Last week hacker Andy Mueller-Maguhn was elected to the board that governs the Internet, a body whose decisions affect the destiny of entire business sectors. But what is Icann, what does it do and how will it affect you?
Icann - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - calls itself a small, non-profit organisation. Strictly speaking, that is true. But Icann wields immense influence over the Internet today and tomorrow, both technically and politically.
While many global resources or technical issues - such as time zones - are administered by neutral scientific institutions, the Internet is not one of them.
"Icann is sitting on decisions of billions of dollars; it's worth a lot of money," said Karl Auerbach, recently elected as an "at-large member" representing the US on Icann's board.
In fact, Icann helps to set technical standards, and its decisions can extinguish entire business sectors. For example, theoretically, there is nothing to stop it controlling Internet content, or ushering in protocols that favour some users at the expense of others. The fundamental unreliability of transmission protocol TCP/IP has ensured its success as a communications medium but it is equally unreliable for all.
Packet prioritisations (which could favour a major broadcaster at the expense of individuals' e-mail) are just one of several controversial battles anticipated by citizens' groups. And the way Icann arbitrates on domain names can cost an Internet business dearly. In arbitrating domain name disputes, Icann is a judge of valuable brand real estate. David Post, editor of the Icannwatch.org Web site, said, "It's a unique choke point on the Internet."
Icann has always been a delicate compromise. When the US government declared the Internet open for business, the system had already used an ad-hoc name and number resolution mechanism for several years in the form the Internet Assigned Names Authority. But the US government soon declared its desire to privatise the governance of the Internet.
Icann was the result. Its purpose on its formation in 1998 was "to preserve the operational stability of the Internet; to promote competition; to achieve broad representation of the global Internet community; and to co-ordinate policy through private-sector, bottom-up, consensus-based means".
So what does Icann do? Basically it looks after the physical data that allows your Web browser to find a site by its top-level suffix (.com for example).
A single text document at Network Solutions contains the current top-level Internet domain names: the master DNS root file. The US Department of Commerce has authority over the contents of the file, administered under contract by Icann, and top-level domains consist of the major (.com, .net, .org, .mil, .edu, .gov, .int and arpa).
Twelve root servers draw their information from that file, which in turn provides domain information for the Internet around the world. Five of these are administered by the US government.
A number of alternative or "liberated" root systems exist, dubbed Alternics, although this is the name of one of the best known of these.
Using an Alternic is as easy as changing one setting on your network control panel. Several do this, and problems will only arise when two addresses lay claim to the same name. This hardly ever happens. In fact, the Internet would not stop working if Icann ceased to exist, and many users would not even notice.
Adding domain names to this system is not difficult, but resolving contentions over names is, and is always like to be so. Clearly some kind of arbitration is needed, even if it is not administered by a single, formal institution. And any arbitration needs to have the confidence of the wider Internet community. Post recently argued that, even though Icann is doing a good job, it is basically "a law-making system without law-making legitimacy".
Michael Froomkin, governance expert, professor at the Miami School of Law and adviser on the evolving Icann infrastructure, has outlined a detailed argument of where the Department of Commerce's relationship with Icann is unconstitutional; effectively how it makes government policy without any of the traditional restraints on government power. Froomkin's arguments may seem parochial, but they lay the ground for a challenge to the way Icann operates that could have worldwide repercussions.
Others question the nature of a US corporate organisation wielding any power at all. Robin Bandy, a network administrator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, founder of the OpenNic liberated DNS system and himself a candidate for the Icann elections, pointed out that in large part it is US law that is being imposed on foreign organisations. "The state of California could pass laws that affect how Icann operates. The answer is that an incorporated entity cannot be a globally representative body," he said.
Froomkin added, "Icann is the first quango." Traditional concepts about the merits of privatisation should be set aside, he advised, because Icann is not your traditional privatisation case. It is not a revenue source that is being spun off into the private sector: it is a policy-making function in its own right.
"To the extent that Icann launders its policy choices through a cat's paw, the public's right to notice and meaningful comment; to accountable decision making; to due process; and to protection against arbitrary and capricious policy choices, self dealing, or ex parte proceedings are all attenuated or eliminated," he said.
Icann's recent at-large elections have focused attention on the accountability of the organisation, which has been criticised for being secretive in its decision making. However, it is widely accepted, even by the successful public candidates, that the die is cast against them.
Under provisions in its bylaws Icann was obliged to hold board elections. The original board of nine unelected directors was augmented by nine more advisers (although these included no representatives of public or user groups), plus the casting vote of the chairperson. Icann reduced the number of publicly electable posts from nine to five, and pre-nominated its own candidates.
Icann also made the public candidates go through a "primary" process, in which it again pre-filled some of the slots. For example, in Europe Icann pre-selected five positions, leaving two open for popular election.
However, the US and European elections produced distinguished candidates with a long track record in public policy. Auerbach is an Internet veteran and Cisco engineer who is also a qualified member of the California bar. Andy Mueller-Maguhn has been speaker for the hacker organisation the German Chaos Computer Club for the past 10 years and is a cryptography and privacy advocate.
Maguhn scooped the European region election earlier this month, as "netizens" organised themselves to register and vote while most businesses were still asking what Icann was.
But Maguhn believes business users have just as much reason to demand accountability within Icann. "Simply because the way the Internet works, the way it handles public and commercial space might have an increasing influence on how the business of your company works. It does already, and will do so more in the future," he said.
Andrew Orlowski is San Francisco bureau chief for The Register
Additional reporting by Paul Mason
Icann's board is elected from three "supporting organisations" which specialise in protocols, addresses and domains - plus its "at-large membership", a self-selected group of 76,000 registered Internet users.
The structure of the supporting organisations is determined by participants; for example, the Protocol Supporting Organisation is made up of delegates from the Internet Engineering Task Force, World-Wide Web Consortium, International Telecommunications Union, and the European Telecommunications Standards Institute.