No less than 40 years after the Internet was established in a United States military base, this global phenomenon has taken its first significant step towards internationalisation.
On September 30, the U.S. government passed on the baton to the “global Internet community,” by liberating the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) from its direct control.
That the ICANN — which performs the critical task of monitoring unique web addresses through top level domains such as ‘.com’, ‘.in’ or ‘.edu’ — was controlled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, had triggered heated debate in the recent years. The U.S. too, had drawn flak from several governments for wielding control over something that is inherently international by nature.
Critics point out that, in the absence of global representation, the move to allow Internet addresses in different language scripts had not gathered enough momentum, and thus curbed the Internet growth beyond certain countries.
Now, the “Affirmation of Commitments” has replaced the 11-year-old Joint Project Agreement between the U.S. and the ICANN. It emphasises on international participation in key review processes through a Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), comprising around 80 countries. The GAC has thus, so far, been an advisory body.
The ICANN activities will be reviewed every three years by four teams constituted by the CEO of ICANN and the GAC chair. “The ICANN will represent the articulation of governments, and stakeholders [academia, industry and civil society]. That every country has an equal say, will benefit the Internet user,” says joint secretary of the Department of IT and GAC member N. Ravishanker.
This may also speed up the rollout of multilingual web addresses. “It will help bridge the digital divide and spur growth of Indian language content online,” he explains. Parminder Jeet Singh, a top official of the International Governance Forum, says greater global involvement and contractual changes could affect domain name costs. “One hopes that global public interest, as opposed to that of the U.S. alone, will be better represented.”
The ICANN, in this new deal, commits to making public the reviews of all forthcoming decisions. Advocates of Internet freedom and its internationalisation, laud this move, but indicate this is only the first step.
The agreement refers to ICANN’s future role as a private-sector led multi-stakeholder body. However, Mr. Singh questions whether the review teams will include civil society groups. The continued emphasis on the private or corporate sector has also drawn criticism. “Further, the ICANN board [which will continue to call the shots] remains the key body of power and hence the new arrangement is not as democratic as it should be,” he adds.