African Civil Society Urged to Take Active Role in ICANN

By Marilyn Vernon |
Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are a key player in the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance. However, civil society has been absent from discussions on the technical coordination of the internet domain name system (DNS) mechanisms.
Accordingly, on January 8, 2016, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) organised a workshop in Nairobi, Kenya to encourage more African civil society participation in the organisation’s work.
At the workshop which was attended by over 50 participants from private sector, academia, civil society, and the technical community, Adam Peake, ICANN’s Civil Society Engagement Manager, noted that at the core of ICANN’s functions was the bottom-up community based consensus which promotes inclusive engagement from the global community to keep the internet open, secure and inter-operable. This gives rise to many critical issues relating to human rights online, including privacy, access to information, freedom of expression, transparency and accountability, areas in which CSOs have extensive expertise.
Peake called for more meaningful CSO participation in ICANN processes and for their increased contribution to internet governance discussions and the development of solutions to align technical processes to government accountability and public interest.
Some of the critical issues for civil society engagement in ICANN came to the forefront during ICANN’s 50th meeting held in London in June 2014. At the meeting, the Council of Europe raised concerns about ICANN’s policies and procedures regarding global public interest and the protection of human rights. The Council cited states’ awareness of their responsibility to protect the human rights of their citizens including the right to freedom of expression; states’ attention to vulnerable groups; and the need to strike a balance between economic interests and other objectives of common interest, such as pluralism, cultural and linguistic diversity. As a result, recommendations were made for developing an ICANN human rights review process and reporting.
Since then, the Cross Community Working Party (CCWP) on ICANN’s Corporate and Social Responsibility to Respect Human Rights has been created. The party aims to address several concerns, including the inclusion of a reference to human rights in ICANN’s Bylaws; defining public interest objectives; and developing a mechanism to safeguard human rights.
While recognising that CSO participation in ICANN processes is critical, participants at the Nairobi workshop highlighted various challenges. For Africa in particular, there is limited knowledge of the operations of the domain name industry. There is also limited awareness of the role and responsibilities of governments in the ICANN policy development process that cuts across national policy areas such as internet security, development, and freedom expression.
Dr. Bitange Ndemo, the former Permanent Secretary in the Kenya ICT Ministry, said the exclusion of African CSOs from internet governance policy making process limits regional and international cooperation, decreases dialogue at the national and regional levels, and discourages strategic stakeholder partnerships. As a result, an environment in which stakeholders suffer from a lack of understanding and mistrust is created, which undermines citizen-centred socio-economic public policy development.
African civil Society engagement in public policy frameworks to support the evolution of the internet takes place in various platforms. These include the African Network Information Centre (AFRINIC), the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and the Internet Society (ISOC). Other platforms that enable civil society contributions to Internet Governance include regional Internet Governance forums like the East African IGF which, Kenya, Burundi and Uganda have hosted in the past.
In order to transform the DNS and internet industry in Africa and provide regional support, ICANN launched the Africa Strategic Plan (2016-2020). Participation in ICANN is facilitated through advisory committees, supporting organisations and working groups such as the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), which is structured by region and serves the African region through the African Regional At-Large Organisation (AFRALO), Non-Commercials Users Constituency (NCUC), Non Commercial Stakeholders Group (NCSG), and the Not for Profit Operational Concerns Constituency (NPOC).
Currently, there are 41 African civil society groups participating in the AFRALO, 80 members in the NCUC, two members in the NCSG executive committee, and additional African representation in the various supporting organisations and advisory committees of ICANN.
To learn more about ICANN engagement and its community-based policy making process, you can visit the ICANN resources page and the Beginner’s Guides to ICANN processes.

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.


The Domain Name System is divided up into a number of Top-Level Domains (TLDs), including generic domains like .com, .org, and .edu, and Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) like .za for South Africa, .cm for Cameroon, and .ug for Uganda. ICANN designates who operates a particular ccTLD and sets general technical policies regarding ccTLDs. However, beyond the act of recognition, the ICANN role ends and decisions are made at the country level; ICANN does not have authority over the local policies or distribution of domain names within the ccTLD space.
ICANN (or its predecessors in the early years of the Domain Name System) has assigned the responsibility to administer a particular ccTLD to a company, university, government agency or individual in the country that is technically competent to manage the system. (The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority maintains “Root-Zone Whois Information” that lists the sponsoring organization for the ccTLD of each country, including the administrative and technical contacts and URL for registration services; see
Many experts make a strong case for why building an effective ccTLD registry should be a high priority for African countries that want to grow their Internet industry. If implemented effectively, a ccTLD is a valuable national resource that can give a local identity to websites on the Internet. And a well-run ccTLD institution that is sustained as part of a local market can also bring other benefits, such as providing a home for the local technical community to get trained and build businesses.
However, there are a number of questions around the selection of the ccTLD managers, what should happen if things go wrong at the country level, and who decides when something has “gone wrong” that requires intervention. The bottom line is that capable and reliable institutions are needed to run the ccTLDs, and there must be mechanisms in place for dealing with disputes when they arise.
This is the kind of scenario that can lead to problems… A ccTLD manager may have been picked long ago, for what seemed like good reasons at the time. But now the system has outgrown their capacity, and other capable actors apply to take their place (sometimes more than one). A dispute arises between the designated manager and the new applicants, and no one has the clear authority to resolve the matter because many governments have no rules about the management of the ccTLD resource.
Because ICANN endeavors to work by consensus, this can mean the discussion goes on and on with no clear decision-making. Eventually ICANN faces numerous requests to reallocate the ccTLD registry. Everyone involved has a different view. The situation stalls and nothing happens.
Even where governments do have policies for dealing with their ccTLD, some commentators worry that divergent national agendas could fracture the global network, so they call for agreed principles to help harmonize the system across countries. In Africa, the management of ccTLDs varies widely, from the highly-structured .za system in South Africa, to the .so domain of Somalia that at present is not operational.
ICANN currently lacks the institutional competence to handle these kinds of issues. Setting up an international treaty organization to handle these kinds of matters has been proposed, but even if that goes forward it can be expected to take a long time to realize. In the meantime, ICANN needs sensible policies that can be followed that will lead to implementable decisions. And to be good at this ICANN must have local representation on its staff and in its committees to develop and review such policies and processes.