You’d be surprised how many people are asking that question at the moment, but you won’t be surprised to know that the only thing they agree on is that they either don’t know, or that they disagree with the people that believe they do.
I am not going to attempt to provide my own answer, but I will point to a paper just released by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST).
POST, among other things, produces regular, concise briefings for the UK Parliament on whatever are the important topics of the time. And they have now done one on Internet Governance, which you can download from them here, and which we are also hosting here (at the same time, they have also produced briefings on “Electricity in the UK” and “Alzheimer’s and Dementia”).
This POST summary finds itself in the pigeon holes of every UK Member of Parliament and often represents the foundation level of information and understanding for UK politicians on a wide range of technical subjects.
As you would expect therefore, the paper is pretty good. Concise, accurate, fair, informative — in fact an ideal primer. It inevitably deals with ICANN a few times, noting that “ICANN’s role generates much debate”.
It gives a brief history of ICANN, goes through the gTLDs introduced over time and is mildly critical of ICANN over IDNs (“some have criticised ICANN for being too slow in implementing IDNs”) – to which it is of course my duty to point to the new IDN roadmap and the dedicated ICANN webpage dealing with internationalised domain names.
It then tries to peek into ICANN’s future, stating: “There are two options for ICANN’s future. The first is to place some of its functions under the authority of an intergovernmental body like the UN or the ITU, an idea originally proposed at the WSIS.
“The second is to give it independent private sector status, with internationalmultistakeholder input. The DTI [Department of Trade and Industry] favours an industry-led solution, arguing that the Internet’s success largely is due to private sector involvement, and that intergovernmentalcontrol may stifle innovation and investment.”
There is much more besides so for anyone interested in Internet Governance, we recommend giving it a read. It is written in clear, approachable English.
It is certainly up there with the primer that Panos did solely on ICANN in time for the World Summit on the Information Society back in November 2005. Some elements of that publication (which you can download here from this site, or here from Panos directly) are now out of date but even so it is an extremely useful first step for people hoping to understand ICANN and its role.