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Can ICANN Meet The Needs Of “Less Developed” Countries?

On World Telecommunications Day last Saturday, the question of the digital divide?the difference between the so-called “developed” and “less developed” countries in terms of the availability and use of new information and communications technologies, particularly regarding access and use of the Internet?was one of the main topics of debate. However, less is understood about the growing knowledge and participation divide between “developed” and “undeveloped” countries on decisions regarding the global structure of the Internet that is currently under the mandate of the Internet Corporation for the Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

A non-profit corporation, ICANN was created in 1998 by a broad coalition within the Internet community to act as the technical coordination body for the Internet. Under contract with the US Department of Commerce, their main role is to coordinate the assignment of domain names, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, protocol parameters and port numbers that must all be globally unique in order to achieve a functioning Internet that is secure and stable. They also coordinate the Internet’s root server system, a network of 13 computers that are essential for the proper functioning of the Internet.

Although part of ICANN’s mission is to achieve broad representation of the global Internet community using bottom-up and consensus-based means, many have criticized ICANN’s current structure as undemocratic, vulnerable to government and corporate influence, and of marginalizing participation from developing countries.

In March, Dr. Paul Twomey was elected as the new president and chief executive officer of ICANN. A native of Australia, Twomey participated in the original process that led to the creation of ICANN and has served as the Australian government’s Special Representative for the Internet and ICANN since 2000. He has also served as the Chair of ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee (GAC).

Twomey was recently quoted in a Seattle Times article as stating that he “would try to reach out to developing countries.” In an interview with the Digital Freedom Network, Twomey explained that “there was not so much interest among developing countries then as there is now” and asserted that “we are now in the era of a globalized Internet and ICANN should represent the real interest and degrees of the Internet community.”

In general, “developed” countries have more advanced national Internet infrastructures and a higher number of Internet users, while the majority of the “less developed” countries are still grappling with setting up their Internet infrastructure and often have a low number of Internet users. Acknowledging that there is a real gap, or digital divide, in terms of Internet infrastructures and use, Twomey believes that “education and empowerment of people” is a key area in which ICANN can play a role while keeping in mind that “people have different needs in different places.”

Among other initiatives, Twomey plans to focus on helping developing countries enhance their Internet infrastructures, stimulate greater participation of individual Internet users in ICANN discussions and meetings, and encourage discussion between government, businesses and consumers.

His remarks have been met with both hope and skepticism with many reluctant to believe that such initiatives will succeed. Thus far, “ICANN, through its actions and inactions, has succeeded in sidelining the interests of developing countries,” claimed Kwasi Boakye-Akyeampong in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network. Boakye-Akyeampong is the founder of the Ghanaian chapter of the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR), a “public-interest alliance of computer scientists and others concerned about the impact of computer technology on society.”

“ICANN has been over-politicized, and like in any political arena, the views and interests of the rich and powerful hold sway,” stated Boakye-Akyeampong.

What is ICANN?

Without a basic understanding of ICANN’s role and functions, those in developing countries will not be able to increase their participation or input into the forum. “ICANN has terribly failed in this regard,” claimed Boakye-Akyeampong. “The majority of Internet users haven’t got a clue as to what ICANN is about.”

One of the main problems with ICANN, according to Veni Markovski of the Internet Society of Bulgaria, is that they rely solely on the Internet for their outreach efforts. This sidelines many people from the developing world who often have only email access, and no Web access.

Another problem is the language barrier. ICANN materials, available in English, are only translated into a limited number of languages. “If they want to really reach developing countries, they have to make sure they are using the native languages,” said Markovski in an interview with the Digital Freedom Network.

Simple efforts such as posting information on local Web sites or publishing articles in local or regional newspapers and publications would help to create greater awareness and generate debate. Outreach to local media would also be helpful in combating ignorance about ICANN.

Both Boakye-Akyeampong and Markovski agree that working with people at the local level is the best way to create awareness in developing countries, particularly by targeting those who already have some familiarity with ICANN.

“Those who have anything to do with ICANN on the African continent should be charged to ensure there is enough public education and awareness of the activities of ICANN,” said Boakye-Akyeampong.

