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ICANN: More Catholic than Quaker

In his CircleID post, Graham Chynoweth reaches back to his childhood experience and draws some interesting parallels between the Quaker faith and the mystical methods of ICANN.  However, to really make the most of the religion analogy, let’s set the way-back machine to sixteenth century England – during the time of Henry the 8th – that’s where you’ll find a closer match: between ICANN and the Catholic Church of Rome.

Like the Catholic Church, ICANN draws its legitimacy from hallowed texts: “Thou art Peter”, says the New Testament, “and upon this rock I will build my church”.  And while ICANN today may be about as old as the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s day, ICANN’s Peter sits at the head of well-organized church whose coffers are overflowing.  Importantly, as in Henry’s England, there’s clear trouble brewing today from kings who don’t care to be subject to any Church.  At risk is nothing short of the breakup of the today’s church – the potential of a divorce between ICANN and some of its key constituencies. 

In the controversies I heard today at the ICANN meeting in Mexico City, national governments are sounding more and more like England’s King Henry VIII.  Some kings have already set up their own church, as China did by adding their own top-level domains within their borders.  Other kings (or governments) have suggested they will be glad to split the church further if they don’t get their way on several key issues:

  • Will governments sign operating agreements for ccTLDs?  Only if the agreements are ‘voluntary’.
  • Will ccTLDs adhere to technical standards?  Perhaps, if it is convenient for the governments in question.
  • Should governments pay fees to ICANN?  To the extent that they want to pay, we’re told.  But very few governments pay any ICANN fees today.
  • And what about IDNs in new TLDs?  Governments want to launch when they’re ready, without concern for IDN versions of generic top-level domains.
  • Finally, governments are insisting on control over territory and place names in both top-level and second-level domains.

When faced with a similar dilemma, the Catholic Church held firm to its doctrine.  And King Henry and England went their own way.  Apart from some nasty early scuffles, the Catholics and Anglicans co-exist peaceably today.  But what is ICANN going to do when faced with the same dilemma?  Let the kings go their own way, or give-in to government demands to water-down doctrine in the name of church unity?  Nobody knows what today’s schism might bring for Internet users around the world, but whatever happens, this is more than an abstract theological debate.

Stay tuned….

Steve DelBianco