i-DNS.net Chairman S. Subbiah is interviewed, at the ICANN meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2004 on the role of i-DNS.net International and the National University of Singapore on their pioneering role in creating both the modern Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs) and MINC (the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium) which is chartered with the misson of bringing IDNs to the peoples of the world.
BY RASLAN SHARIF
IF THERE is one thing that Internet users are certain of, it is that the Internet works.
But you only need to attend one of the three meetings the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) holds each year to get a sense of the humongous task it has of keeping the Internet running.
For first-time attendees, the issues, problems and conflicts brought up, worked on, debated, and resolved – hopefully – by ICANN can be overwhelming.
The Kuala Lumpur round of meetings held from July 19-23 was no different.
"Now you know why we have three meetings a year," said a member of one of the many committees, subcommittees, working groups, organisations, and task forces under the ICANN umbrella.
They could easily have six a year, as ICANN deputy chairman Alejandro Pistany hypothetically suggested last week, if not for cost considerations.
In Kuala Lumpur, there were a host of issues on the table, which were dealt with in a manner that again marks ICANN as a rarity.
Throughout the five days of meetings, workshops and forums, the emphasis was on getting a wide variety of interests represented and heard.
Many committee meetings were open, and at the workshops and forums, question time was greeted with relish by both sides.
Minutes, reports, and proposals are posted on the ICANN website, where anyone can post feedback which is then taken into consideration.
Many decisions are made via voting, and ICANN takes the openness and transparency a step further, by being one of probably just a handful of organisations, commercial or non-profit, that hold board meetings in full public view and earshot.
"You could say it's like the Internet, open and democratic," said an attendee.
But being so also presents some problems. Some of the major issues currently facing ICANN are contentious in every sense of the word.
And the risks they pose to the coordination of "the management of technical elements of the Domain Name System (DNS) to ensure universal resolvability so that all Internet users can find all valid addresses," which is ICANN's main role, cannot be understated.
An often-repeated grouse is that things get done in measured and deliberate steps. ICANN rarely, if at all, rushes headlong into anything, preferring to investigate, analyse, and debate comprehensively before binding final decisions are made.
The driving principle is that the integrity of the Internet is paramount.
"ICANN is primarily responsible for ensuring the Internet's universal stability, security and interoperability," said Sharil Tarmizi, chair of ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee.
And when it comes to issues that could potentially upset any or all of those factors, passions can run high on both sides of the argument. How-ever, the bulk of debate is conducted in a civil atmosphere, regular attendees say.
By the time resolutions are drafted to be passed by the ICAAN Board, common grounds have been found to move a particular process forward, even if it means taking the smallest of steps.
Wild card gone wild
The meetings last week brought to the fore several issues that demonstrated just how tough it can be ensuring that the Internet remains a stable and secure system.
There was much interest in the Security and Stability Advisory Committee's (SSAC) Wild Card report.
Much of the issue revolved around the actions of VeriSign, the registry for .com and .net domains, in September last year.
As the SSAC reports, the company changed the way the .com and .net registries responded when presented with uninstantiated names (the wild card). Instead of returning the standard error code, it responded with the address of one of its servers.
In plainspeak, if you typed in a non-existent .com or .net domain name, instead of getting the usual error message, you were redirected to a site operated by VeriSign.
The change, said the SSAC, "raised concerns about the stability of the domain name system."
And it provoked substantial backlash. "The response from the Internet community was quite vocal, and quite negative," said SSAC chair Steve Crocker, who presented the report.
ICANN then asked VeriSign to stop doing it, but the company refused, although it later suspended the service.
Some of the findings in the SSAC's report last week centred on concerns about stability; others, on privacy and competition.
The report said VeriSign's action violated engineering principles, and that it provoked action by other parties who made changes and counter-patches to change back the response to the error code.
Said ICANN chairman Dr Vint Cerf: "These are things that strike fear in the hearts of engineers who try to create stable systems."
