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Change of Leadership at ICANN as Cerf Makes Way for Intellectual Property Expert

Intellectual property and computer law barrister Peter Dengate-Thrush has been elected as new Chairman of the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The former chairman of InternetNZ, the country-code top-level domain (ccTLD) registry for New Zealand (.nz), and cofounder of the Association of Asian Pacific ccTLDs, succeeds the legendary Vinton Cerf.

Cerf had served on the ICANN Board since 1999 (the organisation was formed in 1998). In 2000, he was elected chair and as such led the private non-profit domain-name system (DNS) technical body through several turbulent reforms and debates, like the abolition of global online elections and the diplomatic dispute about US Internet oversight during the World Summit on the Information Society.

“ICANN has earned its place in the Internet universe,” said Cerf during his last board session on Friday at the end of ICANN’s 30th international meeting, which ran from 29 October to 2 November in Los Angeles.

Reading parts from a legacy paper entitled “Looking towards the Future,” the co-developer of TCP/IP (a key underlying Internet protocol) continued: “To those who now guide its path into the future comes the challenge to fashion an enduring institution on this solid foundation. I am confident that this goal is not only attainable but that it is now also necessary. The opportunity is there: make it so.”

At a press conference after the highly emotional last Cerf-led session, Cerf underlined ICANN’s approach to participation of its stakeholders. “The multistakeholder model not only is working, but is also copied by other organisations,” he said.

Dengate-Thrush is ICANN’s third chairperson after founding Chair Esther Dyson and Cerf, who underlined that after three chairpersons, three CEOs (including sitting CEO and President Paul Twomey), and many changes of the board it was clear that the organisation is highly resilient. Several board members made similar statements and reflected a general feeling that Cerf’s departure is of considerable importance to ICANN and may constitute a new phase for the organisation. The organisation is seen as having benefited heavily from Cerf’s international recognition, even reverence, as one of the “fathers of the Internet.”

Cerf’s diplomatic skills and compromise-oriented leadership style were applauded by many board members and the high-level guest speakers (such as former US Vice-President Al Gore) at his glamorous farewell party at the Sony Studios.

Yet there also has been criticism against the frequent unanimous board votes in many board meetings, a symbol of Cerf’s compromise-oriented style that he also exercised during his last board session where every motion on an implementation report for new gTLDs (generic top-level domains like .com), a working group for fast track IDN ccTLD introduction and more were taken unanimously.

New Era for ICANN?

This may be over with the new chairman, Dengate-Thrush. The New Zealander did not shy away from voting against the much-debated new .com-registry contract with VeriSign. He also joined a minority of board members defending the application of .xxx against a board vote allegedly motivated by government and some industry pressure.

“We are glad about Peter Dengate-Thrush’s election,” said Dirk Krischenowski, CEO of to-be applicant for a new domain name of .berlin. “From his earlier engagement it is clear that he will focus on ICANN core tasks and will promote new domain name spaces,” he said. “We think he will accelerate steps of the still slow procedure to introduce new TLDs without discarding high standards.”

The board did not give a clear timetable at this week’s meeting, something the possible applicants had hoped for. Cerf said one could expect new addresses for the second half of 2008. Dengate-Thrush said: “We did not wait for ongoing policy work, but already started work on implementation by asking a report from the staff.”

With regard to a possible fast-track introduction for internationalised ccTLDs , country domains in local character sets like for example Arabic or Chinese, Dengate-Thrush said ICANN had to rethink the concept of one country, one script, one IDN [internationalised domain name] TLD.

“There might be countries with four, 26 or more languages that could run into problems with their laws by this,” he said. The new working group on this issue that will bring together governments, ccTLD registries and members from other constituencies will look for a solution to these problems.

Dengate-Thrush’s professional background as an “IP expert”—in the double meaning of intellectual property and Internet Protocol—might be a plus in steering the debates to come on prior rights to the various kinds of names that people want or do not want to see in the Internet root.

Moreover, Dengate-Thrush said he was glad about bringing his experience as a ccTLD representative to the table as it had allowed him to see different models of governance in various countries.

Whois Procedure May Move

Accepting the diversity resulting from different regional or national laws with regard to data protection was a possible solution touched upon by this week’s board meeting as it addressed Whois data, which shows whom registers domain names. ICANN’s Generic Name Supporting Organisation (GNSO) was unable to reach an agreement on a tiered access to personal information of domain name registrants in the Whois database, which resulted in a renewal of a call for a procedure to allow exemptions from ICANN standard contractual obligations for Whois.

ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC) paved the way for the implementation of the procedure by issuing advice that ICANN had been waiting for. The GAC said that “uniform process” among governments was not to be expected. Therefore, specific cases should just be referred to national authorities in order to come to a procedure for the respective registries and registrars. ICANN CEO Twomey said that with the GAC advice, staff could finalise implementation of the procedure.

GNSO Council member Ross Rader, a registrar constituency representative from Tucows, welcomed the step: “This will ensure that those individuals in regions with progressive privacy law will enjoy the full protection of those laws.” The world is not the United States, he said, and while the US government, intellectual property community, law enforcement community and business community might not agree with the privacy laws passed in other jurisdictions, this did not change the fact that those laws are in fact fully in effect.

More debates on the internationalisation of the ICANN model can be expected. Twomey also pointed to research of his President’s Strategy Committee that was looking into the possibility of “parallel legal entities” in other jurisdictions. ICANN’s headquarters certainly would stay in the United States, said Twomey.

Also it remains to be seen if ICANN’s now completely non-US leadership trio of Dengate-Thrush, Australian CEO Twomey and re-elected Vice Chair Roberto Gaetano, an Italian living in Vienna and long term ICANN contributor, will make a difference in internationalisation debates tabled again by governments.

This article has been featured here with kind permission from Intellectual Property Watch.

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