Nobody else appears to have reported this - at least not anywhere I can find - but last week marked a major turning point for China's engagement with ICANN. It was probably also a major turning point in China's strategy on Internet governance.
The Chinese government sent Cui Shutian, Deputy Director, Division of Telecommunications Services and Resources, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) to represent its interests in ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) at last month's ICANN meeting in Sydney. Outgoing ICANN CEO Paul Twomey confirmed to me that it was the first time the Chinese government has engaged directly with ICANN since 2001.
(It's likely that some of my more China-focused and less-techie readers have never heard of ICANN - the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. This California-based non-profit corporation is responsible for making sure that the Internet functions as one globally inter-operable system. Its primary job is to coordinate the global assignment of domain names and IP addresses - which turns out to be a very complicated and increasingly political job. Click here, here, here, and here for useful background.)
One reason the Chinese government disengaged from ICANN and is now re-engaging will be familiar to China wonks: Taiwan. The issue of what it should be called. Beijing was not interested in lending any legitimacy to Taiwan's government under the pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian, and the Chen government wasn't big on compromising with Beijing either. Now it's agreed that Taiwan will officially be referred to as "Chinese Taipei" at ICANN (though the .tw designation won't change), and the two governments in the Ma Ying-jeou era are more willing to be pragmatic with one another, in cyberspace as well as in "meatspace."
The second reason for China's re-engagement with ICANN is that the Chinese government and ICANN have both realized they need each other, at least for the short and medium term.
Some background (skip this paragraph if you are an Internet governance wonk): The Chinese government has long suported Internet governance reform. The fact that ICANN (founded in 1998) ultimately answers to the U.S. Department of Commerce has for most of this decade been a matter of concern to a number of governments, from China to Brazil, Iran, and the European Union. Reform proposals have ranged from ICANN "internationalization" - with supervision by multiple governments - to scrapping ICANN completely and transferring its functions to a U.N. body like the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). Arguments over ICANN's future reached a climax in 2005 during the run-up to the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis, at which governments agreed there wasn't enough consensus to change the ICANN-based status quo. Instead, the Internet Governance Forum was created with a 5-year mandate to continue inter-governmental and multi-stakeholder dialogue on how the global Internet should be governed, managed, developed, and regulated in the future. That mandate will end next year. In May of this year China publicly opposed the renewal of the IGF's mandate, declaring it a costly, messy, time-wasting shop and reiterating its longstanding position that Internet governance should be in the hands of sovereign governments, not other groups. Meanwhile the Joint Project Agreement between ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce expires this September. The U.S. Congress, concerned with U.S. interests, wants to keep things as they are. The European Union issued an official statement last month calling for "a more open, independent, and accountable governance of the Internet." African nations, interestingly, have shifted from supporting reform to supporting the status quo. Chinese officials have continued to express concern about a "monopoly" controlling the Internet, and have made it clear that they want to continue discussing the JPA, but I've not seen anything to indicate an official Chinese comment on the EU position or any other government's position.
According to Paul Twomey who stepped down as CEO of ICANN last week, China has not recently made public statements on ICANN and the JPA. Meanwhile he, the ICANN board, and the other members of the Governmental Advisory Committee have been working hard to make China feel comfortable engaging with ICANN. Here's what he said to me in response to my question about China's position:
In terms of the relationship with the United States government and the Joint Project Agreement, I haven't actually heard what the position of the Chinese government is but they have publicly said things in the past. But I dont think we're in anything like the bipolar situation that we had three four five six years ago, where we're sort of "ICANN love it or hate it." I don't think it's in that space anymore. I think it is, much more pragmatically, that this is an institution where there's a space for the Chinese government to participate in, that it's looking after the interests of the Chinese internet community, that they're dealing with real issues that really affect their concerns, and they're welcome. And i think that's important.
China can't afford not to engage with ICANN at this point in time. The Internet is about to undergo a huge real estate expansion and the Chinese government - along with China's domain name registrars - wants to make sure that Chinese government interests are well served as the rules and technical arrangements get laid out between now and early next year.
In 2010 ICANN will implement two big changes, and China has a big interest in how these changes are implemented. First, ICANN will soon allow anybody (who can pay the six-figure registration fee) to apply to run a "generic top-level domain" (gTLD) (Explanation for non-wonks: .com, .net, .cn, .asia, .mobi, .org, .gov, et cetera are all "top-level domains;" the word before the dot, for example "cnn" in cnn.com is called a second-level domain and that's what individuals, organizations, and companies buy when we purchase a domain name for our website. So for instance, if I was extremely rich and had the technical resources I could apply to create and operate .rebecca). So a religious organization, a political party, a company, or anybody with the resources who wants to administer a distinctive Internet address can apply to establish a new gTLD.
