Organisations that run their own country-code top-level domains, such as InternetNZ, should have greater confidence in their independence after a meeting of global internet body ICANN in Montreal last month.
After various attempts by ICANN to exert control over ccTLDs, the new structure incorporates a substantially independent ccTLD Support Organisation (ccNSO).
Though the ICANN board has the right to examine policies formed by the ccTLDs and their organisation, it cannot change these policies, says Peter Dengate Thrush, head of InternetNZ’s international affairs committee. “The board can ratify or remit [send back to the ccSO]; it cannot remake.” This was one of the most important battles, he says.
Dengate Thrush, has been appointed Asia-Pacific region member on the “launching group” — 15 ccTLD members from around the world given the task of setting up the body. First steps will be housekeeping procedures, attracting 30 members and electing a council, he says.
The ccNSO has two seats on the ICANN board – it wanted three — but the structure for managing ccTLDs as approved by ICANN is very close to that originally designed by the ccTLDs.
The decisions at Montreal are regarded as a significant step in a long struggle. This has included ICANN’s tendency to concentrate almost exclusively on international top-level domains like .com and .net and relegate country-code needs to a much lower level of importance. It has also involved what the ccTLD lobby saw as an attempt by ICANN to exert undue control over the operation of the internet domain space in countries outside the US.
Both local domain name controlling bodies and regional address-assignment bodies were established in the early days of the internet informally, without statute or contract, says Dengate Thrush. “But they are trusted; that’s why [many of the same people or the bodies they formed] are still there.”
The internet was initially controlled nominally by the US government, through the National Science Foundation, but practical control was exercised through the late Jon Postel, of the University of Southern California, who delegated people he knew and trusted to run overseas domains (these were known in the embryonic internet community as FoJs (friends of Jon). Registration in the US domains was placed in the hands of Network Solutions Inc (NSI).
In 1990, Vint Cerf and others formed the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). This was followed in the early 90s by the formation of Internet Society (Isoc) chapters in various countries. In 1994 Isoc and the IAB proposed privatisation of the internet. A proposal developed for 50 registries and 150 general top-level domains (gTLDs).
By 1996, web-browsing and domain-name squatters had come on the scene and attention to the internet had become more urgent. Influential bodies such as the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) began seeking involvement.
The informal control of country-code domains was looking shaky in some areas, including Australia, where the expanded internet communities had less confidence in their local “FoJ”.
With the 150-domain proposal came an indication that the international community might wish the internet’s centre of operations to be transferred to Geneva. The US government “hit the roof”, says Dengate Thrush, and began a process which produced the Green and White Papers written by Presidential delegate Ira Magaziner. This proposed a new organisation to coordinate the technical resources of the internet, a globally-based private company.
Until that point, the process had not been seen as affecting countries outside the US and Europe to a great extent, but at that point it did, says Dengate Thrush.
In September 1998, a group of people including Jon Postel and Vint Cerf put up a proposal to become this “NewCo”. With Becky Burr as a link person to the US Department of Commerce (which had taken over responsibility for the internet from the Department of Defence).
NSI was not particularly interested in the proposal at the time, as it was earning big money from domain registrations at the height of the dot-com boom.
Those with reservations about the embryonic ICANN proposal were forming themselves into lobbies such as the Open Root Server Coalition and the Boston Working Group, in which Dengate Thrush was involved. That group made contributions to the formation of the emerging ICANN’s bylaws.
In November 1998 the US Department of Commerce reached a memorandum of understanding with the NewCo group which said if it could achieve the objectives set for ICANN then it could form the body. The previous month, however, Jon Postel had died. This created some disarray in the plans and the good relationship with DoC. The ICANN board set about a series of meetings all over the world to nut out its structure. Early in the piece, at Singapore in 1999, the need for an international Domain Name Support Organisation (DNSO) was identified and a group of interested bodies, representing ISPs, registries, registrars, business, intellectual property and other constituencies got together. The ccTLD organisations were heavily involved.
New Zealand representatives attended quarterly meetings in several countries over 1998-99 and it became clear that ccTLDs did not fit well under the DNSO, Dengate Thrush says.
In September 99 NSI, now owned by Verisign, was forced to sign a contract with ICANN. ICANN established a policy of shared registry systems and required all new registrars to sign a universal disputes resolution policy (UDRP) to resolve disputes over domain names.
For ccTLDs to adopt this effectively meant intellectual property law for this and other countries was being made overseas, and this was unacceptable, Dengate Thrush says. Again, it appeared that while the top-level domain organisation was being sorted out, ccTLDs were being virtually ignored. There was no means of taking into account the vast range of organisations and ownership structures in different nations.
One of the terms of the memorandum of understanding that cleared the founding of ICANN was that it reach suitable agreement with the ccTLDs, particularly over funding and how the decision-making authority was to be split.
Dengate Thrush suggested a “very lightweight agreement”. Then in February 2000, in Cairo, ICANN “without warning” delivered a major document asking the ccTLDs to ratify a status-quo contract which would have imposed major levies on the national bodies, with substantial control from the top over ccTLD procedures. “It became obvious ICANN had no idea of national self-determination. As well as the dispute resolution conflict, the operation of the whois database came up against differing national attitudes to privacy," he says. The US favours a more open attitude to information, so it can trace illegal activity.
“The people who control technology [particularly the technology of the media] have major impact on social areas,” says Dengate Thrush. “The internet has huge potential outside its technology. This was a historic opportunity to get an appropriate structure in place for the most important communications advance ever.”
Frustration reached a peak with the annual general meeting of ICANN in Los Angeles in 2000, when Dengate Thrush threatened that under continued intransigence by ICANN the ccTLDs would be “forced reluctantly to look at alternative root servers”, leaving ICANN to look after the “legacy network”. This he modestly calls his “atom-bomb speech”. It was evident in meetings in Geneva and Hawaii during 2001 that ICANN had begun to come to terms with the ccTLDs’ needs.
In June 2001, at Stockholm, the ccTLDs announced their decision to wthdraw from the DNSO and form a separate organisation.
ICANN was under pressure from some governments to assume control of ccTLDs, because the governments couldn’t do it themselves. Some governments wanted to be a party to the agreements between ICANN and the ccTLD authorities. South Africa has been particularly strong on this, but the manager of the .za domain showed how powerless they were in the equation by “picking up the domain files and leaving the country”.
There are places where the local internet community needs to be protected from government ambitions, and places where the government is not getting enough of a role, Dengate Thrush says. “I call it ‘the delicate dance’.”
The New Zealand government is mostly supporting what we’ve been doing, he says.
In February 2002, ICANN President Stewart Lynn published a paper calling for ICANN reform and making the point that a constructive relationship with the ccTLDs was essential to worldwide internet interoperability. A committee on ICANN Evolution and Reform (ERC) was founded to come up with what Dengate Thrush calls “a more focused repeat of the Magaziner white paper”.
In June ERC issued its reform blueprint. The ruling board had only two seats for the country-code support organisation, the ccSO, and had a huge contingent of eight “at large” board members, to be appointed by a nominating committee, which would, in turn, be appointed by the board. Among those on the “Nom Com” was New Zealand’s Grant Forsyth, delegated from the business users’ committee.
In September 2002 ERC adopted a group of people to help it prepare the structure of the ccTLD support organisation.
The eventual new structure of ICANN makes more provision for ccTLD. The structure eventually approved by ICANN for the ccNSO is very close to the original structure.