In addition, Markovski proposed creating an ICANN ambassador in every country. Such an initiative could be effective and cost-efficient with the majority serving on a volunteer basis. For those in developing countries, who are less likely to be able to volunteer their time, a relatively small salary or stipend would be sufficient. “In Africa and Asia, $50 or $100 a month would be enough,” estimated Markovski, which would make the benefits likely to outweigh the cost.

Another area that needs improvement is to increase participation and awareness of those from developing countries in ICANN meetings. Twomey claimed that “ICANN does make a big effort to make these forums wider,” and noted that the meetings are open, free to the public and video-streamed for those unable to attend.

But video streaming is not the answer for many who don’t have Web access and while an increasing effort has been made to hold ICANN meetings in developing countries in order to make them more accessible, many still cannot afford the travel and related costs.

In fact, holding the meetings in developing countries seems to have had little effect on increasing attendance from these countries, most likely because publicity and outreach efforts are neglected. For example, Boakye-Akyeampong claimed that most people working in the Internet Technology (IT) industry in Ghana were not even aware that ICANN was having a meeting in Accra, the country’s capital city, in 2002.

“There should be sponsorship opportunities for participants from Africa at ICANN meetings,” insisted Boakye-Akyeampong. “ICANN could also play a bigger role in encouraging public debate both before, during and after ICANN meetings.

In addition, Boakye-Akyeampong also expressed his belief that holding elections for ICANN regional board members is one way in which they could generate interest in ICANN among Internet users. Previously the “At-Large” community, which refers to individual Internet users, had a direct role in electing ICANN Board Members through an Internet vote. However, recent changes have removed this system of elections.

“My own interest in ICANN, and that of some people I know, came about during the 2000 At-Large board elections,” he said.

Representing the At-Large constituency

The abolition of the At-Large elections is also an example of how the At-Large constituency has been marginalized. “ICANN has discouraged grassroots participation by weakening the At-Large constituency where there had been some provisions made for developing countries to participate,” surmised Boakye-Akyeampong.

“In Eastern European countries, people are not used to democracy and we do not have civil society,” explained Markovski. “We need organizations like ICANN that can the lead the process in establishing some democratic structures and promoting open societies.”

According to Twomey, ICANN is “looking at ways to further incorporate the At-Large community.” There is a proposal currently out for debate in regards to the structure and function of an At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) designed to address this gap. ALAC’s main role is to provide advice on ICANN activities in relation to the At-Large community.

According to the ICANN Web site, the ALAC proposal up for discussion involves a “network of self-organizing, self-supporting At-Large Structures throughout the world that involves individual Internet users at the local or issue level” and would include Regional At-Large Organizations that would “manage outreach and public involvement and will be the main forum and coordination point in each region for public input to ICANN.”

While efforts to forge partnerships with existing regional associations and individual country IT professional groups could prove to be successful, problems may still exist for developing countries.

For example, Markovski who has been involved with the At-Large Outreach Committee since 2000, the predecessor to ALAC, found that he often could not devote his time to work on ICANN issues in addition to his regular job. “I would like to spend more time on ICANN issues, but if I am not reimbursed, I cannot do that,” said Markovski.

While many from developing countries are in the same position, those from developed countries are far more likely to be able to afford to volunteer their time. In fact, some organizations even hire people to work on a permanent basis with ICANN. “It’s like a lobbying process,” said Markovski, and this is an area in which developing countries are falling far behind.

Furthermore, those from developing countries who have the time and finances to participate in ICANN meetings may not accurately represent the At-Large community from their countries. “Those who have the opportunity to speak unfortunately happen to be the rich and powerful from our region, who themselves have vested interests and are not likely to fight as hard for the interests of the few current users and the huge masses of potential users,” commented Boakye-Akyeampong.

In addition to funding for participation, it is important that the “at-large and non-commercial constituency of ICANN should be empowered to play an effective role,” said Boakye-Akyeampong.

Engaging governments

Similar to ALAC, the GAC “provides advice on the activities of ICANN as they relate to concerns of governments, particularly matters where there may be interaction between ICANN’s policies and various laws, and international agreements.” Despite the importance of participating in GAC, many developing countries do not send representatives to GAC because of a lack of money and interest.