But that's not all. In 2010 ICANN will not only allow more gTLD's to be created, but it will also enable the creation of "internationalized" top-level domains, in non-English/non-Roman letter scripts. In other words it will for the first time be possible to have internationally accessible top-level Internet addresses in Chinese, Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, Thai, Japanese, and whatever other language can be input onto a computer. This is huge because it will make the Internet much more accessible to non-English speakers who have difficulty dealing with the current English-based global domain system. If we really want a truly global and multilingual Internet, having "international domain names," or IDN's as ICANN calls them, is essential. These new international top-level domains (IDN TLDs) will be divided into two categories: "country code TLDs" (ccTLDs) and "general TLDs" (gTLDs). For existing English-character ccTLD's (like .cn) each relevant country gets jurisdiction over how it is administered and the same will be the case for international ccTLD's. So .中国 will be controlled and administered the same way as .cn, and websites under that top-level domain will be subject to Chinese law. (Chinese bloggers have informed me that they stay away from .cn domain names because they lose their web address if their website is too politically controversial.) gTLD's, however, are different. ICANN's intention is that anybody anywhere in the world (with adequate resources) can apply to run a Chinese language gTLD. I asked Twomey what happens if people in, say, Canada or Australia apply to run .falungong and the Chinese-language equivalent. Here's what he said in response:
First of all our process, and the process of moving our policy forward, are neutral processes. And we have a series of objections mechanisms through which people can bring objections, one which we're still working through, which is morality or public order, which is a term that exists in international treaties. There's still a great deal of discussion including in the Government Advisory Committee about how that can possibly work, and should it even be there.... But ICANN is not in the business of the application level. We're not in the business of content. So the strings that people might put forward, were not in the buisiness of deciding whether its a good string or not. There are opportunities, but we're not in the business of saying that's a good string or a bad string. We dont like that one we like this one. And its global. The generic top level domains are global top level domains.
So, in other words, I followed up, anybody can apply to run a generic TLD in any language from anywhere? He replied:
That's right. Its a global technology. The technology doesn't recognize geographic boundaries so we support that. Now whatever governments might decide to do in terms of access or filtering is their business not ours... and we leave that.. because we are if you like the guardians of the single inter-operable internet, our community and the ISPs [internet service providers] are the people who provide the single inter-operable internet. We think it's very important that the issues of the addressing and routing system are separate from the issues of content carried on them. And so we don't comment, we dont condone, but we don't make comment upon those sort of content issues. But what we do say is: you know, if a government has a content issue, don't break the domain name system to try to fix it. Because that's like killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Finally, here's what Twomey said about jurisdiction of gTLDs:
Let's make it clear that generic top level domains, when they're created, will have contracts with ICANN. And those contracts will clearly state that the applicable law is the law of California. And they will be contracts. Right? You know, any national laws that apply to end registrations we can't comment on, but the law under which the TLD will actually operate will be the law of California.
Many of the details, however, in terms of how a government or anybody else can object to the creation of a new TLD on the grounds of "morality and public order," and under what criteria the ICANN board then comes to a final decision, have yet to be worked out. Also, in the case of multiple applicants for the same TLD, there will be some kind of process for the ICANN "community" to decide who deserves to get that particular domain. So being there at ICANN meetings is very important if you want to influence how the rules get shaped and who has rightful claim over various names. Having the ear of board members by developing a personal relationship with them is also very important, I'm told by people who currently run generic TLDs.
Then there are trademark and other issues related to who has the "right" to a particular TLD name. There is already a big fight over the extent to which brand names can be protected or reserved by companies that are worried about their trademarks being (in their view) appropriated by others. The Chinese government and Chinese companies have an interest in trademark protection not overly favoring Western business and industry on the one hand, while still protecting Chinese companies on the other, while also making sure that arbitration mechanisms are properly internationalized and not overly Western-centric. There are also concerns about who has a right to register and administer, say, .beijing or .guilin - to name a couple examples. The Chinese are also concerned that fights over trademark protection and proposed attempts by ICANN to create a new trademark arbitration body will delay the roll-out of gTLDs in general, and internationalized gTLD's in particular.
Then there are a bunch of technical issues related to this multi-lingual rollout, including an appeal by the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans among others that ICANN must change it's current rule that non-country TLD's must be 3 characters or more - given that most Chinese words are two characters in length, the three-character minimum requirement is obviously unreasonable. While the Chinese have actually already implemented Chinese-language TLD's within mainland China, they don't work outside of China. Asian ICANN participants last week repeatedly expressed frustration that it's taking too long for ICANN to move forward on this.
So there are lots of reasons why the Chinese need to engage with ICANN now, and not wait till it's restructured or its functions re-appropriated to its greater liking. Here's how Twomey put it:
First of all there's a much better understanding of what ICANN does, what it is and what it's not. I think secondly ICANN is working on issues that really are important to the internet communities of China, for instance. So particularly on the internationalized domain names and the internationalized domain names for the country codes, these are core areas of interest to the Chinese, especially to the Ministry of Information Industry and Technology. But also for the broader Chinese internet community. I'm very pleased that not only has China come back to the GAC but that there's a broad commitment in China now to have Chinese institutions and organizations participating in the ICANN context. ...ICANN is looking at the role of the GAC and what it does and how it participates. And how it interacts with the board. we've continued to have that discussion. I think it's useful that China's at the table to have that discussion.
I was a first-timer at ICANN last week, but sitting through a week of meetings, I got the distinct impression that few people expect ICANN to be radically restructured this year. Most people seemed to expect that the JPA will be renewed in some fashion for now, due to lack of consensus over an alternative. Meanwhile the Government Advisory Committee seems to be getting an expanded role, with more opportunity to lobby the interests of governments as ICANN moves forward in radically expanding the Internet's real estate. How things evolve in the longer run is harder to say, but the people running ICANN are clearly trying to make governments feel welcome to engage and work for change from within - pointing out that this is more likely to be conducive to a stable global Internet - rather than try to dismantle or radically and suddenly restructure it from the outside.
Bringing in China was likely a critical step by ICANN to ensure its own survival, at least in the short to medium term. For now, ICANN and China need each other.