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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 08:51 GMT
The net and politicians don't mix
The head of Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), Paul Twomey, defends the role of his non-profit organisation in supervising the internet, arguing against direct political control of the web.

Conference centre in Tunisia
About 10,000 participants are expected at the three-day event
Members of the United Nations are currently engaged in a debate of historic proportions that may well determine the future evolution of the internet.

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis, Tunisia, has ostensibly been about ensuring that poor countries benefit from information and communication technologies.

But behind the scenes a deeper battle of ideas has been taking place, between the age-old political model of top-down control and the 21st-century networked model of bottom-up cooperation and coordination.

It is essential that the outcome not be detrimental to the benefits the information society has to offer.

'Unfortunate approach'

From its foundation, the researchers and business people who built the internet have operated according to a set of common values.

These include ensuring that the net works as a single interoperable system, that decisions are made from the bottom up, that anyone who wishes to can participate, and that innovation occurs on the edge.

Icann CEO Paul Twomey
Icann's work ensures that nearly 250,000 interconnected private networks act as a single internet in the eyes of a billion users
Icann CEO Paul Twomey

Only in the past three years have diplomats started paying attention to the way the internet is operated.

It is unfortunate, but perhaps understandable, that they have approached it with a "top down" mindset conditioned by earlier heavily regulated industries and political models of addressing international issues.

Central to the discussion is the role of Icann, the non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, of which I am president.

Icann coordinates, not controls, the unique identifier system that binds the internet together, including all the domain names and protocol addresses.

Icann works according to the existing internet model of cooperation and collaboration, and encourages all members of the global net community, including the technical community, civil society and governments, to become more involved in its development.

And it has worked well.

250,000 networks

However, this "multi-stakeholder" approach is still alien to many governments, or at least their diplomatic representatives, in part because it is a new model.

Their failure to grasp it is apparent in their often-heard refrain, "Icann should not run the internet". Icann, of course, does no such thing.

Journalists at the UN summit
Much of the media coverage has focused on Icann's role
So what does Icann do? To use a loose analogy, if the internet were a postal system, the Icann community ensures that the addresses on the envelopes work.

What it does not do is determine what should be in the envelope, deliver the letter or decide who can read it.

To give some idea of the scale of this task, Icann's work ensures that nearly 250,000 interconnected private networks act as a single internet in the eyes of a billion users.

These functions support more than 27 billion user sessions per day, about nine times the daily number of phone calls in North America.

The Icann community supports the continuing globalisation of internet governance and where the organisation can play a role in its development, it is more than willing to do so.

In fact, it is part of Icann's bylaws, and its operating culture, to welcome such stakeholder driven review of its structures and procedures.

Icann has evolution and reform hot wired into its bylaws. It also has a proven history of implementing these reforms

Talking to governments

Last week, Vint Cerf, chairman of the Icann Board wrote to Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi, senior advisor to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and chair of the Icann Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC).

The GAC has more than 100 member governments and membership is open to all governments.

In his letter, Vint acknowledged that the current discussions on internet governance relate directly to the GAC and that a question exists as to how the role of the committee could be strengthened within the existing multi-stakeholder mechanism and made more effective.

This will be a topic of discussion at Icann's next international meeting, taking place in Vancouver at the end of the month.

From Icann's viewpoint, the internet's future success, in all aspects, is dependent on the continued participation of the entire internet community through the existing multi-stakeholder mechanism, rather than a top-down model with governmental control.

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