New Zealand MPs among first to hear from new ICANN chair

Former InternetNZ chairman elected chairman of ICANN

New Zealand MPs united in an informal non-partisan caucus last week were among the first to hear from the new Kiwi chairman of global internet body ICANN, Peter Dengate Thrush.

The Parliamentary Internet Caucus, which Computerworld understands is co-chaired by Communications Minister David Cunliffe and Opposition spokesman Maurice Williamson, had scheduled Dengate Thrush to speak some time ago and it was only fortuitous that he spoke to them just after being elected chairman of ICANN.

The event was closed to journalists, but the topic was internet governance.

Dengate Thrush told Computerworld last week that his speech covered various governance issues and finished with a focus on how ICANN came to be created and its mission.

“We’ve always had bipartisan support at InternetNZ and for InternetNZ’s role at ICANN,” he says.

He covered whether the model was working (it is, he says) and concerns over how to keep it working, as well as some discussion around new generic top-level domains. Also discussed was the suggestion of alternate country code top-level domains, new internationalised domain names for countries in their own scripts, which he says is being worked on in a fast-track process.

Dengate Thrush was elected unanimously as chairman of ICANN last weekend, and is unlikely to avoid controversy there.

The organisation has, in the last few years, survived criticism by some countries that it is controlled by the US. It was, in fact, created to take over tasks previously managed directly by US government agencies and has progressively moved to a “multi-stakeholder” model of governance.

Before that, the body faced down an anti-trust suit from VeriSign, and settled over other matters in dispute. It has also been accused of a lack of financial prudence, controversially rejected a proposed .xxx domain for pornography and bought into a new fight this year when removing the accreditation of domain registrar RegisterFly.

Dengate Thrush had a taste of just how political internet governance issues can be when chairman of the Internet Society of New Zealand (ISOCNZ), now known as InternetNZ. He was at the centre of a debate around the role and performance of New Zealand domain registrar Domainz that in 2001 led to calls for his resignation.

Dengate Thrush says his management style is “inclusive”.

“I chaired InternetNZ through its most difficult period,” he says, “including defamation cases and votes of no confidence, and managed to keep InternetNZ together through that.”

According to Computerworld’s archives, Dengate Thrush was on a working group that produced a report that recommended an ICANN-like restructuring of the way New Zealand domains were administered. That would have opened Domainz up to competition.

Domainz responded with a report of its own and the brouhaha led to a takeover, by a group seeking change and led by former councillor and internet identity David Farrar, at the organisation’s AGM in June 2000.

Issues got even murkier when Dengate Thrush’s role in deciding to fund a defamation suit by Domainz CEO Patrick O’Brien against ISP director Alan Brown was called into question. In May 2001, that row led to calls for Dengate Thrush’s head. In June he resigned as chairman, saying two terms was quite enough on top of his regular workload as a lawyer. He returned, almost immediately, as head of the international committee of InternetNZ and has since headed the Asia Pacific Top Level Domain Association.

“It’s the largest there is with an extraordinary range of cultures and it has grown and prospered,” he says.

He says his inclusive approach is about making sure people get the information they need to make decisions in time to review that information and with time to make their own views known.

He feels he has learned to sense when there is sufficient support to move forward. “That's the art: when to do that,” he says.

Dengate Thrush shares his to-do list

Dengate Thrush says one of his primary goals as chairman of ICANN will be to maintain its principles – that it is industry led, self-regulated and independent of government.

“That’s about having a single interoperable internet so you can log in and work as if you are in NZ from anywhere,” he says. “It has to work seamlessly from end to end.”

He says the internet has to remain “uncapturable”, not controlled by any one company, person or country.

There is also an immediate programme of work to be addressed. ICANN is preparing 11 test top-level domains (TLDs) that are in non-English scripts as part of a drive to further internationalise the internet.

“These will provide greater facility and ease-of-use for people who don’t have English as their native script,” he says.

Potentially more controversial is the development of more generic TLDs. Dengate Thrush says this has been part of ICANN’s mandate 1998. He says there have been two attempts to do that since, but there has been discontent at the process. His aim is to establish a “safe and orderly” application process.

He says such a process could lead to several thousand generic TLDs in addition to ones already established such as .asia, .biz and .travel.

One ongoing task will be ensuring everyone understands ICANN’s role: coordinating the technical infrastructure of the internet.

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