ICANNs San Francisco meeting is only just officially beginning, as I write Vint Cerf has just finished his speech at the welcoming ceremony, but already the process is in full swing, with working groups, review teams and councils meeting over the last two days to get started on the weeks work. Running the domain name system, and IP number allocation, is a complicated business, and the ICANN multi-stakeholder model still works largely by gathering hundreds of people together a few times a year to discuss it.
So what can we expect from this weeks meeting? The big issue remains the plan to open up the process for creating new top level domains, opening up top level domains to anyone with a few hundred thousand dollars and the resources to run a domain name registry. Domains like .sport, .music, .eco and .gay are planned, as well as allowing corporations to run their own domains ( .canon and .hitachi, for example), potentially seeing hundreds of new top level domains. The ICANN community has been working through the issues involved for years, and negotiated a lot of complex compromises between the varying interests of users, domain name owners, trademark holders, domain name registries and registrars, and ICANN itself. We seem to have a document that most of the ICANN community agrees on now — apart from the GAC (the government advisory council, representing those governments that participate in ICANN). Now that the process is nearly over, governments (particularly the US government) have realized that there are a few things they don't like about what is on offer, and have a few ideas for how it should be instead. A special extra meeting between the GAC and the ICANN board in Brussels showed that while some disagreements could be resolved, some ran deep, and negotiations continue.
So what are the things governments want changed? Thankfully, one US government proposal — that any government should be able to veto any new top level domain name — didn't meet with enough support, and has been dropped. Making it easier for governments to make their displeasure known has certainly been part of the GAC agenda, and is being carefully considered, but for now they do not have the final say (and objections generally require multi-government support). Those who want to run potentially controversial domain names like .gay must be happy that the board is resisting giving individual governments veto power. Other GAC demands include stronger rights for trademark holders (rights rejected during earlier negotiations), rights that some feel will just allow large trademark holders to stifle criticism and competition, and bully smaller domain name owners into giving up domains that they might be legally entitled to.
Another issue is the planned .xxx domain. The story of .xxx is a long and complicated one that has been going on since at least 2004. Initially approved by ICANN, that decision was reversed under pressure from the US government, than several years later ICANNs independent review process decided that the board was wrong to reverse it's initial position, and should put it back on the agenda. So, now the decision has come around again, this time with an added context of being a test case for ICANN accountability. There are both issues to do with the domain itself — many within the adult website community are not happy with the plans for running .xxx, and the possibility that it will make censorship easier and disrupt existing businesses — and how the .xxx domain once again raises the issue of how ICANN deals with decisions that are unpopular with governments. The board is expected to approve the domain this week, but I'm sure there will be discussion about it before then.
All of this takes place under a general atmosphere of governments questioning ICANNs role. The organizations that coordinate the phone and postal systems and similar international infrastructure are UN bodies, with who is allowed to even speak or attend firmly under government control, and usually run in a way that allows individual governments to block initiatives they disapprove of. That the Internet is run by a multi-stakeholder organization that allows pretty much anyone to turn up and participate many governments find distinctly uncomfortable, and when the ICANN board is telling them directly that they may not take the advice of government the level of discomfort is quite high. The issue of the moment (the new top level domain process, in this case) always has the shadow of the bigger question of 'who should run the Internet' hanging over it.
There are a lot of other issues at ICANN — I'll be concentrating on security and stability issues as part of the Security, Stability and Resiliency review team, itself part of ICANNs multi-year process of showing it can provide its own accountability and review mechanisms without the oversight of the US Department of Commerce (and I'm happy to hear feedback from EFA members about other issues of concern). There is the ongoing work of making domain names available in other languages and scripts, dealing with abuses of the system, and all the other issues involved in running what is now a complicated and mature system. A more complete summary of issues has been provided by Kieren McCarthy. But somehow the issues that are causing controversy always come down to free speech and those who want to make things less free (often for their own commercial reasons), and government desire for closer control over an internet that seems to be running well without it.