After an amazing dance performance to open its Nairobi meeting this morning, ICANN’s CEO and President Rod Beckstrom threw down the gauntlet to African governments. In his opening speech, Beckstrom got quickly through the usual platitudes about the Internet’s potential to speed up economic development. He instead highlighted successes in development led by using a more bottom-up approach (the ‘Internet approach’) and identified Kenya as a leader. But despite all this good work, Beckstrom noted, there are still a billion people in Africa that need to be connected. What should be done for them?
Beckstrom invited east African heads of state from the IGAD meeting in this building tomorrow to come over to the ICANN meeting, taking ‘a few small steps for them and making a big leap for the Internet in Africa’. Then he told us how he really feels…
Beckstrom threw down the gauntlet to all African governments, asking them to:*
- Shatter telecoms monopolies. He asked ‘how can the poorest people on earth pay the highest internet prices?’ and called out high connectivity costs as an impediment to development.
- Dispel the untrue stories about the Internet circulating in Africa, specifically the myth that there aren’t enough IPv6 addresses for African countries. He said Afrinic, the regional Internet registry for Africa, is one of the finest RIRs in the world and has over a trillion addresses to give out already. Globally, IPv6 create enough addresses to give a million each to every man woman and child in the world. Beckstrom called on African leaders to hold their ministers responsible and dispel those dishonest scarcity stories. He went so far as to say that people who spread dishonest stories cannot be trusted to make policy.
- Get more involved in Internet policy making. 19 African countries are represented on ICANN’s Government Advisory Committee, but over 30 are missing. If these countries don’t have a seat at the table, how can they shape the future of the Internet?
- Look at the Internet not just as a part of critical industrial structure, but as a platform for the future and for development.
Stopping just short of calling unnamed government people liars, Beckstrom unleashed some bold rhetoric about IPv6 and how, implicitly, untruths about the numbers available are being used to further a political agenda that is emphatically not bottom-up, not multi-stakeholder and not in the interests of anyone who wants an innovative, open and end to end network. It was a brave speech which, by some accounts, had already been toned down to better meet the political sensitivities of the region. Many thought it still went too far.
Beckstrom’s style is to challenge people and received ideas, give full heart to the issues, and – always – zing out a couple of headline grabbing one liners. There were quite a few dropped jaws and shaking heads in the audience, but a good showing of nods as well. It’s downright undiplomatic to use terms like ‘untruths’, ‘dishonest’ and ‘fabrication’ in the context of government ministers. But is it necessarily a mistake? My completely unscientific coffee break straw poll of African participants yielded a divided view. Some cheered on the plain speaking, while others described themselves as mortified, saying you just don’t speak to governments like that. Beckstrom has certainly succeeded in getting people talking and his remarks will likely dominate the meeting’s opening press coverage.
What’s the likely material effect, if any? Calling out unnamed government ministers for dishonesty and on IPv6 allocation isn’t going to win ICANN any friends. But arguably those people aren’t going to be friends of ICANN anyway and are doing damage to Internet development by wrongly telling businesses and nonprofits they can’t get IPv6 addresses to build new products with. And they’re not friends of Afrinic, an organisation I saw launched in at my first ICANN meeting as a staff member five years ago, and which today stands as a successful regional Internet registry respected by its global peers.
IGAD and its leaders will likely ignore the flung down gauntlet. They have an extremely full programme of their own, and the Internet is not the most important issue on it. A sense of perspective is needed. We can’t expect heads of government and state to drop what they’re doing to come and visit what is, however we try and tart it up, a US nonprofit visiting town for a week.
And consider this. What would ICANN’s leadership do if one of the five IGAD leaders, President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, dropped in for a visit? Shake hands with a man indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur? (By the by, I wonder if the Interpol rep attending the ICANN meeting has anything to say about that.)
The GAC, on the other hand, has plenty of food for thought. Yesterday, the GNSO met the GAC and highlighted the inconsistency of government involved in both ICANN and at the ITU where some states take positions antithetical to the ICANN model, and others sit silently while damaging resolutions are nodded through. Beckstrom’s words will focus their attention on an upcoming meeting at the ITU that is part of a drive to make ITU itself a registry of IP numbers.
Although Beckstrom boosted Afrinic, saying it’s one of the best RIRs going, Afrinic is probably squirming just a little at being associated with assertions of dishonest government ministers in its region. It’s not going to make them more popular with African governments who would prefer see ITU giving out IP numbers, rather than a multi-stakeholder organisation. With friends like ICANN, Afrinic might be asking itself, who needs enemies?
* The above is my summary and paraphrasing of Beckstrom’s remarks. A full transcript has already been posted here: http://nbo.icann.org/node/9031