Who controls the Internet? A Q&A with the VP of Public Responsibility Programs of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Learn more about Internet governance.

Last fall at a local WEF event I met Nora Abusitta, the VP of Public Responsibility Programs of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). I quickly realized I didn’t really know anything about the organizations that help coordinate the technical functions of the Internet – I thought it was pretty much self-organized.

Turns out I was wrong – the Internet needs bodies like ICANN to manage its complexity on the back end and allow computers to find and talk to each other. In talking with Nora, I was intrigued to learn that various countries have made the case for the UN to take over the functions this California nonprofit corporation performs. I caught up with Nora recently over lunch to get the latest.

LE: A lot of my friends haven’t heard of ICANN unless they are technologists or work in the tech sector. How would you explain ICANN’s work to the general public?

NA: Let’s say you type www.swissnexsanfrancisco.org into your computer browser.  You expect to be taken directly to the organization’s website.  That’s because that domain name, as we call it, is associated with a unique string of numbers – an Internet Protocol or IP Address – much like a street address or telephone number.  That address must be unique so computers know where to find each other.

The Domain Name System or DNS was invented to translate those easier-to-remember domain names into those unique numerical IP addresses.  For example, to visit the ICANN website, would you rather remember the IP address, or type “www.icann.org”? ICANN coordinates these unique identifiers across the world. Without that coordination, we wouldn’t have one global Internet.

Internet Governance

LE: So ICANN is basically working to maintain the structure of the Internet and ensure that it stays a borderless place to enable the free flow of information. How is that work changing as more and more of the world’s population is online?

NA: In the past couple of years ICANN has expanded its global operations. Between operational hubs and engagement centers we now have several offices around the world. Our Regional Vice Presidents for Global Stakeholder Engagement are on the ground doing great work and collaborating with the people in our community to create bottom-up regional strategies specifically catered to the local needs.

LE: I just read about the United States government transitioning their stewardship role of these technical functions, what does this mean for ICANN and the Internet?

NA: ICANN has been the administrator of these functions for over 15 years through a contract with the US Government. Since 1998, the US government has indicated a desire to transition out of this stewardship role. As you have seen, in March, the Department of Commerce announced that it will not renew its contract in September 2015, but instead it will entrust stewardship to the global multistakeholder community.

This is a historic step, and ICANN has started to define a process for this transition. ICANN’s role remains unchanged, what will change is an enhanced and more inclusive multistakeholder stewardship role dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable, and resilient.

LE: Why does ICANN need a VP of Public Responsibility? Can you take us through your day to day?

NA: ICANN’s responsibility to serve the global public interest is clearly spelled out in our founding documents. However this responsibility has never been clearly defined. Over the past few months I’ve been working with an incredible panel of experts, lead by African Internet pioneer Nii Quaynor, on defining the framework for ICANN’s public responsibility programs. At the same time, I’ve been working with my team to pilot a few programs to inform the outcome of the panel. One of my proudest accomplishments is the improvement of the Language Services department at ICANN.

Localization is one of the pillars of ICANN’s public responsibility and our language experts, interpreters, and translators make sure that this pillar is built on a strong base. Another big accomplishment for public responsibility was the creation of the Online Learning Platform (or OLP accessible at learn.icann.org.) Education is also a main focus for public responsibility: through technical education and capacity building initiatives, as well as engagement with educational and research institutions, ICANN will be able to communicate its role and mandate more effectively.

LE: Some critics say that the services ICANN provides are irrelevant given the length of time it takes versus the pace of technological change. What would you say to them?

NA: There’s no denying that our policy development process can be lengthy, this is because of the multistakeholder model ICANN is based on. Decisions are made after taking into account the voice of every category that has a stake and interest in the future of the Internet – governments, academia, civil society, private sector and so on.

The fact that everyone participates on the same level is a source of pride for ICANN.  At the same time, we understand that there are ways to improve this process. NYU GovLab’s Beth Noveck is leading another panel of experts for ICANN on Multistakeholder Innovation, she and her team are looking at ways to improve our decision-making process and make it faster and even more inclusive.

LE: Others argue that ICANN doesn’t have the legitimacy to be making these decisions in the first place. Couldn’t Google or a consortium of private interests do what you do more efficiently?

NA: Like I said, ICANN’s multistakeholder model gives it more legitimacy because it doesn’t represent a narrow set of actors, but the whole spectrum of parties who are interested in the development of the Internet. The multistakeholder model has proven to be the best catalyst for Internet growth and innovation.

Click on image to enlarge.

LE: Why do we even need these standards? A core strength of the Internet is that it’s a self-regulated environment.

NA: What ICANN does at its core is provide coordination for the system of unique identifiers in order to foster a single, open, globally interoperable Internet. If these standards weren’t in place we could witness a fragmentation of the Internet as we know it.

LE: What would change for users if countries, industries, or companies were to establish their own Internet networks?

NA: If they created different technical standards with competing IP addresses for instance, your computers wouldn’t be able to talk with each other as they do now.  Fragmentation of the single, global Internet could cause more barriers to Internet access. The Boston Consulting Group published a study commissioned by ICANN a few months, called “Greasing the Wheels of the Internet Economy.” The research measures the constraints on Internet use in 65 countries and shows that those with fewer limitations on online activity can have larger digital economies. The difference can amount to 2.5 percent of GDP. 

LE: Our focus here at nextrends is on the future – what do you think governance of the Internet will look like 10 years out?

NA: Honestly, it is really hard to even predict what governance of the Internet will look like by the end of 2014. As you know, Internet governance became a mainstream topic in 2013, and this year is filled with several important meetings. The Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance in Sao Paolo in April, and the ITU Plenipotentiary Conference in October will be milestones for the discussion on Internet governance and the multistakeholder model. I think that at the beginning of next year, with the World Summit on Information Society -WSIS +10 Review Conference we will have a better understanding of what the next ten years will look like.


LE: Thanks for the insights, Nora. Long live the open Internet!

NA: The open, single, frictionless Internet! Thank you very much.

We celebrate the open internet with the internet meme LOLCat. Build your own LOL Cat image.