ICANN CEO pledges to keep the Internet intact and open

Fadi Chehade is taking the soft approach to appease countries such as China

ICANN's new CEO Fadi Chehade, who took over in October, is on a mission to help politicians around the world understand the importance of keeping the Internet intact and open, and is also working to bring home the addition of new generic top-level domains.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers coordinates the DNS (Domain Name System) and IP addresses, which are the cornerstones that keep the Internet going.

"I sincerely believe that we have an opportunity in the next few years to keep the Internet as one Internet and I believe this is worth my time and a lot of my effort, and, frankly, it makes for a great mission," Chehade said in an interview.

The Internet runs the risk of becoming balkanized due to ill-informed national policies, according to Chehade. To secure the Internet's future, Chehade has started his tenure with a globalization campaign, because until now the organization hasn't done enough to reach out and engage beyond the borders of the U.S. and Europe, he said.

"I have been on the road visiting as many delegations and countries as I can to basically engage and open up our model," Chehade said.

ICANN's effort to become a more global organization comes after last year's World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT), where countries such as Russia and China lobbied to change the way the Internet is governed.

For Chehade, the meeting highlighted the need for more education about how ICANN works and what it does. Some attending ministers didn't even know what ICANN was, he said.

Chehade wants to have countries like China on his side and believes he will succeed at that not by lecturing but by illustrating the Internet's upsides.

"We have to show the fruits and benefits of an open Internet -- that is what will get the message across ... The leaders of China, whom I just recently met on a trip to Beijing, fully appreciate and understand how the Internet is transforming them and helping them reform their system," Chehade said.

As part of its globalization, ICANN last week announced a much-needed African expansion, which includes plans to have six new ICANN representatives with North, South, East, West, Central Africa and the Indian Ocean all involved. The announcement was made at a meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which attracted nearly 200 participants, including both citizens of nations represented at the meeting and lawmakers, according to Chehade.

The continent also needs a large increase in the number of accredited domain name registrars. Currently, there are only five, and Chehade said he wants to see that number increase five-fold in less than two years.

The work isn't just about allowing Africa to catch up, but to leapfrog other parts of the world. The success of mobile banking in eastern Africa illustrates the power of the Internet, according to Chehade.

"On the streets of Nairobi you can buy a phone with full Internet access for $50. That is changing the game in Africa," he said.

Asia is another part of the world that ICANN has to work more with going forward. So far its participation in ICANN has been minimal. But rapid growth of Internet users now makes Asia a critical part of the organization's globalization. Part of that process for ICANN involves distributing its headquarters around the world. Every department will have core members in Singapore, Istanbul and Los Angeles, according to Chehade.

The choice of Istanbul may surprise some people, but Chehade is convinced it's a good place to be. The city has a growing infrastructure and a good airport. It is located close to Europe, the Middle East and Africa and has a young population with technical and linguistics skills, he said.

While the globalization effort is about protecting the Internet as it currently functions, ICANN is now also in the home stretch of its effort to increase the number of gTLDs, which will add more suffixes to the end of domain names -- one of the most talked-about and contentious examples is amazon.book.

In June last year, the organization announced that over 1,900 applications for gTLDs had been received. Last week another milestone was reached as the objections period ended after an extension was granted at the request of many people in the industry, according to Chehade.

Publishing industry groups and Barnes & Noble have voiced their discontent with applications from Amazon for domain names such as .book. Allowing a single private company to secure exclusive use of that string would defeat the purposes for which new gTLDs are being authorized and is, therefore, not in the public interest, according to the Association of American Publishers.

"I hope they combined their public campaign by also following the process," Chehade said.

The first approved gTLDs will be announced in the next couple of weeks. ICANN started accepting applications in December last year and Amazon's .book application has prioritization number 890. On top of the list is .catholic in Chinese, followed by Amazon's application for .store in Japanese and .net in Arabic.

Later this month ICANN also will open the first global trademark clearinghouse ever built, which will allow trademark holders to protect their rights during the DNS expansion. The first new gTLDs will make their appearance in Web addresses in the middle of the year, according to Chehade.

"We are going to deliver this program. I want the world to be confident that we are not going to jeopardize the stability and the security of the Internet, but at the same time we are not going to slow down the innovation that will come with the expansion of the DNS," Chehade said.

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