“I can speak about Bulgaria,” said Markovski. “They have never sent a GAC representative to an ICANN meeting.” The same is true of most African countries, according to Boakye-Akyeampong.

“The government just does not think it is important,” explained Markovski. A Bulgarian representative did not even attend the ICANN meeting when it was in neighboring Bucarest, only 200 miles away by car. Meanwhile, the developed countries always send representatives.

These are wasted opportunities that cannot be recovered. “One of the most important issues is to get our governments to be involved in the GAC,” explained Boakye-Akyeampong.

While a recent GAC communiqu? issued on March 25 seemed to show some positive developments such as discussion concerning translations of ICANN documents and further collaboration and outreach through regional organizations, some see government involvement as a double-edged sword.

This wariness stems from the belief that governments, particularly in developing countries, often do not fairly represent the needs of their citizens because they are more susceptible to political and corporate pressures.

Developing structures and promoting access

While ICANN’s role is not to help governments build their Internet structures, Twomey suggested that “ICANN will develop models of Internet structures as examples rather than tell people what to do.” By providing examples of what has been done and what works, Twomey believes that countries can learn from existing structures, but tailor them to meet their own unique needs.

Twomey also indicated that ICANN would work with regional partners such as the South Pacific Forum and the African Telecommunications Union on this issue. While Boakye-Akyeampong believes that this is a good idea, he has doubts over its effectiveness. “The African Telecommunications Union is not even known,” he lamented. “I wonder if the ATU has been able to achieve the aims and objects it has set for itself considering how long it has been around.”

In addition to building a stable Internet structure, many developing countries are concerned with improving access. One way that ICANN can assist is by encouraging the use of country code top-level domains (ccTLDs) that are still underused in many countries. A ccTLD refers to each country’s unique top-level domain. A top-level domain is the suffix of an Internet address such as .org and the ccTLD is the unique top-level domain assigned to each country such as .us for US or .au for Australia. “A vibrant ccTLD is something that developing countries can strive for,” suggested Twomey.

“While ccTLDs have been established to facilitate and promote the spread of the Internet globally, most Internet users in developing countries don’t even know the significance of ccTLDs,” explained Boakye-Akyeampong. In some countries, the ccTLD administration that requires users to register domain names is a barrier for the many attempting to create Web sites.

“There is a long going story, especially in Bulgaria, with the top-level domain registry which has a strange policy that is not aimed at opening the .bg domain to the public,” explained Markovski. “Rather, it keeps it tight and there are currently only 3,000 domain names on the registry.”

In Bulgaria, one of the reasons for such low registry numbers is that it is very expensive to register. The price is around US$180 for the first two years, much higher than that of other countries in Europe. The result is that Bulgarians create Web sites that are not in the national domain level but in domains in other regions of world. “It is an issue,” said Markovski. “If you want to find content on the Internet, the best way is to search by domain name.”

Markovski explained that in addition to the two-letter ccTLD, an alternative three-letter country code established by the UN also exists for each country. “Since many countries have problems with the ccTLD administration, the immediate solution may be just to allow any country that wants to, to use the alternative ccTLD which could be run by an NGO, non-profit or public profit organization,” said Markovski.

Such steps would help to promote competition and could still be under the oversight of ICANN. Markovski also pointed out that “this does not require any kind of funding because they already have the country code.”

In addition to ccTLD, there are also generic TLDs which are not specific to any country such as .com, .museum, and .travel. ICANN has been very slow in approving and implementing these new TLDs and sponsoring them involves a non-refundable application fee of US$50,000. These are all barriers for developing countries, although Twomey insisted that introducing a new TLD is “not a cheap exercise and one that is a learning experience.”

“I don’t know what happened with the non-commercial domain names holders constituency which they have been transforming,” said Markovski. “In the Internet world, if you don’t do something immediately or within a couple of months, or a year at the most, then it is lost in procedures.”

Quick action is needed. As the number of Internet users continues to grow in developing countries, ICANN’s technical policies will have a more direct impact on them. The fear is that decisions concerning the future of the Internet will be decided upon without the input of the majority of the world population. It is particularly crucial now, as the role of ICANN is still shifting and changing, that ICANN board members and constituencies in developing countries ensure that this is one international forum in which a level playing field still exists.

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