The report also cited concerns that VeriSign's actions "had put itself in the design loop for all current and future protocol changes." In other words, VeriSign had gained for itself undue influence and a leg-up over the competition.
The SSAC recommended that, among other things, the specifications should be "cleaned up," and that until such time, no new wild card uses should be introduced in top level domains (TLDs), both of which were later adopted in resolutions passed by the ICANN Board.
"Let's not do this going forward," said Crocker.
There were objections from the floor on the recommendation to ban new wild card applications, with one delegate pointing out that current practices should be assessed before such a restriction was placed.
"I think it would be premature to ask that the wild card feature be phased out before finding out how it is being used in the other TLDs," he said, adding that "we should try to understand first what is acceptable use."
Who are you?
Another contentious issue was work currently being done to tighten access to the WHOIS database, which contains information on domain name registrants.
With the current free-for-all access, WHOIS is currently hostage to abuse, especially by spammers who mine it for e-mail addresses, and by other people engaged in identity theft and domain name hijacking.
Presenting the report on the matter at the ICANN Public Forum last week, Bruce Tonkin, chairman of the Generic Name Supporting Organisation (GNSO) argued for the introduction of access tiers, with different levels of access for different types of WHOIS users, who would be given "licences" that correspond to the access levels.
Discussions on the entire issue were multi-faceted, ranging from licence levels and licensing authorities, to logging WHOIS user activity and the creation of a WHOIS user directory. Clearly, "there's (still) much to do," said Tonkin.
"We need to take small steps forward, and our aim is to be able to recommend new improvements (on WHOIS use) by the next ICANN Board meeting," he added.
Still, even if many people feel that the need to restrict access to WHOIS is a clear-cut case, there are those who believe that the current system is fine just the way it is. A comment from the floor, concerned about both the technical and procedural complexities in implementing some of the ideas being bandied about, suggested that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."
The wild card and WHOIS reports elicited some solid feedback during the course of the week, but it did not even come close to the raging debate over Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs).
The IDN issue has generated much controversy and chest thumping over the past few years, so much so it was probably one of the main reasons behind the holding of an IDN workshop on Wednesday.
Discussions, to put it mildly, were lively, and spilled over into the Public Forum the next day, during which comments from the floor and debate among some members of the Board showed that some parties were unhappy with the progress made, or the lack of it, so far.
The lines were clearly divided between the West and the rest. In the end, a sort of compromise was struck, with the Board passing a resolution calling for a report "on the implementation status of IDNs and pending issues," and "on usability, successes, and other relevant experiences," as well as "to establish a President's Advisory Committee on IDN, to provide the Board and ICANN community with advice on issues that relate to IDN policies, in particular issues that impact the implementation of IDN especially at the top level."
Hands across the world
While the IDN issue showed that the diversity of human society posed considerable challenges to the Internet's evolution, that diversity has also come together to nudge it forward.
Some might see ICANN as a "Western" institution, but a glance at its Board of Directors informs otherwise.
Members of the ICAAN Board come from Asia, North and South America, Europe and Africa, with Malaysia's own Sharil Tarmizi having a non-voting seat as GAC Liaison.
"We advise the Board on matters that are of interest to governments," said Sharil, who is also the Special Advisor in the Office of the Chairman at the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.
The composition of the GAC itself reflects ICANN's cultural and ethnic diversity. About 94 national governments, governmental and treaty organisations, and economies are represented in the GAC.
Sharil was elected for a two-year term to the GAC chair in January 2003.
Being a well-known figure in the ICANN community, after having been involved in issues such as IDN, where he had a hand in identifying problems in the deployment of IDNs, Sharil won the election unopposed, with strong support all round, including from the United States, Europe and Australia.
"I'm proud to represent the country and do whatever I can to see that governments have a say in how the Internet evolves," he said.
Sharil, and so many others in ICANN, shoulder the burden of making sure that the Internet works.
So the next time you click on a URL to go to your favourite website, just remember that ICANN ensured you got there.