Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about my recent visit to an ICANN meeting. ICANN is the body which runs the core names and numbers used on the Internet. Read on for my notes and links or pull the podcast.
The Internet is decentralized – it’s pretty famous that it was designed that way to resist a nuclear attack. But there is still some central administration – that looks after things like IP addresses and domain names.
Q: IP addresses are the numbers we have talked about before.
A: Yes, they are deeply unsexy. Only another IP number could love one. But domain names generate rather more interest.
Q: Remind me – what’s a domain name, again?
A: Like radionz.co.nz or google.com. They are human readable names – human memorable might be a more relevant term, because they are what we all use to get access to web sites and email addresses across the Net.
Q: And ICANN get to control those names? Who appointed them?
A: Well that’s a long story. Ultimately it came out of the US government, but it’s moved a long way beyond the US government now – ICANN is a not for profit with people from around the world contributing to it – and its trying to break its last bonds with the US government. But for now, what we need to know is, that ICANN controls domain names internationally and InternetNZ controls the ones that end in .nz under and agreement with ICANN.
Q: ICANN’s chairman is from New Zealand, right?
A: That’s right – the chair is a Wellington lawyer called Peter Dengate Thrush. You had him on this programme late last year when he became chair. Peter has succeeded Vint Cerf, the father of the Internet, as ICANN chair – that’s a great honour for Peter and New Zealand, and it’s also big shoes for him to fill. From what I’ve seen at the last couple of ICANN meetings, Peter’s doing a great job.
Q: Why do you go to ICANN meetings?
A: I don’t go to all of them by any means. There are three a year, always somewhere interesting. We held one in here in Wellington about two years ago which is still regarded as one the best ever. But I’ve been doing a paid job for ICANN over the last few months which has taken me to their last two meetings. The one I’ve just returned from was in Paris.
Q: Sounds tough!
A: Business travel’s not all it’s cracked up to be. You are there to serve the person who’s paying your bill – anything else you can get to do is incidental. And it’s pretty tough on your family. But having been to a few ICANN meetings when I was president of InternetNZ, and having hosted one here in Wellington, it’s good to catch up with the same crowd of people elsewhere in the world.
Q: Surely the Internet is supposed to reduce the need for people to meet face to face?
A: Don’t you believe it! The Internet is a tool for people to communicate. And it’s fantastic at doing that – but people communicate far better if they get to meet each other in the flesh from time to time.
Q: What does ICANN do?
A: It coordinates policy about domain names and IP numbers – that sounds amazingly dry as dust, but it’s really core to the way we experience the Internet. It’s ICANN which determines that country-based domain names end in two-letter codes representing the country.
Q: Like .nz
A: Yes, exactly. Or there are the so-called generic names like dot com, which don’t relate to any specific area. And, at this ICANN meeting, that has all been changed. ICANN has voted to allow a far, far wider range of names. So, soon, perhaps we’ll be seeing names anz.bank or citycouncil.wellington, or may be just plain google – without the dot com.
Q: Can anyone get on of these?
A: I think it’s going to be fairly expensive to register a name up at that top level – I’ve heard sums of the order of hundreds of thousands being tossed around. That will obviously the numbers rather but there will still wind up with hundreds or thousands or top level names rather than the dozen or so plus the country codes that we have now. So this decision is quite far-reaching and it will change the way we view domain names.
Q: What are ICANN meetings like?
A: There are three a year, always somewhere new. They move around the planet. We had an ICANN meeting here in Wellington a couple of years ago – I was the local host for it. We filled the town up. Typically you get 500-1,000 people at them, although the Paris one was bigger – lots of the meeting participants brought their partners and families.
Q: That’s an awfully big meeting!
A: They don’t all meet in the same room at the same time. There are a lot of different strands to ICANN. There is a meeting for people interested in country code domains like .nz, for instance. That goes for a couple of days. There’s a meeting for government people – that’s about four days worth and, unlike most ICANN meetings, its closed to the public. And there are other interest groups like intellectual property, not for profits, you can imagine. And at the core of the whole thing is the ICANN Board, which is what Peter Dengate Thrush chairs.
The meetings use some clever technology. There’s an online transcript on a giant screen. So, while you are talking, what you are saying is being typed and scrolls up on a big screen behind you. That’s very impressive to watch, and it’s being done by a couple of people with very fancy keyboards that they press several keys at one on. And there’s simultaneous interpretation – there are little booths in the back of the meeting rooms, and each booth has one or two interpreters in. Each interpreter speaks one language and translates from every other language. I like watching them – interpreters from the more physically expressive languages like Spanish, you see them waving their arms around as though they were the ones talking, not just interpreting. And everyone in the audience has a headset they can put on so they can dial up the translation. Or, if you speak English, you just watch the online transcript which comes up in English regardless.
Q: Because the stenographers are listening to the interpreters?
A: Exactly. And it’s a great atmosphere generally. There are people from literally allover the world, and they come to cooperate. The Internet only works because people cooperate – and of course the Internet lets them cooperate. And ICANN is the Internet writ small, with all the tensions, interests, sometimes fierce debate, that you get on the Internet – but it’s also fundamentally about getting together to jointly solve problems and make the world a better place through improving the Internet.
Q: And you spent all your time in meetings?
A: Most of it…but maybe I did get out for the odd hour or two! Paris looks much better than I remember it. All those weather-stained buildings have been cleaned and now seem to be carved out of glowing orange sandstone. And Musee Rodin and Musee d’Orsay are just the places to go if you like that kind of art. And even the airport is a work of modern art, if only marginally functional.
As always, you can discuss this broadcast at it.gen.nz.
Another reason to go to Paris