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WSIS Leaving More Questions Than Answers

An amazing thing has happened over the last month: People all over the Internet are saying nice things about ICANN. It is difficult to imagine something that would make so many people stand up and defend ICANN, and yet they are. What brought about this sudden change? The change in attitude reflects the idea that an organization even more derided than ICANN might take over the governance of the Internet.

That organization, of course, is the United Nations, under the banner of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). The WSIS is an attempt by the United Nations to extend the reach of information technology throughout the world and to use the power of information technology to allow people to reach their full potential and improve their quality of life. One of the ways the United Nations proposes to encourage this development is to take the control of the Internet from ICANN and instead place it under control of the United Nations.

The WSIS is organized around two different documents, A Declaration of Principles and A Plan of Action. The two documents discuss a broad range of technology issues, but the area that has created the most controversy are the few paragraphs discussing Internet governance.

Two things are important to stress. First, nothing was decided in this meeting, and no actions will be taken until the next meeting in 2005. Secondly, and more importantly, as with anything the devil is in the details. Given the vagueness of the documents available, there are few reliable conclusions that can be drawn from the summit. Those who wish to see bad things will see them, those who want to see good things will find them as well.

The fact that the documents are so vague actually generates more questions than answers, especially in the area of DNS control.

Management of ccTLDs:

The final Plan of Action produced by preparatory committee (the December 12th version) encourages governments to “manage or supervise, as appropriate, their respective country code top level domain name (ccTLD).”

This implies that the United Nations would take over the management of the ccTLD DNS infrastructure. At one level this is not a bad idea. ICANN is not a political organization—political in the sense of dealing with the structure or affairs of government—the United Nations is entirely a political organization. One of the problems Jon Postel, and his staff, ran into when initially setting up country code domains is determining what constituted a country. Rather than make that decision, the DNS forefathers decided to use the country code list from the International Organization for Standardization (ISO 3166).

Over time, the original list of ccTLDs has become outdated, which results in oddities like the ccTLD .su still being in use, even though the Soviet Union no longer exists. It can also be difficult, not to mention outside the scope of their responsibility, for members of a non-political body to determine who the rightful owner of a ccTLD is.

The downside is that precisely because the United Nations is a political organization the delegation of ccTLD authority may not be handled in an equitable fashion. It is possible that one country will unduly influence the delegation of the ccTLD for another country. There is no indication, within the Plan of Action, that safeguards should be put in place to ensure the ccTLD process is not politicized.

Management of gTLDs:

An obvious omission in both the Declaration of Principles and the Plan of Action is discussion of generic top level domains (gTLDs). GTLDs account for more than 90% of all registered domains. These domains are not political in nature, and therefore require a different level of scrutiny than ccTLDs. Conspicuous because of their absence, does the United Nations intend to leave the gTLDs under the control of ICANN, or do they intend to take those over as well. If the United Nations intends to take control of gTLDs, what is the justification for that?

Also not mentioned in the Plan for Action is what would become of ARIN, RIPE, and APNIC (as well as the smaller registries). Currently, IP Address assignments fall under the control of ICANN, would those move to the control of the United Nations, or would ICANN maintain control? IP Address assignment is currently decided based on need, if the United Nations assumes control, would that remain the same, or would they choose another criterion.

Management of Root Servers:

The Plan of Action discusses the creation regional root servers: “In cooperation with the relevant stakeholders, promote regional root servers…” Again, the purpose of this is rather vague. As the Internet becomes more internationalized greater amounts of traffic will flow from countries that now have limited Internet access. It appears the United Nations is proposing the extension of the root servers into these parts of the world.

This would be understandable if the current root server maintainers were not already aware of, and addressing, this problem. At last count, there were 22 root servers located within the United States and 19 located outside of the United States. Clearly, there is awareness within the root server community of the need to internationalize their presence and they are quickly addressing this.

Returning to the political nature of the United Nations, is the idea of government-controlled root servers a good idea? Root servers are a powerful tool that can be used to limit access to information, and, more nefariously, to track the movements of citizens on the Internet. A government with a less than stellar human rights record could use this part of the plan to further limit the rights of its people. In this case, using independent entities to distribute and maintain root servers seems to serve the greater good.

The Questions:

Before any judgments can be made about the effectiveness, or feasibility of the ideas outlined in the Plan of Action more concrete information is needed. The details of these plans are currently unknown to the Internet community at large, and may even be unknown to the members of the WSIS. Based on the information that is available it appears the Plan of Action needs to be thought through a little more thoroughly.

Despite its sometimes justified reputation there is nothing inherently wrong with turning some aspects of Internet governance—such as it is—to the United Nations, but based on this initial effort a lot more thought has to be given to the process.
In the meantime, I would pose the following questions to the United Nations and the participants in WSIS. Solid, well thought out, answers to these questions will go a long way toward making people more comfortable with the idea of some aspects of the Internet falling under the auspices of the United Nations:

1. What benefits does the United Nations offer over ICANN?

2. If this plan is successful, where within the United Nation’s organizational structure would DNS control lie?

3. The Draft Plan of Action specifically mentions ccTLDs as part of this plan, but avoids any mention of Generic Top Level Domains, would those remain under the auspices of ICANN?

4. The Plan of Action also calls for regional root servers. What is the advantage of promoting regional root servers, what benefits will they provide to Internet users?

5. If the plan is successful, how would the new organization impact existing domain name holders? Would there be additional restrictions placed on domain name holders?

By Allan Liska, Security Analyst

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Shayan  –  Dec 15, 2003 11:39 PM

Good analysis; I would like to add that new rules open a way for governments in developing countries to band free speech. If you read item 39 of WSIS, it emphasizes on National Policies, Local Cultures, etc which are very vague concepts and normally governments interpretation has not a good advantage for the volunteers and individual users.

At the end, I think this doesn’t help end-users and civil Society and NGOs should take initiative against it.

I agree: I like ICANN now!

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