing the relationship between IANA (Internet Assigned Names Authority) and the ccTLDs.

During the weeks before the meeting in Berlin a lot of discussion took place on wwwTLD about pressuring ICANN to agree that RFC 1591 will continue to form the basis of the ccTLD relationship with ICANN. It was largely felt that this was the only action ICANN needed to take regarding ccTLDs and that anything else was a waste of time.

Curiously, ICANN decided to release a document referred to as "ICP1" on the Friday before all of the ccTLD delegates were to meet in Berlin. Even more curious is the fact that ICANN made no effort to make the ccTLDs aware of the release of the document via the wwwTLD mailing list. Instead, they seemed to assume that we all regularly visit ICANN's web site and expected us to somehow have visited the web site while in transit to Berlin :-|.

On the surface, ICP1 seems fairly innocuous. According to ICANN's CEO, Mike Roberts, ICP1 is "a statement of IANA's current practices regarding ccTLDs". It is not meant to replace RFC 1591 and, in theory, doesn't imply any changes to ccTLD policy. The text of the document does make it clear that RFC 1591 still applies, but it also suggests that RFC 1591 now applies in conjunction with ICP1. Even though an ad-hoc discussion between some of the ccTLD registries on Wednesday afternoon concluded that ICP1 is probably an improvement over RFC 1591 for the ccTLDs, the totally opaque process used to generate it is still of concern.

It is quite possible that our worries about an ICANN plot to change ccTLD policy without consultation are simply the result of paranoia. Nonetheless, if ICANN wishes to avoid creating such concerns, it might want to make a little more effort to keep the ccTLDs in the loop, or at least have the courtesy of informing them when relevant new documents are published. Two issues which did not get much discussion but which are almost certainly going to raise their heads again in the future are:

No prizes for guessing the feelings of most of the ccTLDs on these issues. Since most people felt that ICANN was interfering needlessly in the first place, there is certainly going to be strong resistance to any attempt to impose fees or legal contracts on the registries. But since the document defining the ccTLD constituency neither accepts nor rejects these possibilities, these are both matters for future debates...

Government and Domain Name Issues

I'm going to move on to the issue of government involvement in domain name issues, and specifically ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (GAC). Perhaps the only group less popular that the ICANN Board itself at this week's gathering was the GAC. To be fair, it is important to note that, unlike the other constituencies of the DNSO, the GAC does not have any formal representation within ICANN; it acts _only_ in an advisory capacity. Despite this caveat, most of those present were resentful of any level of government intervention in Internet governance and regarded the GAC with tremendous suspicion.

It was interesting that of all of the meetings held this week, only the GAC meeting and the ICANN board meeting were closed to public participation. Paul Twomey, Chair of the GAC, went to great pains to explain that without the ability to discuss issues behind closed doors, the GAC would be unlikely to function. I find myself agreeing with this on a practical level, but it troubles me deeply that the governments of the world cannot function without some level of secrecy. Somehow that goes against the spirit of the Internet :-(.

The GAC also came under strong criticism for refusing entrance to representatives from some parts of the world, based on the technical definition of a government. I understand that they were (apparently) simply following the letter of international law, but I believe that the matter could easily have been handled with slightly more sensitivity and diplomacy.

On the more general matter of government involvement in domain name matters, I heard numerous stories of what seems to be a typical knee- jerk reaction of governments as they become aware of the Internet.

Government reaction seems to follow this pattern:

  1. Hey look, we have a country code assigned to us.

  2. Hmmm, some evil being who isn't the government already controls it.

  3. We are the government, so we have to control it. We must take it away from this evil being, forcibly if necessary.

In most cases this is (fortunately) followed by:

  1. On second thoughts, we wouldn't really know how to deal with it if we did take it over. Maybe we'd better think this through a little more first.

In other cases, it is instead followed by action against the existing registry, which inevitably results in stifled local domain name growth and often technically incompetent management of the ccTLD.

Perhaps an appropriate role for the GAC to play would be to assist the governments of the world to understand domain name issues, and encourage them to work with existing local Internet self-governance structures. This seems to make more sense than simply taking the views of governments and passing them on to ICANN. It would also seem to be more beneficial to the Internet community.

South Africa should probably be thankful that we already have some government involvement in the process of putting a domain name policy oversight group in place. This puts us significantly ahead of many other countries! It is a pity (I think ;-) that South Africa chose not to send a representative to the GAC, and perhaps indicative that the South African government is still not taking the Internet seriously enough :-(. [See my footnote for another theory.]

ICANN Generally

To close, two general observations about ICANN and its processes.

  1. There seems to be an incredible grass-roots resistance to ICANN and a strong feeling that it is not much more than an instrument of the US government. Whether or not this sentiment is warranted, I do not believe that ICANN is taking these views seriously enough. For it to have real legitimacy and long-term stability, ICANN needs global support and not just a contract with the US Department of Commerce. Technically it would not be impossible to relocate "root" to a location outside of the United States. This would render ICANN utterly powerless in one foul swoop, and must not be discounted as an option.

  2. Despite its best intentions, I am not convinced that ICANN is going to achieve its goals of broad regional representation. There seems to be a perception that simply writing this requirement into the by-laws will magically ensure success. In my experience, it would make more sense for ICANN to address some of the real barriers to participation by those people in underdeveloped parts of the globe -- the high costs of getting to ICANN's meetings, the lack of awareness of the meetings and the poor level of communication ICANN has with potential participants in many countries. There was strong support voiced for outreach programs during the Open Meeting, and I hope that ICANN will take this to heart.

Finally, I do have a lot of sympathy for the ICANN board members. They have essentially been tasked with the job of crafting a United Nations of Cyberspace. Since many of the current residents of cyberspace are hostile to this process, and given that there are some extremely diverse interests at stake, this can only be a difficult and painful task. I just hope that nothing important gets broken during the process!

Footnote: Representing .za at the ICANN conference cost me the chance to participate in South Africa's second democratic election. In its wisdom, our government decided that international travelers had just one day to lodge a special vote at embassies and consulates -- May 26. I spent that day attending the ICANN open meeting and consequently, I will not have an opportunity to vote. Perhaps there was no South African government presence at the meeting because our officials knew that they would lose their voting rights by attending... :-(


Copyright © 1995-2000 by Keith Dawson. Commercial use prohibited. May be excerpted, mailed, posted, or linked for non-commercial purposes.

Created 1999-05-28