The Web has now passed two important demarcation points in its lifespan: September marked the 40th anniversary of the invention of the interlinked computer-based communications networks we now call “the Internet,” and on Wednesday the U.S. government watched as its remaining official authority over the non-profit group that governs Web addresses expired.
The U.S. Department of Commerce and the International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers — ICANN — reached an agreement that makes the body that doles out Web domain names a truly international, decentralized group. The agreement, known as the “Affirmation of Commitments,” ends a process begun 11 years ago when the U.S. helped to create ICANN as a way to help manage the Internet, then making its presence known as a force in business and society.
“When ICANN was created in 1998, with the assistance of the United States government, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) process was started with the objective of achieving a noble goal: the coordination of the Internet’s unique identifiers by the private sector through a not-for-profit organization where policies were developed from the bottom up,” reads a statement on ICANN.org. “The signing of the affirmation determines once and for all that this model works.”
What Changes and What Doesn’t
ICANN chairman of the board Peter Dengate Thrush wants to make something very clear as his organization becomes a fully independent authority. “There is no control of the Internet. No one controls it,” Dengate Thrush told TechNewsWorld. “Rather, it’s done by an exchange of mutual values and a recognition of trust.
“The original proposal for an ICANN-like body came out of the Department of Commerce, and after discussion with the international community, the community responded by saying ‘we need a body that does have these goals: It’s neutral, transparent, it’s got to be managed from the bottom up and largely government-free,’ and everybody said that is a good idea,” he said. “We’ve been building that body for the last several years and had quite a shopping list of things to achieve, going from nothing to a political structure with relationships around the world. Now we can say all that’s been done.”
Dengate Thrush also clarified that the process for approving new top level domains (TLDs) such as “.com,” “.gov.,” “.net” and the like remains the same — requests are considered by a private board. However, reviews of ICANN policies will be done by an independent advisory committee of experts — including a U.S. representative. Before, the Department of Commerce did the reviewing.
Last year ICANN made a major change in TLDs, allowing countries and corporations to create domain names — think “.Coke” or “.unitedstates.” When the ICANN board meets later this month in Seoul, Dengate Thrush said he expects it will finalize the decision to allow non-English language suffixes. “I think that’s very exciting,” Dengate Thrush said. “What it’s going to allow is a different set of entrepreneurs to come in. We’ve been depending on those entrepreneurs to come in and spread the technologies and come up with new applications. It’s not a huge step on its own — all we’re doing is saying that the entire address or URL can be done in a non-English script. But in some ways it’s symbolic, and it will be liberating for an entire class of entrepreneurs.”
Addressing U.S. Concerns
The privatization of ICANN and the cutting of ties with the Department of Commerce reflects the power of the Internet as a globalizing force, according to Washington, D.C.-based technology attorney Ray Van Dyke.
“This delinking of ICANN and the U.S. merely reflects the democratization of the Internet to the world,” Van Dyke told TechNewsWorld. “European countries and others have been critical of ICANN’s overt link to the U.S. government and have been lobbying for years to break this connection. This will greatly increase other governmental lobbying for their positions.”
However, before the Affirmation could be signed, Van Dyke said, the U.S. had its own concerns: The organization must physically remain in the country (it is based in Marina del Rey, Calif.) and issues regarding trademark protections and intellectual property must be on the agenda in the coming months.
Trademark issues will get a hearing, Dengate Thrush. “What we’ve been doing is working out how to do that. You have 45 trademark classes within international trademark classification systems. When you look at the different domain names, how do you translate valid rights into top level domains? We have to make sure we set up a system on not infringing on those rights holders. In the end we have lots of work going on to make sure we’ll allow someone to claim rights, and we’ll have a process for sorting that out.”
The affirmation isn’t just a celebration of the group’s independence, according to ICANN’s board chairman. It also serves as a recognition of the U.S.’s role in taking an American invention and fashioning it into a global phenomenon, he said. “I think the U.S. role, via government, has been absolutely critical, and in the main very well-managed,” he explained. “Many times I’ve said how fortunate the world has been that this has been rooted in the U.S. It’s a very different set of issues, and who knows how it would have gone had it been somewhere else? It comes from a place where freedom of information is available, the concept of open conduct of business is clear, where values around transparency and business are integrated.”