A Look Ahead: the Internet in 2010

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Casey Stengel, baseball hall of famer, once said, “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” He was probably right, and I may regret this blog post in a year or so. With that in mind, here’s the five Internet-related topics that I think are going to be very important in 2010:

1. Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs). At the ICANN meeting in Seoul in October 2009, ICANN announced one of the most significant changes to the Internet in its 40 year history. I blogged about it when it happened, and since then it has gone on to pretty much dominate domain name news. Since November 2009, nations and territories have been able to apply for IDN ccTLDs. If all goes according to plan, these IDNs will be operational by mid-2010. Since non-Latin alphabet scripts are used by something like 800 million Internet users, it’s pretty safe to assume IDNs will be a popular item in 2010.

2. How the rise of social media is changing the way people use the Internet. When CIRA began 10 years ago, we used the Internet to get information from websites and send emails. Fast forward to 2009. The rise in social networking sites means fewer people are using email, and we’re using the Internet to share and interact with each other.

Social media is still new and we’re just trying to find our way around it – think about the current debates about privacy – but it’s already changed the way many of us do business and even how some kids are learning. In short, we’re witnessing a change in the way people actually use the Internet.

3. Internet governance, including the new arrangement between ICANN and the U.S. Government. Following the ICANN meeting in Seoul, South Korea at the end of October 2009, I blogged about the fact that the U.S. government now has an indefinite contract as the top watchdog for the overall ICANN process. Following that meeting, hardly a mention was made of it in the media. I know we haven’t heard the last of this issue; it may likely take on a life of its own in 2010.

4. The emergence of mobile as the next big thing for accessing the Internet. There are more than 450 million mobile Internet users worldwide and that number is increasing. The meteoric rise in popularity of some social media sites like Twitter are in part driving the rise in use of mobile devices (or is it the other way around?), making this a topic that we are going to hear a lot about in 2010.

5. Streaming media. The fact that so many Internet users now have broadband access and that video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo have so much content has people, especially Canadians, moving away from their TVs to their computers to watch videos. This rise in the use of video on the Internet continues to drive demand for bandwidth. I think we’re going to start talking about this a lot in 2010.

What do you think the top stories of 2010 will be?

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Dr. Vint Cerf Looks Ahead

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Because the New Year is fast approaching, and 2009 marks the end of the first decade of this century, we’re seeing a lot of ‘year in review’ and ‘decade in review’ reports lately.

Being the CEO of a technology centred organization, I tend to prefer looking ahead as opposed to looking back in time. Perhaps this is why the end of year article that really caught my attention was this interview with Dr. Vint Cerf by CBC.   As one of the head designers who worked on TCP/IP in the early 1970s, Cerf played an integral role in how the Internet operates today and is often referred to as the “father of the Internet”.

In the CBC interview, instead of looking back at where the Internet has been, Dr. Cerf looks ahead to what we can expect. It’s a little bit science fiction and a little bit science fact, and all in all a fascinating read.

As it happens, I was chatting with Dr. Cerf earlier this week and the thing that really stood out for me was how passionate he remains about the subject and the possibilities for the Internet in the future.  We were supposed to be talking about something fairly mundane, but within minutes he was speaking excitedly about new technologies and potential of IDNs.  Quite inspirational really, and served to remind about how much potential the Internet still holds.

What do you think the future holds for the Internet?

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Internationalized Domain Names

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At the ICANN meeting In Seoul in October 2009, ICANN announced one of the most significant changes to the Internet in its 40 year history. By approving the use of new extensions containing non-Latin characters, ICANN not only opened the Internet up to millions, perhaps billions, of users worldwide, they also reinforced the idea that the Internet is truly a global resource.  It means that people can access it in their national language, even if that language uses non-Latin characters, like Greek, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Korean, or a host of many others.

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but the Internet is truly becoming a resource for all of us, regardless of place of residence or the language we speak. This is important for Canadians. Canada is a multicultural country. We are one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. Half of the population of our largest city, Toronto, were born outside of Canada. Statistics Canada estimates that by 2017, that there will be 1.8 million people of Chinese descent in Canada.

ICANN put together a great video about IDNs, and what this decision means. One line from the video that resonates for me is, “it’s one step at making the Internet equally accessible for everyone.”  You can find it here.

I think ICANN’s decision is a step forward in advancing the Internet as being accessible to all. What do you think?

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ICANN’s Strategic Plan

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ICANN, the folks who manage the coordination of the DNS and Internet addressing, have opened their Strategic Plan for July 2010 to June 2013 to public comment.  This Plan was first presented at the ICANN meeting that was held in Seoul in October, and outlines four areas of work for ICANN: preserve DNS security and stability; promote competition, trust, choice, and innovation; excel in Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and other core operations; and, contribute to shaping a healthy Internet eco-system.

