ICANN – all questions, no answers

There's now so many untended pot-holes in the Internet's organisation that it's becoming difficult to navigate a path at all.

Over the years, ICANN has become incredibly nimble at avoiding putting its foot in a hole. But that's the problem with holes – they don't go away. In Wellington this week, and on a press conference late last night (7am NZ time) with CEO Paul Twomey, it was clear that there are now so many holes that the organisation is exhausting itself just leaping over them.

One cynical journalist suggested that the 7am press call which, for the first time, involved an approval process before being connected may have something to do with non-journalists Brett Fausett and GoDaddy joining the last one that covered the dotcom contract agreement. If Twomey was giving away valuable information though, I missed it.

He outlined what he felt the conference was covering and gave some background on some issues such as the IDN trial, then opened it up to questions, most of which he steadfastly failed to answer. Here are a few examples:

What's happening with .xxx and will it be decided on at the Board meeting?
I'll leave that with the chairman

The Chinese have introduced a plug-in exactly the same as one by New.net that was criticised by ICANN as “not workable” – are the Chinese wrong or are New.net right?
I can't comment about New.net because it was before my time.

Does ICANN see its contract with registrars of gTLDs as automatically giving them ownership of IDN versions of their domain?
That is a policy question that the GNSO is looking at.

What are the changes occurring in the GAC? Is there a timetable?
There's a number of topics being discussed. We should take your question on notice and come back later in the week to answer it in detail.

What is happening with the US government's RFI over the IANA function?
As far as we are concerned, this is just a step required by a very arcane piece of government procurement law. If you have specific questions you need to direct them to John Kneuer.

Can you explain why the RFI came up this time but didn't last time when it came up for renewal?
I don't want to be the interpreter of US procurement law. If you have specific questions you should redirect them to the Department of Commerce.

And so on.

It's not that you can blame Twomey particularly for not answering the questions, but something is going wrong when there are so many questions. There are dozens more as well but it was clear there was very little point in asking them as there wouldn't be an answer.


I was right about how ICANN is seeing Canada's stark criticism. Asked about CIRA's decision to withhold funds and help from ICANN until it reviewed its transparency, Twomey said he and Vint Cerf were looking forward to meeting with CIRA and finding out “why they had decided not to take part in the bottom-up decision-making process”. But, he noted, “they are in the meetings, and they seem to be participating pretty fully”. He also noted, accurately, that CIRA's stance “has not been followed by other countries”.

The countries have been meeting and I've yet to hear of any other countries taking the same drastic action, so if CIRA was hoping to start an avalanche, it has failed.

There was also an interesting discussion on the transparency of the Board and the 36-hour gagging order that ICANN put on directors following the dotcom contract agreement, but I'll blog that separately.

Other issues

As for the wider ICANN issues, the SSAC has released its report on DDoS attacks – but I haven't been able to find it on ICANN's site as yet, so there's not much I can say. The transcript is here but I find all that bunched-up caps writing very hard to read so I'll wait for the report itself.

Then there is the latest controversy: ICANN writing the required resources for anyone wanting to run a global top-level domain at $250,000. Why is it doing this? It's like entering into a contract that entitles a company to rip off its customers (I'm thinking dotcom and seven percent). Why is ICANN sticking itself in the firing line? It's so stupid.

This leads to a new theory of mine on ICANN's mindset: It has convinced itself that it is incredibly important because the Internet is incredibly important. All this talk about “the security and stability of the Internet” – used in 99 percent of occasions to justify charging too much or leaving the same people in charge – has actually caused ICANN to forget the reality of the network it is managing.

The Net was designed and built for its stability. And ICANN was created to make sure that no matter what happened in future, this stability aspect would be addressed. But we have ended up in the daft position where ICANN is constantly panicking people about the security risk, and then justifying lots of bad decisions because of this security risk. If you question this, you are told that the only reason the Internet hasn't fallen down is because of this great protection afforded it by ICANN, VeriSign and the US government.

