Position: President and CEO, Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Issue: Who will control the Internet? While no one owns the Internet, it can’t function without ICANN, the U.S.-based nonprofit that manages the Internet’s addressing system. ICANN is under fire from international organizations that say the United States holds too much control over the Net’s core functions.
Personal Point of Impact: Taking steps to further internationalize ICANN without handing over control to the United Nations
Technology Review: What is ICANN, and what does it actually do?
Paul Twomey: ICANN is a not-for-profit international entity. It’s a public-private partnership that has representation from the technical community, the business community, governments, and representatives from the users of the Internet. It is tasked to help manage the coordination of the Internet’s system of unique identifiers-in particular, Internet domain names, IP address numbers, protocol parameters, and port numbers-which are essential for the Internet to function. It also helps coordinate the stable operation of the Internet’s root server system.
TR: That seems like pretty dry stuff. Why is the international community so unhappy, or at least concerned, about ICANN?
Twomey: At the WSIS [the United Nations’ World Summit on the Information Society, held in Geneva in December 2003], a number of developing countries raised issues around so-called Internet governance. Because this is an area where it is quite unclear what anybody actually means, there was some confusion. Some people were talking about spam, child pornography, Internet taxation, and other issues like that.
We became conscious that in all the discussion around so-called Internet governance, there were actually four layers: a technical-coordination layer, a legal and jurisdiction layer, an economic- and development-issues layer, and a social and cultural layer. Because ICANN exists as the technical-coordination layer, I think we became a lightning rod for some discontent. Undoubtedly, part of the reaction of some of the developing countries is an anti-American sentiment and a broader desire to wrest the levers of international economic power from the North. The irony is that ICANN has been established to internationalize and privatize the functions that were previously being performed by the U.S. government in the original founding of the Internet. I think ICANN is more an instrument to achieve the objectives that people said they wanted as opposed to being some sort of barrier to them. But these things sometimes get caught up in emotions. They don’t have that much to do with detailed facts and more to do with politics.
TR: But you’re being embroiled in politics whether you want to or not.
Twomey: Whether we want to or not. My background is working in the nongovernment sector and also senior positions in two Australian government agencies. I understand the political environment and what drives it. We have been dragged into it. But my key point keeps coming down to how much we’ve got to educate people and get them to understand, and [also] hear their needs. We have to keep changing the quite natural center of gravity of thinking of the Internet, which was North America, where the Internet spawns from, to get it more and more in a global perspective.
If governments want to get together and talk about a lot of other issues, we have no view one way or the other. [But] at the technical-coordination layer, this system has been established for 35 years. It is an open, transparent, bottom-up system where the people who are involved in making the Internet work are the ones who make the decisions. It’s not broken; don’t try to fix it.