This is all part of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder, bottom-up approach to Internet governance. A laudable approach for sure, and one that, in my opinion, democratizes some of ICANN’s internal decision-making.  It is, in fact, ICANN’s carrying out of Section 7 of its Affirmation of Commitments which calls for ICANN to “adhere to…responsive consultation procedures that provide detailed explanations for basis of decisions”.

ICANN has been around for about 11 years now. In that time, the Internet has changed dramatically. It has become a resource for everybody with access, regardless of whether or not we can attend ICANN meetings in Seoul, live in an urban centre in a developed nation or in sub-Saharan Africa.

It is a resource and a tool that can be used for business, family communications, political activism, and many, many more things. It truly is one of very few resources available for the entire world, and, in my opinion, it is only right that its users have the opportunity to have their say in how it is going to work in the future.

Specifically, ICANN is looking for responses to the following two questions:

  1. What should be the three to five year high level strategic objectives for each of the four areas of work?
  2. What would be the specific metrics for each of the four areas of work?

You can find the Strategic Plan public consultation here. You have until January 21, 2010 to have your say. I know I plan to. Do you?

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Protecting Your Online Identity

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Ottawa residents have been privy to an interesting, if not heated, exchange over the past week related to www.lowellgreen.ca.  If you aren’t in the loop, Lowell Green is an outspoken small “c” conservative Ottawa talk-radio host who recently revealed that someone registered lowellgreen.ca and pointed it to the Morgentaler abortion clinic.

The fact that Green failed to register this domain name himself is a cautionary tale for all Canadians.  It is one of how to protect your identity in this ever-expanding online world.

Most of us take pains to protect our identities by guarding against identity theft and scams.  We shield the ATM machine when we type in our pins.  We shred private documents before we put them in the recycling.  We keep our Social Insurance Number in a safe place.  But when it comes to our online presence, we are far more liberal about sharing personal information.  In fact, many Canadians don’t give much thought to how they might be impersonated online and the far-reaching implications this can have.

A key way that we can stake an online claim to our identities is by registering .ca domain names.  Domain names speak to who we are and/or what our business is all about.  Some Canadians only think of reserving their .com.  In fact, Lowell Green did register a .com.  For those of us in Canada, a .ca is an essential part of who we are – Canadian.

.ca domain names are issued on a first-come, first-served basis. The only way to ensure that you get the domain name you want is to register it before someone else does.  It’s a good idea to register your domain name as soon as you choose it. You don’t have to have a website or an agreement with a hosting service before you register the name.  It’s very simple to start this process.  Just choose a .ca domain name and check its availability using the .ca WHOIS search tool.

Not only have I registered my name, but I have also registered the names of my children.  I regard this as advance for when they want to have their own online presence.  It’s a bit like an insurance policy – pay into it now; perhaps you won’t see the benefits for some time to come, but you know it is there when it counts.

How do you protect your identity online?  Is registering a .ca part of the picture for you?

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Internet Governance Forum Reflections

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The four-day IGF conference was, for those interested or involved with the governance of the Internet (and that is a big qualifier), a packed agenda on an incredibly wide array of subjects.  There was so much on the official agenda, it was impossible to participate in it all.  There were 10 separate steams of working groups or sessions, so until cloning happens, one had to pick and choose what would provide the most benefit for any given organization or person.

The conference dealt with topics as diverse as IPV4 depletion, ICANN’s new Affirmation of Commitments, cybercrime, privacy vs. securit, net neutrality, human rights regarding the Internet, developing country needs, WSIS, IPV6 adoption, censorship, the future of the IGF itself, and many, many more – from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The thing to remember about the IGF is it is a multi-stakeholder environment, which means that from a speaking perspective everyone is equal.  In other words, everyone from governments to organizations to individuals can all get the same amount of airtime.  This is a very unique environment.  As one can imagine, some participants – read certain governments – are none too keen on being “equal” to individuals.

I can’t begin to cover it all in one blog post, but some interesting moments include…

Rod Beckstrom, CEO of ICANN, in the main session (picture a room with 1000+ people) getting into a full- scale verbal battle with a courtier of the International Telecommunication Union.  I first mentioned this dynamic in my inaugural blog post.  It got so heated that the moderator literally had to pull them apart.  This is not something one sees everyday at a UN-based conference.  It certainly spoke to the undertone of the entire conference.

There was significant attention paid to the depletion of IPV4 addresses and the adoption, or lack thereof, of IPV6.  Considerable debate about how to foster adoption of IPV6 as IPV4 addresses will run out in about two years.  Milton Mueller, constant Internet governance contrarian, and ARIN’s John Curran squared off about address scarcity and what to do about it.  Mueller hypothesizes that IP addresses should be “sold” in a market environment, unlike today where they are handed out in blocks to those who require them.  This is fairly heretical and it was based on lots of economic theory.

