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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 08:58 GMT
Changing the way the net is run
Bill Thompson, BBC
The body that manages a key aspect of the internet, Icann, has failed and should be scrapped, argues technology consultant Bill Thompson.

Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, is holding one of its big meetings in China at the moment.

They will be packing their bags in Shanghai soon and heading back to the United States, where the majority of the Icann board and all of the administrators come from.

The meeting schedule is pretty intensive, as a glance at the agenda shows, and there are lots of different subjects to be discussed.

After all, this is the international organisation with overall responsibility for two of the most important aspects of the internet.

Not only does it run the Domain Name System (DNS), which gives each organisation and computer connected to the net a name as well as a number, it also looks after the assignment of the computer addresses (IP addresses) to organisations and hence to the computers they connect to the net.

Keeping the web alive

Without some central authority, handing out these addresses and making sure that no two computers or networks have the same one the net would quickly develop serious problems.

And without someone to look after the naming scheme to make sure that the companies that register domain names work properly together and that central systems - the root servers - are properly managed, tools like the web and e-mail would quickly stop working.

Icann, however, has two big problems. First, it is not very good at what it is supposed to do, and second, it derives its authority solely from the US Government, that has unilaterally decided how the net should be managed.

It might be possible to sort out the first problem, by firing the board of directors, replacing the management team, employing competent administrators and creating an organisation that was able to listen to internet users and respond effectively.

But even if this were to be done there is a growing sense that Icann has no real right to hold the power it has been given over the day-to-day operation of the net. Many people have come to the conclusion that Icann has to go.

Bullying tactics?

The organisation was created when the US Department of Commerce gave up running DNS through a contract with the University of California. It was supposed to be independent, despite the fact that it was given its powers by the US Government and operates under US law.

Unfortunately it has never shown that it is able to represent the interests of the majority of net users. Now that there are actually more people online in Europe than the USA, this situation has become untenable.

The time has surely come to recognise that Icann has failed, and that a body whose legitimacy comes solely from the US Government is not the right one to manage such a key aspect of the internet

At the same time the meeting in Shanghai changed the rules of the organisation so that there is effectively no way for ordinary internet users, or even ordinary people who own their own domain, to have any influence on policy-making.

The problems have been highlighted by a continuing argument over the status and importance of the companies that run country-level domains like .uk or .fr.

These are called ccTLD (country code top level domains) in the jargon, and while they have not been as important as .com or even .net in the past, they are growing in significance. Europe will soon have its own - .eu - reflecting the new-found belief in ccTLDs.

Unfortunately Icann has been bullying many of the organisations who run ccTLDs, like the manager of .uk, Nominet, into accepting new ways of working, and threatening those who do not pay large fees and sign up to new contracts with restrictions to the way they can do business.

Icann is even refusing to make requested changes to the information it holds on domains registered in each country.

As a result several of the companies involved are threatening to break away from Icann and seeking to take some its powers away from it. They are proposing to form a new organisation which could take over the management of IP addresses and are calling for significant changes in how DNS is run.

Time for change

It is possible for Icann to carry on much as it has been, making no real attempt to reflect the net's diversity or to work with the online community. It will become remote and unaccountable.

Electronic eye
Who should keep an eye on the net?
The current board seems intent on following this path, and they are looking for the US Government to support them in this.

However if the Department of Commerce goes along with this, as seems likely, it will allow the many failings of Icann as a manager of the technical aspects of the net to continue.

Yet despite the attention paid to the politics of the domain name system, the fact is that the really important activity of Icann is purely technical - running a large database (DNS) and allocating blocks of numbers (IP addresses).

The time has surely come to recognise that Icann has failed, and that a body whose legitimacy comes solely from the US Government is not the right one to manage such a key aspect of the internet.

We need to separate the technical aspects of Icann's current function from the politically charged ones, and find a new way to deal with each.

Icann was a bad idea, and is a failed organisation with no real legitimacy. It is time to get rid of it

While my fellow net veterans will object, I would be tempted to ask the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the body that coordinates telecommunications networks and services, to take over responsibility both for DNS and for address allocation.