The American dream turned nightmare

But this is just rhubarb. The risks to the Internet come from political sources not technical ones. The simple fact is that this mentality of fear of attack, of having to have new powers to control unknown forces and dangers, has taken hold because it is precisely the mentality of America in its War on Terror. The one has infused the other, thanks, in no small amount to the still shadowy influence of the DoC on ICANN.

It is also another reason why the Internet control mechanisms need to be internationalised. We are creating an Internet based on the paranoia of one nation. If Europe and Asia were pulled into this amalgam of decision-making at the top of the Net, you would find that this controlling nature, paranoia and suspicion would ebb back as the positive influences of the Web were rediscovered and the original Net culture reasserted itself.

Just to review again the questions Twomey didn't answer:

  • .xxx: US government interference
  • Chinese browser plug-in: Frustration with painfully slow IDN process thanks to English-centric Net
  • IDN versions of gTLDs: Tension from fact all gTLD owners are American
  • GAC changes: World governments insisting on less US influence
  • US government and IANA: Well, yes

Some facts and figures

  • ICANN is a US company
  • IANA is run from the US, decided by the US government
  • Every single global top-level domain operates out of America
  • The US government maintains overall control of the Internet

And yet:

  • Only 22.2 percent of Internet users are in North America [1]
  • Less than half of the main Net root servers are in the US
  • The US has had the slowest growing Internet take-up for the past five years [1]

What about participation in ICANN? From its own statistics, the largest group of people attending the ICANN Wellington meeting are US and Canadian. Despite the fact that New Zealand is on the other side of the world, 28 percent of registered attendees came from North America.

Next is those that actually live in New Zealand and Australia – 22 percent. Then the Europeans, who have the longest journey – 20 percent. Then the Asians, who are relatively close, with 13 percent. Then Central and South America with nine percent. And then, as always, Africa last with eight percent.

The questions aren't going away and the big answer increasingly looks like: let the rest of the world in on running the Net or it will up and walk away from ICANN.

5 Responses to “ICANN – all questions, no answers”

  • The US government maintains overall control of the Internet… Is it possible to create an alternative internet (Alternet) not controlled by the US? China has the power, but does it have the guts?

  • Tercume,

    This is an excitingly worded proposition but unfortunately it’s not a reflection of the reality. Everyone – even China – sees the value of a single root and a global architecture. Otherwise emails will stop working, the DNS system will get confused, and, more importantly, people are likely to isolate themselves from the network and so become increasingly out of touch as the network zooms off into the future.

    What China is concerned about is control. So it still connects to the wider Net but has put in place extensive controls of the information available on that network.

    Even supposing China did create an alternate network – what would persuade others to sign up to it? Even if that proposition then made sense to a number of countries, it’s almost impossible to see how the world would shift. And even if *that* happened, all you would end up with was an Internet with China in overall charge rather than the US.

    The big geo-political issue over the Internet is sovereignty and control. There are two parts to this: one is the US government’s current oversight role; and the second is the culture of all the organisations that provide the expansion of the Internet.

    The USG role is a problem for a lot of countries but the real threat to the Internet is in attempts to make the other organisations surrounding the Internet – most notably ICANN of course – less visible and more controllable by governments.

    Once you have that then governments can devise ways in which to make the Internet itself a more controllable medium. And those controls – which will inevitably provide authoritarian governments with far greater powers to quell dissent – will come through a number of changes that are headlined as tackling terrorism or child pornography or whatever else is a suitable placard.


  • What China is concerned about is control. So it still connects to the wider Net but has put in place extensive controls of the information available on that network

  • The countries have been meeting and I’ve yet to hear of any other countries taking the same drastic action, so if CIRA was hoping to start an avalanche, it has failed

  • What are the changes occurring in the GAC? Is there a timetable?
    There’s a number of topics being discussed. We should take your question on notice and come back later in the week to answer it in detail.

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