Fadi Chehade, as the President and CEO of ICANN, is frankly one of the more important people in the Internet world. His organization is responsible for two key aspects of the Internet. The first is managing the naming system of the Internet and how that system is used globally and how people reach it (ICANN manages the naming system through its policies and operations). The second is numbers. Specifically, any device that talks to the Internet (cell phone, smart phone, Mac, PC, etc.) is given a unique Internet Protocol or IP number, marking its specific entry point to the web. ICANN maintains the global IP numbering system.
A single naming and numbering system equals a single Internet. Traditionally, ICANN has a function called The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) that is responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing, and other Internet protocol resources. IANA is under contract with the U.S. Congress. More generically, that means that the U.S. “helps control” the Internet. However it was always envisioned that the contract between ICANN’s IANA and the U.S. would eventually go away. Chehade believes that contract with the U.S. government should in fact be “sunset”, and the time has come. Chehade believes that ICANN, who is accountable to the global community, should do so without U.S. government oversight.
“The world is seeking and growing ever more anxious to see an independent, globally-accountable ICANN where no one government, no one organization, no one individual has oversight or rights higher than the others,” Chehade says. “I believe this is fundamental to the spirit of the Internet as well. Equal footing for all stakeholders engaged in the management and governance of this global resource.”
So does this mean the U.S. has had more of a stacked-deck in its favor? theCUBE co-host Dave Vellante, Chief Analyst at Wikibon, brings up the fact that the power of U.S. companies like IBM (who at one point had two-thirds of the profit of the web), Intel and Microsoft show that the Internet didn’t level the deck as much as it was supposed to, right? Or have other factors lead to U.S. companies power? Factors like venture capital, Silicon Valley, competitive realities, technical innovation, agility, etc.
Turns out it was the latter, Chehade says emphatically. There is nothing stopping great entrepreneurs from other countries taking advantage of the Internet.
Fragmented internet would cause tension amongst nations
The outcome of a more balanced adjudication system would not take away the power of the U.S. in Chehade’s opinion. A more balanced system would thwart the very real danger though, that the Internet becomes fragmented. It is Chehade’s belief that if that happens, there will be so much friction between countries and entities to do commerce and to exchange information that the cost of doing business on the Internet would go up significantly. How much of a cost increase? Substantial. Increased frictional cost would let the world down at the policy, economic and physical levels.
“The current governance model was born from a reality that was based in the U.S. – the Internet has since become vital to the worlds economy, to societies, to the political life, to the cultural life of the world,” says Chehade. “Governance mechanisms of the Internet need to become equally global and inclusive. That can be solved two ways. One, any one from any stakeholder group who wish to participate in shaping the policies and standards of the Internet need to have easy, equal access and we (ICANN) must facilitate that. Two, everyone has equal access.”
However, theCUBE co-host Charles M. Sennott, Editor-at-Large with GlobalPost sees contradictions in that line of thinking. “You’re saying on the one hand we cannot let the Internet fragment, but on the other hand we need to be inclusive and global — aren’t those two things running right into each other?”
“The Internet is many many networks – what makes it one is a logical layer on top of the physical layer,” Chehade answers. “That logical layer includes what ICANN manages, names, numbers protocol parameters. That layer has to remain strong and in tact, in order for the physical infrastructure to be unified before we get to the application layer and content layer. If we lose that, and suddenly governments decide they will create their own numbering or naming system. A country like China, would name introduce to the world a Chinese Internet route.”
A Chinese Internet route could already be in the works
Then the elephant in the room emerges. Sennott presses Chehade further, asking if he believes China is doing that. Chehade smiles and pauses to be very specific with the words he chooses before answering the follow-up question. “I don’t know, but I would not be surprised if some of this is already in motion.”
Chehade says ICANN believes that if the central governance of the Internet is lost, real economic impact will be had. ICANN recently commissioned a study with a Boston Consulting group – they will release in Davos later this month at the World Economic Forum – on how a fragmented Internet will impact the GDP of specific economies. ICANN picked 16 countries and will expand their research from there, documenting the economic impact of a broken Internet central governance.
Does the distribution of route servers need to change? Does the fact that the U.S. houses 10 of the 13 services matter?
Chehade sighs, and then very strongly says, “Look, we make more out of the importance of the route servers than we should. Its become a trojan horse for the discussion. Oh, 10 out of the 13 services are in the U.S., therefore the U.S. controllers the Internet. No, and I don’t believe it should be a political discussion mechanism.”
Make no bones about it, we are at a very imminent intersection right now as far as Internet governance and protocols are concerned. The UN started the WSIS process in 2005, that has a 10-year review coming up in 2015. How has the information society evolved? Has governance evolved to keep pace? You’re probably well aware of the revelations from Edward Snowden over the last few months as it pertains to the NSA and who has access to what on the Internet, too. The issue of who in fact does govern the Internet has been raised to the heads of state in every country.
We have 18 months to find new governance
World leaders have 18 months, by Chehade’s math, to come to a decision. Sennott asked if he thought these world leaders are prepared to take on the complex and very layered information needed to understand and implement a new model for governance. Another laugh and smile from Chehade, who goes on to say,
“They are scrambling. Most countries are scrambling, few countries are prepared,” said Chehade. When pressed again for a more direct answer of if they can figure it out in 18 months, Chehade shows his hand. By dodging the question in pulling from in prepared facts dance that avoids saying yes or no definitively, Chehade says in turn says no and rather empathically.
There is hope though, and it might lie with Brazil. Right now there are two current camps, the U.S. and its allies with the multi-stakeholder governance model, and Russia and its allies with the multi-lateral governance model. But in the middle of both the far left and far right are what Chehade calls middle countries. Countries that frankly didn’t have enough data to make an informed decision, so they slide slightly to one side or the other. These middle countries include the likes of Turkey, South Korea, Germany, Ghana and Brazil. These are middle countries looking for a solution, and happen to have influence over their geographical locations.
“Brazil is the middle of the middle countries,” says Chehade. It has the depth and size needed. Also, Brazil is the only big country in the world, that for the last 18 years has managed its national Internet policy based on a multi-stakeholder body where the government does not have the majority, called the CGI. In the world of governance, accountability is important.
The Internet is a place of permission-less innovation. Learn, get on with it, provide value. Chehade says it is time that the logical layer is in need of a reboot, and that reboot can be best described as what Chehade says the bumper sticker of his tenure at ICANN would say: “Changing ICANN from a fortress to an oasis. Making it open and attractive to all, and a place that solves problems.”