Should Africans Care About ICANN?

During the last few years the relationship of African stakeholders with ICANN has received greater attention. Driven by a few key individuals within African governments, the technical community, and civil society organizations, the increased scrutiny has highlighted the importance of Internet governance issues for Africa. But the question hangs in the air: “Why should Africans care about ICANN?”

The number of Africans using the Internet is increasing every year, but there is debate as to whether ICANN and Internet names and numbers management should be a priority issue for the continent. Many commentators argue that Africa should care about ICANN. Internet infrastructure offers Africa unprecedented access to information, participation, communication, and trade, and Africans are major stakeholders in the information society today and, perhaps more importantly, in the future. The argument follows that, therefore, Africa should have decision-making responsibility to control its own Internet resources, such as domain names and IP addresses. And this view holds that the continent’s participation in ICANN is essential if it is to accelerate the development of its technical communications infrastructure -– something that promises to benefit the poor every bit as much as the wealthy.

Many others disagree. They point out that only a limited number of local technical experts and civil society organizations need to be involved in ICANN and Internet architecture development in order to look after Africa’s Internet development. Bolstering their efforts may be useful. But taking the ICANN debate to the general public and getting governments more involved may not only be a distraction from more pressing issues facing Africa, it could backfire and lead to government control of the Internet that is not in the best long-term interests of Africa’s development efforts.
These commentators point out that people in poor countries need to learn how to use the Internet and to use it to run businesses, share information, support healthcare and education and other important activities. Instead, many of their best-educated, wealthiest citizens are spending time in Geneva and other nice places, glad to have a seat at the table. But what is being accomplished at that table? The creation of additional bodies and working groups and advisory councils to give people a say is not the best use of scarce resources. Africa would do better spending its valuable time discussing issues related to the rampant disease, poverty and food security issues, among other pressing needs.

To help Africans decide for themselves, the Collaboration for International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa, or CIPESA, recently published “ICANN, Internet governance and Africa”, a public briefing on the current status and key points of the debate that provides essential background for the second phase of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS).

While the issues at stake have the potential to affect all current and future Internet users, the Internet governance field tends to be dominated by a handful of experts and interested parties, many of whom have dedicated their careers to understanding the political and technical minutiae involved. In Africa, only a few are in the position to dedicate fulltime attention to the dialogue, which occurs both online and in numerous face-to-face meetings around the world.

For those who are interested in the issues but do not have the resources to follow the details, this brief explains the current status and key points of the discussion on ICANN and Internet governance as relevant to Africa.

If African stakeholders are to have a real say in the discussion — whether in the short term through the WSIS process, or in the longer term through ICANN and/or whatever new structures emerge — they need a basic understanding of ICANN’s role and functions and how it fits within the Internet governance area more broadly. Being generally informed on the issues may be as relevant to a ground-level NGO as it is to a government official — even if the inclusion is that governments should leave Internet technical management to the technical community.

CIPESA director Vincent Waiswa Bagiire said, “Before now there was no single place where all the basic facts about Africa’s participation in ICANN could be found. So learning about the issues required a lot of Internet research, and some savvy to find the best online sources — which isn’t simple because connectivity is so costly in Africa. This document brings it all together, and tells you where to find out more.”

The brief sets out basic facts and describes opinions about the main issues for African stakeholders. It provides an overview of ICANN, noting what it does and does not do. And it describes the main points of the WGIG report, considering what the findings could mean for ICANN’s future role in the management of Internet resources, and where the debate will play out leading up to, and beyond, the second phase of WSIS. Finally, it looks at views on why Africa should care about ICANN — and why not.

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