A transition to decentralized Internet, but will we get there by 2015?

It was all talk in Singapore. But with the US withdrawing from ICANN, the body that governs the Internet, in 2015, doubt is rife. The world’s digital community may not get a new “world stewardship” model in time.

It was hardly a surprise. People had been calling for it for ages. But when the US Department of Commerce finally announced it was planning to relinquish control of a vital part of ICANN – and with it, the Internet – by October 2015, the chatter really began.

The announcement has “electrified” this week’s ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore.

“We’re in a situation where the announcement was only made last week so we’re into an interesting period of reflection,” says Nigel Hickson, ICANN’s vice president for global stakeholder engagement in Europe.

Hickson, who was at the meeting in Singapore, along with 2,000 other delegates, including academics, lawyers, business people, members of civil society and governments, says the timing of the US announcement is important.

But he also refers to the plans as a “proposed transition,” which clearly hints at the mammoth task ahead. This is not only about “names and numbers” – it’s time to talk about the future of the global governance of the Internet.

“Someone or something has got to run the Domain Name System (DNS),” says Hickson. “And if you’re going to have a single open Internet, rather than lots of fragmented internets, you need a technical infrastructure that is managed in a way that it remains open.”

So what’s at stake

Specifically, the US is giving up its control of the IANA function. This involves the allocation of unique names and numbers for use in Internet protocols – domain names and Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. IANA falls under ICANN’s remit.

A non-profit organization, ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It takes care of Internet databases, it doles out generic Top Level Domain names [gTLDs], such as .com, .org, .berlin and .africa, and effectively governs the Internet under a contract with the US Department of Commerce.

If ICANN sounds like the sort of organization that is just too boring to know, think again.

It’s said that, while it’s never made use of this power, the US could, through its control of ICANN, make a website nameless and therefore make it disappear. It’s the sort of thing you might hear about under dictatorships – that is, if the Web became a fragmented grouping of separate internets. But there are no known cases of the US ever having done this, and so it is seen as an arbiter and protector of the free Internet.

“There are some governments that would frankly like to control the Internet, so that you or I, or the people in that country, don’t get to see everything they’d like to see,” says Ryan Heath, spokesman for Neelie Kroes, vice president of the European Commission responsible for Europe’s Digital Agenda.

Some countries, often led by China and Russia, have pushed for the Domain Name System to become part of the United Nations’ remit. They argue this on the basis of ensuring a country’s “sovereignty” on the Net.

But it’s not the sort of model that the European Union wants to see.

“No, definitely not,” says Heath. “What we need is a decentralized system, where all countries and all people who use the Internet, can have a stake in how that’s run. We’re not saying that governments have no role in how the Internet is run, but the Internet grew as a space for democracy and freedom, and those values will need to be respected in future models of Internet governance.”

Turkey Internet block (screenshot)
The challenge is stopping individual governments from controlling people’s access to the Net

Real-time planning

There’s no doubt that it will be difficult to design a new model for Internet governance, which includes government interests (but at arm’s length), and incorporates business, social concerns and civil liberties for all of the world’s Internet users – but that’s the aim.

It is time, as ICANN’s CEO Fadi Chehadé puts it, to move from a single state stewardship to a world stewardship.

“When ICANN was established, the United States had nearly 90 percent of the world’s Internet users. Now it has 13 percent of the world’s Internet users. So you can’t have one country having 95 percent of the control anymore,” agrees Heath.

The question is whether it will happen in time for the transfer.

“[The US] has strictly ruled out any single government, or group of governments, or a multinational government-led organization being in charge,” says Dr Jörg Schweiger, CEO of DENIC, which administers Germany’s own TLD .de.

“So this is really the tough part,” says Schweiger, who was also at the Singapore meeting, “and this is why we are at first talking ‘meta’ before we talk about a concrete model to be designed by 2015. But if it doesn’t happen in time, there may well be another assignment of the existing contract to the existing organization.”

ICANN’s Nigel Hickson makes the same concession.

“I think there’s a degree of confidence that we’ll have some sort of model by 2015,” Hickson says, “and of course 2015 is not a hard-and-fast deadline, the current IANA contract finishes in 2015, but it can be extended.”

Heath shares Hickson’s confidence in a positive outcome, but he rejects the idea that this may be, as some have hoped, Europe’s opportunity to step into the US’s big boots.

“We have a series of conferences between now and then. And if they go well, then we will meet the deadline,” says Heath. “And it is possible to have a system where governments are one of many voices in Internet governance – that’s the system we’ve got now. The difference between now and hopefully 2016, is that instead of it being one government having a voice, everybody can have a voice.”

Following the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, which ends this Thursday (27.03.2014), the next conference is NETmundial in Brazil and an Internet governance forum in September.

But don’t hold your breath for an early outcome.

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