Tuesday, March 31, 2009

As ICANN Grows, time to focus on Emerging Markets

By Vika Mpisane and Andrew Mack

[NB, this article, co-written with my friend and colleague Vika Mpisane from South Africa, is currently awaiting publication in Johannesburg]

Today, ICANN -- the international group responsible for managing Internet governance -- is growing and taking on more responsibility than ever before. However, as we saw at the recent ICANN meeting in Mexico City, the system is changing fast. The time is now for ICANN to take a more serious look at the changes, to make sure they don’t disproportionately hurt companies and consumers in developing countries.

For example, the organization is proposing to allow a significant increase in the number of generic Top Level Domains or gTLDs (like .com or .org). On the face of it, good news for consumers. Still as we talked with African and Latin American friends, business owners and consumers in Mexico, they expressed concerns about risks from increased consumer fraud, as criminals hijack trusted brand names, send phishing lures and scams using the new, untested gTLDs. They cited risks from the so-called domainers, who by registering well-known brands in the new gTLDs may force brand owners to pay substantial amounts to protect their brands. And there’s the issue of local country code operators (like .za here in South Africa), who fear that the introduction of a large number of new gTLDs could create a wave of competition they could not survive.

Mexico City participants also shared concerns about the introduction of new internationalized domains, the so-called IDNs. Arabic-speaking delegates and others using non-Latin script expressed concern that their languages were not fully available on the web. They questioned ICANN’s plans to move forward quickly with governments while not moving equally fast in translating the existing gTLDs such as .org or .com. They asked openly if ICANN was taking their languages seriously enough.

Finally, there is the issue of accountability. ICANN is working to become more independent and trying to set its declaration of independence from oversight for the coming year. However, we remain very concerned that independence without oversight is a recipe for disaster. Oversight from the US Department of Commerce is no long term solution, but neither is supervision through the UN – which moves slowly and has no real technical capacity. We need true governance that helps the system grow and works to help everyone harness the educational and economic power of the net.

In Mexico we heard some encouraging talk from Africa’s only Board Member, Katim Touray, about creating a working group specifically focused on the issues of developing nations. This is long overdue. And to be clear, our goal is not to slow down the process of gTLDs or of IDNs – quite the contrary. But we need to get serious. ICANN recently unveiled its study of the economic impact of new gGTLDs… and it doesn’t even mention Africa or Latin America. Clearly, we’ve got to do better.

The Internet is indeed a big part of our future, and it is time for ICANN to pay serious attention to countries like South Africa. They must do the homework to understand the economic and security impact of proposed changes for our citizens and companies. Take our voice into account. Otherwise, all this change will – unwittingly perhaps – serve only to increase the digital divide.

Vika Mpisane is a General Manager at the .za Domain Name Authority, a Board member of the African Top Level Domains (AfTLD), and a new member of the ccNSO Council.

Andrew Mack is Founder and Principal of AMGlobal Consulting, a US-based firm working with companies, governments, and donors, specializing in work with new technologies, technology policy and Africa.

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