The Standards Blog

The ITU and ICANN: an Internet Game of Cat and Mouse

WSIS/Internet Governance

Once upon a time, there was something new called "the Internet,"  and it was an unknown quantity.  While some guessed what it could become, most did not.  Famously, Mark Andreessen - of Mosaic, and later Netscape fame - and Tim Berners-Lee did, while Bill Gates did not.  Less publicly, those that helped to create something that came to be called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - or ICANN - did, and the standards analogue of Bill Gates - the International Telecommunications Union - or ITU - did not. 

The result was that ICANN came to control a small but vital piece of the Internet, called the root directories, while the ITU, a venerable global telecommunications standards organization existing under the aegis of the United Nations, and tracing its origins to 1865, did not, although perhaps it could have laid claim to those essential elements had it appreciated their future importance at the time.

And that road not taken, as Robert Frost once said, has made all the difference.

The almost haphazard way in which the future control of the root directories of the Internet was decided has become almost the stuff of legends (one of many versions may be found here).   By some lights, the ITU would have been the logical home for the directories to reside, but regardless of your favorite interpretation of the actual events, that was not to be, and the ITU lost out.

In recent years, suspicions have arisen that the ITU is determined to reclaim its wayward child, and such allegations were particularly rife in the run up last November to the second global meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).  Then, it seemed, the ITU was making a play to scoop the directories from ICANN's grasp, under cover of championing the cause of internationalism.  That cause, if not necessarily the ITU as custodian, was being championed by a number of countries that resented the rights retained by the United States Department of Commerce.  Those rights, in turn, arose from the fact that the Internet itslef had been created under the auspices of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).  But the ITU's challenge passed, and its effort (if indeed it existed as all) was in any event obscured by the firestorm of protest over the insistance of the current administration that it maintain its attenuated - but symbolically important - control over ICANN.

Now, the controversy may be ready to emerge anew, as indicated by the following text of a press release issued by the ITU, issued on the occasion of the 17th ITU Plenipotentiary Conference, an event that is "expected to attract some 2,000 participants, including 80 ministers, from over 150 countries representing both government and the private sector as well as regional and international organizations."

See if you agree, based upon the following outtake from that press release.  I've emphasized the lines that I think make this point most obviously:

ITU and the internet

 The Tunis phase of the World Summit on the Information Society recognized that the internet has evolved into a global public facility, and that its governance should constitute a core issue of the Information Society agenda. Moreover, it called for a multilateral, transparent and democratic international management of the internet, with the full involvement of governments, the private sector, civil society and international organizations.

Proposals on the table underline the fact that the internet has spawned new challenges that could threaten the security and stability of telecommunication networks. For this reason, a number of countries call for ITU to contribute constructively to the work on internet governance and advocate a stronger ITU role in enhancing network security and stability, in countering spam and in the smooth management of critical internet resources including Internet Domain Names and addresses. Proposals have also been made for the increased internationalization of the internet, in particular the ability of developing countries to participate fully in internet-related technical and policy processes. 

Others call for the creation of a specific group (I2G: ITU Internet Group), win [sic] the Telecommunication Standardization Sector to coordinate the technical aspects of Telecommunication Networks that support the internet and to deal with all other technical matters related to internet governance.

Hmmm.  One wonders which nations can be counted in this number of countries that are calling on (specifically) the ITU?  And who has made these proposals?  Finally, what are the names and identities of these others?  I find all of this ambiguity to be very intriguing, and look forward to learning who each of these mysterious parties may be.  Certainly energy continues top be exhibited to wrest the root directories from the grip of ICANN in the Internet Governance Forum that was commissioned as a result of WSIS, and which just held its first meeting in Athens.  But I wonder whether there is really a crowd clammoring around the ITU to lead the charge to reclaim the root directories.

In truth, many feeel that ICANN does not have what can be considered to be a sterling record of stewardship, independent of whether the United States has an untoward level of control over the root directories.  But that does not automatically equate to a conclusion that the ITU should be considered to be the heir apparent to assume control, assuming that there is a need to transfer the directories to a third party at all.  ICANN, after all, is already custom-made for the purpose of hosting the root directories, and the more straightforward approach would seem to be to reform its governance structure or to create a new custom-made host.

What I do know is that the role of the Internet is far too important in the modern world to be a pawn in anyone's political game, whether it be the US Department of Commerce, ICANN, the United Nations or the ITU.  The root directories are a creature and a requirement of technology, not politics, and need to be treated with the degree of care and neutrality that such essential technical services demand. 

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I've followed this to a degree. Some of the "who" nations that are asking for ITU control of the root name servers are Arabic and/or Muslim countries hostile to the United States. Another major one is China. Their motives are fairly obvious. Whatever Europeans are championing control of the root name directory are, I believe, afraid of George W. Bush (I've met more than one that cited this *exact* reason). There's also, I've learned, a feeling of "we're the heart of civilization, how come we're not running things?" That is, there's status/prestige at stake here. Folks need to remember that the United States invented the Internet. Thus far, we've been doing a pretty good job of maintaining it, far better than some UN committee could be expected to do. Additionally, I've learned in recent years to trust the UN about as much as I'd trust, say, Jack Abramoff or Joseph "Yellow Kid" Weil. Things are working as they are. I don't see the need for change at this time.

I think a lot of people outside America trust America less than you trust the United Nations, and as an Australian, I would be happy to see control of the root servers pass to some multi-national group (or ICANN go multi-national) rather than staying solely in America's hands.

Letting any one nation have sole control over something so important is trouble waiting to happen.