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Relax. The United Nations is here to help

Relax. The United Nations is here to save the Internet I’m in Athens (Greece) for the first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), a United Nations initiative to increase international oversight and capacity for governing the Internet. Makes you wonder how the private sector managed to invest a trillion dollars to serve a billion people on the Internet thus far, without the benefit of UN “governance”. But something as big as the Internet just begs to be governed, so here we are.

To be sure, the IGF crowd is gathered here to talk about some very worthy goals for the Internet: openness, security, diversity, and access—all focused on the needs of developing nations. But whenever the UN convenes a meeting about the Internet, thoughts turn to taking over the role of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), even though ICANN has only a limited technical role in managing the domain name system.

That’s why I’ve come to Athens—to provide a kind of firewall to shield ICANN from having its job usurped or expanded by the UN, governments, and civil society advocates. So far, the ICANN firewall is holding up under an expected and relatively mild assault.

Yesterday, Iran’s Dr. Riazi insisted that IGF focus on stripping root server oversight away from the U.S. government. Although the moderator called this issue “the elephant in the room,” none of the panelists has yet to suggest that root server oversight is a concern or that it plays any role in achieving the goals of the IGF.

Yin Chen of China’s Ministry of Information Industry warned that his nation would not allow the Internet to threaten national security or influence the psychological development of China’s youth. Kids in China can’t be too happy about that, and I shudder to think of China and Iran marshalling their allies to enlist ICANN in blocking offending websites.

Today, The Diplo Foundation questioned whether market forces can be trusted to preserve free flow of information on the internet. Those same market forces helped create an explosion of freedom and diversity in information and communications on the Internet, and the private sector continues to be the driving force at ICANN.

Privacy advocates took some shots at ICANN for its Whois service, a tool used in consumer protection investigations and to help trademark owners find cybersquatters. While some want to limit use of Whois data, a wise man from Japan’s IT industry said ICANN should enhance Whois to help track-down sources of spam and security threats.

Tomorrow’s forums will focus on improving access and diversity. Expect ICANN to be called on the carpet for failing to implement multilingual characters in top level domains, a responsibility that rightly belongs with ICANN. And we’re likely to hear calls for getting ICANN into the access business—perhaps a domain name tax to fund infrastructure in developing nations? Stay tuned.