“Private Companies Should Not Rule the Internet”

Questions to Jean-Jacques Sahel, ICANN’s European Vice President

STOCKHOLM ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, it administers the internet addresses, domains and top level domains (.eu, .com etc). ICANN’s European Vice President Jean-Jacques Sahel keynotes this week’s Internet Days-conference, Netopia interviewed him about power over the internet.

Per Strömbäck: Who rules the internet?

Jean-Jacques Sahel: The easy answer is no one. There is no central authority. The complex answer is that Internet governance is an ecosystem, a number of institutions and processes that are interdependent: IETF deals with technological standards, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is concerned with web design standards, such as accessibility. ICANN operates the domain name system; Privacy issues are partly a government responsibility, but also involves some intergovernmental organisations, etc. etc.. It is not a perfect eco-system, not every issue has a clear home. There are a few holes, for example international privacy. Now might be a good time to have clear global mechanisms to deal with that. What we have is UN Declaration of Fundamental Rights, but that is very high level; who enforces it? That’s why we look at efforts such as Net Mundial to evolve the ecosystem and help address a range of issues where they are not already handled.

PS: What is the role of private companies?

JJS: They should not rule the Internet. Only in the form of having the best innovation, being part of the eco system, abide by laws when they exist, be good net citizens. But it also depends on various layers of the value chain. There are certain bottlenecks: such as access to Internet. Is it free access? Affordable? Good enough quality? The market forces should deliver this. At various levels in the Internet value chain, there can be a bottle necks: that’s where the focus of competition monitoring should be. There is no competition authority on an international level. The closest thing we have is the European commission and the US government. Plus some national regulators such as Brazil, Russia to some extent, and China certainly. But there is no global competition authority (which is not to say we should have one). Competition is key. It links to consumer benefits.

PS: Why are top level domains (TLDs) controversial?

JJS: If we take a step back, around 2005-06 there were 200 country codes – like .se or .de – and only 22 TLDs: .com, …biz, etc. Already a lot of TLDs were saturated, which meant a lack of innovation and lack of choice. We heard concerns also, about lack of competition, only a few players reaping all the benefits. With new TLDs there is new competition. Now we have .club, .global, and many more – a total of 1300 that should go through the application process. It was more than what was anticipated perhaps, but it is controversial only in a handful of cases: how expensive should TLDs be? is administration too complex? – these are not so much controversies but rather, lessons. Real controversy happens only with maybe ten names. It is a tiny percentage of issues, out of 1300 new names, compared to most other markets. Think of any regulated market and you’d be lucky to find so few issues. These are things that were difficult to predict. We have some issues where some governments, for example, are worried, but we are hopeful we can find a good way forward. If and when we go for a new round, it will by much tighter.

PS: Should ICANN cancel domains in case of crime?

JJS: For country code domains, it depends on the national law in any case, that is normal procedure. If there is fraud or criminal activity for example, of course the domain can be taken down. If there are trademark violations and IP breaches, we have procedures for this. We don’t intervene ourselves, however, normally; we have contractual relationships. We are not a regulator, but rather a secretariat. What the communities decide is implemented in contracts with registries and registrars*. Preventing crime is a given in the contract. In case of breach of contract, domain cancellation can happen very rapidly. There are hundreds of examples of this with various registrars. It can be initiated by end user complaints or law enforcement. We as ICANN are high up the chain, but some registrars are connected directly. If you have a complaint, go to the organisation that sold the domain name “buyillegaldrugs.se” or whatever. Of course it’s more complicated if it’s an international criminal operation.

PS: What is your comment to the criticism of the Internet governance eco-system being US-dominated? For example the IANA is under contract with the US Department of Commerce.

JJS: Some background: IANA is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority. It is a function that is administered by ICANN. IANA has three main tasks: 1. Naming. A new country wants a country top domain for example. These are kept in a database called the “root zone”. There is a process involving the internet community, research institutes, government departments, private companies. This is how Croatia would have got the .hr-domain for example. IANA checks with the International Standards Organisation (ISO) which maintains the official list of country codes internationally, and then goes to the US Department of Commerce for checks. 2. Managing the global pool of IP-adresses. There are five regional Internet registries. The European is RIPE in Amsterdam. These registries ask for IP-address allocation from IANA, then organise the regional level. 3. Protocol parameters, there are about 100 tech protocols that support the rootzone.

The US link is because of the historical role of the US government in the Internet’s development. Now this role is led by the Department of Commerce, and it used to be the Department of Defence, which funded the research project that started ARPAnet in the Sixties, the precursor to the Internet. A man called Jon Postel was responsible for adding country codes. Up until 1997, this one man did it all himself. It was clear it was not sustainable. Postel himself contributed to the white paper that resulted in ICANN and IANA being setup. Already in 1997 the plan was to privatise it within two years, but it was delayed. The Obama administration put it back on the table earlier this year, an acknowledgment that the system has matured successfully and can now become fully independent.

At the end of the current contract between ICANN and the US Government (September 2015), the oversight of IANA will be transferred to the global multi-stakeholder community. It represents the entire community, including government but also NGOs, end users and registry/registrars. We’re working on the transition.

The new role, is not so much about less US involvement, but about independence from government’s ultimate oversight overall. Today, a government can say yes or no to major changes in the Internet architecture. We want to move away from that into multi-stakeholder governance model, where all stakeholders concerned can have a say, not only one group.

ICANN strives to increase diversity, all our papers translated to six UN-languages, plus Portuguese. The more diversity we have the better the procedures and policies that are developed by the community. When we started, only 16 years ago, there were 150 million internet users – most of them in the West. Now there are close to three billion users and most of them are in China, India, and Latin America. We want to develop the structure and have more people get involved – anyone with an interest in the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) can have a say, whether business, technical community, NGOs, governments or end-users, and we’d encourage any of these groups to come join in our work. ICANN Wants You! [laughs]

Per Strömbäck


*) Editor’s note: Registries are those organisations overseeing top level domains, national bodies for most country codes, but also private companies, non-governmental organisations and others. Registrars are typically businesses selling domain names under contract with the registry.