Special correspondent John Zarocostas interviewed Paul Twomey, president and chief executive officer of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), recently about a new independent-expert report on Internet governance. The U.S.-based ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that administers the Internet’s domain-name system. The 40-member expert group convened by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to reach a consensus on how the Internet should be run, but it offered four possible models for global public policy and oversight of the Internet to be considered at Tunis, Tunisia, in November at the second World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).
Question: Mr. Twomey, what is your impression of the report?
Answer:They’ve done a very good job of raising the education level of how the technical aspects of the Internet work and what are the issues in Internet governance. I think we’re finding a completely different tone to the conversations as a consequence of the report than was the case at the end of the first summit (in December 2003), which was very politicized and at the same time very ignorant.
I think now we’ve got a better understanding.
The working group has come up with a definition of Internet governance that’s pretty broad. It’s very appropriate that they see Internet governance is much more than domain names and recognize what ICANN does.
Q: ICANN oversees Internet domain names, but the report says no single government should have a pre-eminent role in relation to Internet governance. Some governments — like Brazil’s — want ICANN to be folded into a global agency under U.N. auspices, something the U.S. is not keen about.
A: First of all, it is clear that statement is directed at the U.S. Its present role is to authorize changes to the zone files. It does have a unique role, which is a product of history.
Second … the working group comes forward with four different potential models of how that could work. My view is the working group could not come to a consensus on that. I don’t think 150 governments are going to come to a consensus on any sort of model.
Q: The move by the U.S. is seen by some as a policy shift from what it had said in the past — that it would phase out the role of the U.S. Department of Commerce in ICANN affairs? Is that a misreading of events?
A: I and ICANN do not speak for the American government, and I think that’s one of the big lessons of the last 18 months inside the WSIS context. People stopped thinking that we’re a proxy for the Bush administration.
But, I would go on and say, my reading of that statement is that it seems to be written in the present, or the near-future tense. Points stated in the document seemed to me to be accurate statements of the situation as they presently are.
It’s just as important what that document does not say, and it does not mention the memorandum of understanding with ICANN — which is a standing, signed agreement between ourselves and the U.S. government — which is due to come to conclusion in September 2006.
Q: Which of the four models in the report are you comfortable with?
A: I couldn’t comment on the models themselves, because I think that’s for the governments. But I would say we remain very strongly committed to the way in which the present Internet remains stable. One of the things that really make it stable is all the agreements that we have.
We have over 500 agreements … which ensure that there are common practices followed in various parts in which the domain system works worldwide. We don’t want to see that at all destabilized.
Q: Is it a possibility that Internet governance could come under the umbrella of the United Nations?
A: I have not seen anything that says the U.N. wants to take over technical aspects of the Internet, at all. And the member states here are talking about potential models for how they could coordinate among themselves.
But I think we still have a way to go here, and we’ve got to watch what happens to the WSIS and see how countries negotiate. …
This is too important to be left in the hands of diplomats. While diplomats need to be negotiating it, it’s very important governments recognize that these issues have equities at the domestic level with business, with technical communities, with social communities, and understanding stability for those groups is very important.
Q: But some governments — such as Brazil’s — have been saying there needs to be another platform for Internet governance at the global level?
A: We don’t think that ICANN’s perfect, and we understand that there are many issues to be dealt with. …
But I think the concept that you’re going to see very significant, radical change — a radical U.N. new treaty organization to run all this — will certainly be argued for. It still needs to be rebutted, and thought about, but I don’t see a broad-based consensus for it.
Q: What issues can the international community cooperate on without affecting the day-to-day operations of the Internet?
A: Basically, you must think of the Internet as a set of layers, which starts with some core technical-coordination layers, which make certain the whole network works as one, and then go up further into Web browsers, and then into applications.
The more you go up those layers of technology, the more the value is at the edge of the network with the people, not at the core, which is how it works. …
That’s the sort of things governments traditionally have always played a role in — you know: e-fraud; how do you collect taxation online?; what do you do about spam? … I think the world governments may want to do it, in some fora. I think that’s quite understandable. We would never stand in the way of that.
But that’s a different conversation to having a politicized core infrastructure, because that’s how you break it — by politicizing it.