The ITU is seen as representing the 'old world' of telephone networks, but in reality it has done a great deal to promote the development of the internet and has considerable expertise in this area.

The arguments about everything else could go to the United Nations, WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation), the WTO (World Trade Organisation) or wherever else seems appropriate.

After all, the net is now so important, and so pervasive, that we do not need to keep all our disputes and arguments about aspects of its use in one place, surely?

Icann was a bad idea, and is a failed organisation with no real legitimacy. It is time to get rid of it.

Do you agree with Bill? Should Icann be scrapped? If so, what should take its place?

Bill, I can't agree with you more. The fundamental unit of international politics is the nation-state, and the rising tide of crime, economic, and security issues will eventually cause nation-states to demand control over internet activity that crosses their borders. I see a future where the internet is broken down into country code domains under the control of their respective governments, and this is as it should be. It is really no different than area codes for telephones. Most issues of language, commercial identity, and criminal activity can be handled appropriately when the nation-state is the domain administrator.
Rich, USA

I think it is time to take the internet back and to return control over the net to the Internet Society and the IETF. These are the bodies that took care of building and managing the net before. They can do it again and better than the alternatives. The ITU and other regulatory bodies have shown again and again that they are incapable of understanding - let alone overseeing - the net. Now that the e-business bubble is over, let's go back to what the net was intended for: a free exchange of ideas and information.
Frans Hoffman, USA

I wrote several articles against the formation of ICANN prior to its actual creation. I continue to be appalled at the autocratic attitudes of its directorate under several different chairs. Any census of internet hosts will show that while the USA is still dominant, it is no longer in control of over 50% of the hosts. With over 200 million hosts on the net, in over 150 countries, it's time for the Anglos to let go.
Peter H Salus, USA

I think you're absolutely right. For Icann to kick the public out of it's decision making process is just ridiculous. It would make so much more sense for the whole thing to be managed at a truly international level. Obviously the US would continue to have strong influence, but it's simply not right that we should be using the need for centralized technical management of the net as a tool to push other countries around. Of course, our current administration believes strongly that the only important thing is what's in the best interest of US big business, so don't expect much out of them. In fact, I'd say they'll go down kicking and screaming before they allow any real authority to be shared.
Ben, US

In reading your article the only real objection you seem to raise is that it is an American institution that is running things. Everyone seems to have a domain name if they want one. IP addresses are portioned out are they not? You mention technical failures but offer no specifics other than the US Government is backing Icann. Your argument is just some more Anti-Americanism and not even slightly veiled.
Greg Keif,

Great article, Bill. I agree 100% about ITU to handle the technical management, let's get away from the American-focused system, it has served its purpose and now its time to move on. But surely the only way this is going to work is to simply cut Icann out and start the ITU up with proper funding - redirect the funding given to Icann to the ITU and let's go!
Steve Chambers, UK

As the only internationally recognised and independent body the ITU should have the responsibility of overseeing and co-ordinating the management of this communications resource. It is becoming increasingly important for trade reasons, and operates on the fixed telephony structure that the ITU already oversees. The internet is not something that can be allowed to be beholden to any single government.
Nick Cole, UK

I agree. The internet is global and the body that administrates it should have authority derived to it from the international community and not just one government. The ITU seems an ideal candidate to fulfil this requirement.
Mark, UK

It really is about time this was taken out of the hands of the USA. Hasn't anybody got any pride over here? We need an international body to represent the whole world on this.
Nick, UK

I agree that Icann should be revamped or replaced. However, we should avoid creating a UN-styled bureaucracy that can't cope with anything much less itself. Regarding Bill's claim of legitimacy, he seems to forget who created the internet and the inherent delegation embodied within. It isn't a God given right, sometimes there is a price to pay when you use something that was created by someone else.
Greg, USA

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Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital
Bill Thompson guides you through the world of technology

See also:

31 Oct 02 | Technology
15 Jan 02 | Science/Nature
30 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
30 Jun 02 | Science/Nature
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