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ICANN – Confidence Campaign or Just a Con Game for Emerging Markets?

I work in Washington, and a week and a half ago the ICANN Confidence Campaign came to town.

As theater, it was a pretty impressive event. A near capacity crowd gathered in the hallowed halls of the National Press Club to hear Peter Dengate-Thrush, Paul Twoomey and various ICANN luminaries talk about the group’s plans to improve institutional confidence. The audience – mostly lawyers and policy types – rose one by one to ask about their particular interest areas. The event lasted for hours, bleeding substantially over the allotted time. Certainly the image of “participation”…

However, as the ICANN staffers and advisors explained their plans for the future, I was struck by one overriding question: What does this have to do with the real people who use the Internet for work around the world, especially the small businesses I work with in Emerging Markets?

The answer? Unfortunately, practically nothing.

As you may know, much of ICANN’s justification for “independence” from the US Government (and its strategic plan) is centered around making the institution more international AND more accessible to a wide international audience. Given this, I expected to hear a different tune, maybe even a more practical one as relates to the BILLIONS of future Internet users.

I expected to hear about practical steps to prepare for and bring in the new businesses and consumers around the world that will someday soon be using the Internet. I expected to hear about progress on Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), the ability to use non-Roman characters such as Chinese script after the dot (as in the Chinese characters for .org). I expected to hear about increased Emerging Market participation in ICANN events, maybe even about ICANN support for Internet Governance activities in places like Africa, where most interested parties simply can’t afford the price of attending ICANN’s thrice-annual jamborees. Finally, and crucially, I expected to hear how ICANN was going to take its successful private sector focus to the next level, building out beyond the OECD to actively address the hopes of small business persons around the globe.

Instead, most of what I heard was, well, crickets… Of the dozens of comments, only ONE about the interests of the users that will make up the future of the net. Hmm…

So, a small businessperson myself, nearly alone amongst the lobbyists, I asked about an issue important to small businesses like mine wanting to work in Emerging Markets, the introduction of new IDN TLDs. It was a simple question: Can ICANN guarantee that IDN gTLDs (the Arabic version of .com or .biz or .edu) would be available at the same time as the IDN ccTLDs (the .eg for Egypt)?

I asked because stuff like this matters to small business. I have friends who have .net or .com in the name of their business. I have friends that have had to go through the administrative nightmare of setting up a web presence in 10+ jurisdictions in Europe, each with its own different regulations and hassles, and simply don’t have the time or money to set up shop in a dozen Arabic-speaking nations just to do online business there. What they want is to compete for the Arabic version of their .com so they can do business with the entire Arabic-speaking world from a single website.

Finally, on a broader level, I asked because, having worked in economic development for many years, I want to see an open, growing e-commerce space, not one dependent on the whims of often business un-friendly governments.

So I asked my question, and as I got ready to ask the ICANN brain trust the broader point about how exactly ICANN’s plans will help the “Rest of the World”… I got cut off. There were other lawyers in line. I got no answer.

In the end, I can’t tell you what will happen with IDN TLDs. And though outreach to the wider world – which I took to mean, silly me, the actual wider world – is supposed to be a major part of the ICANN 5 point plan, I can’t tell you what exactly they’re planning to do, short of trying to set up a “legal presence” in Europe and an office in DC.

They asked for our feedback, and I was trying to give feedback. I suppose it could be worse – if ICANN were not even asking. But I still remain concerned. ICANN’s focus on building its administrative structure seems well-suited to address the needs of its staff. But setting up offices in OECD capitals to help lobby the US and other Governments is a long way from real outreach to the next billion users. And, as I sat in the room with all the suits, I felt farther and farther away from the small businesses that gave – and hopefully will continue to give – the net its vibrancy.

Last week, one week later, I was asked to speak at the Corporate Council on Africa’s Africa Infrastructure Conference – by coincidence just a block or so from the National Press Club. Our panel was all about the explosion of broadband connectivity on the continent, and we discussed, among other things, what changes access will bring to businesses and government.

The panel – composed of government and business leaders – was unanimous: Prices for service are coming down. New tools from low-power, low-cost computers to hopped up cell phones are making access easier every day. High oil prices and poor physical infrastructure make the logic of Internet based growth compelling. And tens of billions of dollars in planned investment suggest that smart investors see a real future for Internet-enabled business in Africa. The Internet is coming to Africa in a big way, and to other parts of the Rest of the World. It will be THE tool for economic and social development in the 21st century.

If ICANN isn’t interested, they should be.

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