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Domain Master

The Internet’s head administrator, Paul Twomey, on controlling the core functionality of the Web.

Paul Twomey
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.

TR: After you flew 20 hours to attend the World Summit on the Information Society, guards ejected you from the opening meeting. What happened?

Twomey: What happened was the [delegates] said they were going to have open meetings, which meant that groups like ICANN could observe, [but] we couldn’t say anything. But at the last minute the chair decided to make the whole thing closed. It wasn’t just myself, but others who were not members, who were all escorted out. The bottom line is that’s the way they hold their meetings: in private. They’re secret. That’s the way the governmental organizations work. We are an open, transparent organization. Anything that has to be discussed has to be put up on the Web site. Anybody can join the discussion forums. Our meetings are open; they’re video streamed; anybody can speak at any time. You can ask questions online as well as at the physical meetings. Journalists can attend. It’s a very different culture.

A top-down entity, only consisting of governments as the decision-makers, would represent a dramatic disruption to the successful partnership of the technical and engineering communities, business, academia, and governments which has been critical for the success of the Internet. It could well fracture, weaken, and politicize the technical-coordination functions. It would represent a very severe disturbance not only to ICANN but also the other bottom-up consensus bodies which play a key role in the diverse development and functioning of the Internet.

TR: Yet the international community is still demanding a greater say in the way ICANN operates. Was the creation of several “at-large community user groups” in December a response to those requests?

Twomey: Yes and no. First of all, ICANN from its beginning has had its focus on being international. I’m Australian, and the staff are based on three continents. Our board members are required to come from five regions around the world. Similarly, the supporting organizations are all required to have their members come from different parts of the world. So it is a very international organization in its structure.

The “at large” issue is really putting in this final leg of representation of the consumers’ interests. We’re trying to put in place a mosaic of international groups that actually represent all consumers. The committee has been working off a list of something like 350 different types of consumer organizations-people who’ve got an interest in the Internet-who they are approaching to be a part of this structure. We actually want to build in a structure that is very bottom-up representative of the consumers on the Internet.

TR: What is the biggest challenge for the Internet from ICANN’s perspective?

Twomey: The Internet is becoming very local while at the same time being global. People want to communicate in their own languages-in Japanese, Chinese, Bahasa. What that means is that the Internet won’t be as transparent to all users; people who are used to using [English] characters might have trouble trying to find a particular company that’s got its domain name in Chinese characters. So we have to ensure that we maintain a single interoperable Internet, and we don’t end up with a series of Internets. From an ICANN perspective, this is our most important challenge. We can do quite a lot of stuff around internationalized domain names, allowing people to have top-level domains [like .com or .net] in their own character sets. That’s [ICANN’s] core business. What other people are going to have to do is [design] how search engines are going to work, how people are going to find other players, how you are going to have translation systems across the Internet.

To take a western-European historical perspective, it’s a little bit like going from Christendom to the nation-states in Europe. You had this Christendom, and everyone spoke either Greek or Latin. There was a common language, and it all worked. All of a sudden there were these nation-states where everybody spoke their own language. How do you speak together? It’s the same sort of process. English has been the Latin of the Internet, but it’s not going to be anymore.

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