President Clinton spoke last night at the 40th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), currently convening in San Francisco. He urged the members of the international non-profit, which manages the domain name system to keep “stumbling forward” and to remain adaptable as it ages.
He didn’t offer particular advice, however, on the pressing issues facing ICANN this week. These ICANN meetings are regular events, but this one is particularly interesting because of an ongoing discussion on new top-level domains that is happening amidst the run-of-the-mill panels on DNS security and domain name ownership arbitration. This discussion is interesting because of the fault lines it is demonstrating between the ICANN board of directors and the Government Advisory Committee (GAC) to ICANN. At the end of the day, it is raising questions of who controls the Internet, and how the various factions interact with one another.
ICANN, for those who don’t know, is a non-profit corporation headquartered in California that was created in 1998 to manage both the IP address space (through a relationship with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) and the domain name space through the operation of DNS root zone and root nameservers. Before the creation of ICANN, these functions were performed by organizations working directly for the U.S. government. ICANN was meant to be a step toward removing U.S. control over the Internet infrastructure. Instead of U.S. control, the GAC now represents a large number of the world’s governments at ICANN. The GAC’s role is only advisory, but the ICANN board and the GAC work closely together to reach consensus.
The issue that has the GAC and the ICANN board at some odds right now is the question of new global top level domains. Top level domains are the part of the domain name at the very end of the string. Global top-level domains, such as .com, .org, or .edu are the most common, but there are also country code top-level domains (moderated by each individual country) such as .uk for the United Kingdom and .cn for China. For a long time the only global top level domains were those approved by the regulators of the domain name space (whether that was ICANN or the U.S. Department of Commerce), but in 2008 ICANN released a plan to create a regular process for the creation of new global top-level domains.
This is relevant because some governments will be opposed to some global top level domains. France and Germany, for example, will probably take issue with a .nazi domain, whereas culturally repressive societies may be opposed to .gay. The proposals being discussed in San Francisco are partly concerned with how much control individual governments will have over what top level domains ICANN authorizes. It’s an important question that will have a bearing on the independence of the Internet for some time to come. That’s why we’ll be tracking the meeting in San Francisco and future ICANN meetings.