The London meeting that could shape the future of the internet

Edgware Road: where big decisions are made. HowardLake, CC BY-SA

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is holding its 50th public meeting in London from June 22.

An international crowd spanning business, politics and civil society will be meeting across 60 events to try to reach agreements on some important issues about the shape of the internet. The summit comes at a time of great change for internet governance and some very important issues are on the table.

ICANN is the not-for-profit organisation that controls the registration of domain names – the web addresses at the heart of the internet. It is seen as the body that maintains “root” of the internet and therefore plays a key role in ensuring its stability as a global, decentralised communications system. Its function is mainly related to the code level of the internet with the basic aim of ensuring that whatever device you are reading this on is able to, once a connection is found, access the information held online.

So ICANN can be seen as a group of technicians. These are the engineers who enable the miracle of innovation that is the internet to keep on going. But since controlling the root of the internet comes with immense power, ICANN has necessarily had to become more political. Reflecting this change, ICANN shifted its structure in 2006 to share more power more equally between different countries rather than concentrating it in the US alone.

The last ICANN meeting happened in Singapore just three months ago, but regular meetings are needed because of the potentially dramatic changes under discussion at the moment. There are two key, current areas for debate which will have a significant role in shaping the future of the organisation and, indeed, the internet itself.

The first is the expansion of web addresses to allow generic top-level domain names (g-TLDs). This extension means anyone wanting to register a domain name is no longer restricted to using .com at the end of their web address. This is extremely significant development as it considerably increases the number of web addresses available. But it also raises problems for ICANN, which will have to control the registries, develop effective complaints mechanisms and protect existing rights holders.

The aim is to promote competition while minimising the potential for exploitation through, for example, g-TLD holders charging exorbitant fees for registration. The decision to expand the g-TLDs has drawn criticism because it could place extra burdens on people and businesses as they try to set up a web presence. It could also make it easier for those advising companies on maintaining a website to charge consultancy fees.

It is fitting that this is the subject of numerous meetings at ICANN50. Hopefully these will focus on developing robust, fair procedures to support the increase in domain names and ensure that the end user is at the centre of the discussion at all times.

The second key area relates to the very heart of ICANN itself and, in particular, its relationship with the US government. While this has been a subject of discussion for some time, the revelations of the past year about the extent to which US government agencies have been invading privacy through the internet has made it all the more pressing. ICANN started in the US and its ties to a state that has been systematically exploiting the internet to invade privacy has repercussions for internet governance.

The manner in which the root operates can be manipulated in order to make it easier to track information and infringe upon users’ privacy. While ICANN is a self-declared organisation with an international structure, it does operate under a contract with the US’ National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). In March 2014, however, an announcement was made stating that the NTIA did not intend to renew this contract.

This came as a surprise to many but could be a step towards reducing the reach of the NTIA. Breaking the tie would leave ICANN as a truly international body without the “steadying hand” of one individual state. For many this would be seen as a positive step; a split from the body which had committed high-profile and ongoing violations of citizens’ trust.

But it will also mean that ICANN will have to reflect on its structure and procedures in order to ensure that control is shared equally and that certain interests are not protected more than others. ICANN has in the past been criticised for its lack of transparency and accountability, such as when it made the decision to expand g-TLDs. Some suggestions for ICANN’s future restructuring include separating the management of its technical functions from those that are more political, and creating an independent monitoring body to hold it to account. Hopefully there will be a great deal of introspection, planning and negotiation in London.

ICANN50 is crucial to the development of an open, stable and secure internet. It should therefore be a forum in which the concerns of everyone who uses the internet are addressed. There needs to be a renewed focus on human rights and protecting end users. Many, but not all, of ICANN’s meetings are public, so I urge you to participate remotely. More than ever, there’s a need for citizens to take part in the discussions that shape the internet.