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A Storm in a Teacup or a Perfect Storm?

Lesley Cowley

We've had snow storms recently in the UK, so there is much talk about storms. It strikes me that some might view the current issues at Nominet as a storm in a teacup — a small event that has been exaggerated out of all proportion. Not unsurprisingly, I don't agree. I think that the storm has already had a significant effect on Nominet and it could well have far reaching implications for both Nominet and our Registrars. I do hope (but I'm not sure) that all involved would agree that our current governance model and all that it entails needs to change in some way in order to reflect the role that we have and the environment that we operate in. The independent governance review is due shortly, so we're waiting to see how much change is recommended.

However, I believe that this is just a part of the bigger picture of the national and international Internet Governance debate, which is set to come to a head this year. If anything, Nominet represents one minor development in this area, which, I believe, is heading towards a perfect storm — a (far from perfect) combination of events, which will ultimately change the Internet landscape.

Let me attempt to explain… as briefly as I can:

Firstly, I see the need for change being signalled in the regulatory climate in the UK. It is well known that the UK Government has been very supportive of self-regulation in our industry. However, I do hear statements about the representation of end-user interests and the protection of end-users much more frequently than ever before. As an industry, we often respond to these statements by saying "better user education and information is the answer". Whilst that may well help, we are going to have to accept this may not be the only answer, or one that will fully deliver. So, it's currently up to the UK internet industry to figure-out how we are going to ensure that end-users are at the heart of our self-regulatory regime, otherwise regulation or legislation is inevitable. For example, the recent Digital Britain report signals legislation compelling ISPs to notify infringers of third party rights, and keep anonymised data, which seems to indicate a view that self-regulation has failed on this point.

Secondly, I see change being signalled at the European level, with the EU review of the regulatory framework potentially giving member states the power to regulate the Internet, particularly around quality of service to end-users.

Thirdly, I see change being signalled by the US Government in its approach to Internet governance, particularly with the recent change in administration. There is also an end-user theme here and in the context of the new gTLD process, the US Department of Commerce recommends that ICANN should give greater consideration to consumer interests before creating new gTLDs and renewing registry agreements. I do have a lot of empathy with ICANN here — like in Nominet, it must feel as though you just can't please anyone at times. But with so many concerns being raised about the new gTLD process, I'd be surprised if the US is able to agree to the transition of ICANN to the private sector when the Joint Project Agreement expires later this year. Although there remains much support for removing the 'oversight' of ICANN from one single government, there is little consensus on what oversight should replace that of the US. I predict that some governments will therefore push even more strongly for inter-governmental oversight of ICANN.

Finally, we are coming to a crucial stage in the life of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). The review of the forum has already begun and is due to report in early 2010. We view this five-year experiment in global multi-stakeholder dialogue as being very successful. The UK IGF and the Nominet Best Practice challenge have helped to ensure that the UK has great involvement in the IGF and that there are real life contributions to inform the policy debate. Whilst some would have liked the IGF to be a negotiating and decision making process, it has worked quite well as a space for the development of policy dialogue and the sharing of best practices. What seems to have escaped many is that this form of engagement is an innovative experiment for the UN, in that it seeks to engage all regions and all participants in policy dialogue. If that experiment is not seen to be working, there will be suggestions for alternative replacements.

If self-regulation is perceived to falter in the UK, which has championed an industry lead, we can expect that more interventionist governments (both within and outside the European Union) will capitalise on this, and may use it as an excuse for heavy regulation.

I do think that there is an urgent need for greater awareness of the international issues facing the industry and a more widespread commitment to developing both understanding and innovative solutions.

Where can we start? Well, we will all need to accept greater responsibility for finding solutions going forwards. This will require much better participation and engagement from all involved. There also remains a huge need for better dialogue, better participation, better understanding and better solutions in the interests of end-users. All too often I hear people talking to each other, but not actually listening. I also see vested interest battle-lines being drawn, without the acknowledgement that real progress will need real compromise and new ways of moving forward. This would be a good basis on which to start preventing new storms, whether they are small or large, from developing.

By Lesley Cowley, CEO, Nominet
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