An interesting metaphor – IPV4 address space is to IPV6 as a golf ball is to the sun.  Although this gives a perspective on how much IPV6 space is available, the argument was still being made that in order to allocate it efficiently a “market” should do it.

Net Neutrality continues to be a big issue on the global stage.  The discussion is getting much more intelligent and sophisticated (on all sides) about this issue.  Too bad we could not have brought some CRTC commissioners to this.  Pretty much all sides of the debate agree that some network intelligence is required, but the issue is getting considerably more refined about discrimination of applications and pricing strategies, which is where most of the differences in opinion lie.

Some facts to consider in this discussion:

– Internet traffic has increased six-fold in five years.
– Significant shift away from P2P traffic (which was catalytic in this debate) and into streaming technologies.  This is what is really driving demand for bandwidth.
– The average connected household is watching 1.1 hours a day of Internet delivered video – right now!
– By 2013, video will be responsible for over 60% of mobile traffic.
– One percent of users consume 20% of bandwidth; the top 20% consume 60%.
– Not all “bytes” are the same (email vs. streaming video), so should they be treated exactly the same?

I think the issue is inching towards a more productive place. What are your thoughts?

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The Internet Governance Forum: Talk Shop?

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The UN sponsored Internet Governance Forum (IGF) begins its fourth annual meeting next week in Egypt. It is a bit of an unwieldy and esoteric entity – a forum without a mandate for any specific outcomes, nor any operating role. It is often criticized as nothing more than a “talk shop”, which to some degree is true.

That said, stakeholders in the Internet community ignore it at their peril.

The IGF is the offspring of the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS), a meeting held in Tunis in 2005. While this may seem a little dry, it is relevant because this was the time that governments were really waking up to the power (both positive and negative) and potential of the Internet, as well as the fact that they didn’t really control it.

The WSIS process was, for some, an attempt to assert increased government control and rearrange the bottom-up, multi-stakeholder model that had governed the Internet up to that point. This was particularly the case for governments that were less predisposed to the rights and freedoms of the individual. Fundamentally some wanted to take “the people” out of the process and make it a more traditional multi-lateral, government to government governance structure.

On the other hand, many of the more liberal democracies and Internet pioneers believed that the success of the Internet was in fact built upon the multi-stakeholder, bottom-up governance process. They argued against a more traditional multilateral structure.

Locked in a conference room in the heat of a Tunis night ( I am told there was no air conditioning provided), an arrangement was hammered out. It is called the IGF, a forum with a five year lifespan to discuss, in a non-threatening way, the major issues confronting the Internet, not the least of which is the very governance structure of the Internet itself.

It may just be a “talk shop”, but we better pay attention. I certainly am. I’m on my way to Egypt as I write this.

As a representative from the Canadian Internet community, what are the issues you think I should bring to the table?

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Media Literacy Week

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Are your kids more tech-savvy than you?  Often, the answer is yes.   I think this is a common reality for many parents in the developed world.  Even as the CEO of a progressive Internet-focused organization, I know my kids are communicating in ways that I couldn’t have even imagined when I was their age.    I knew this was true when my 8 year old walked up to me and out of the blue asked if he could “skype” his grandparents!

When kids reach out to friends and strangers in cyberspace, supervision can be tricky to say the least.  The best means of protecting this wired generation is to ensure they are properly educated about safe use of the Internet and that they are aware of the ways they can be targeted, from unscrupulous marketing companies to child predators.

This past week was Media Literacy Week in Canada.  This is an annual event lead by Media Awareness Network and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation. The week puts a spotlight on the importance of media literacy as a key component in the education of children and young people.   This is something that CIRA strongly supports, and I support as a parent. CIRA is proud to be a sponsor of Media Awareness Network in our shared goal of making the Internet a safer place for young Canadians.

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Latest ICANN Meeting

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The new CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Rod Beckstrom kicked this meeting off with an interesting metaphor for the power of the Internet. It was a bit hokey and all the tech folks grumbled about already knowing the power of the ‘net, but it did infuse the sometimes jaded audience with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for the business at hand…exactly what a “new guy” should do.

The hottest issue by far was the introduction of new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) and the status of the rollout. Currently there are a handful of gTLDs like .com, .net, .org, and others. ICANN is well down the process of throwing the gates open and letting anyone with a business plan and the $185,000 fee apply for a new gTLD. For example, .sport, .berlin, .gay, and .eco are all being applied for, among many others.

It is a very contentious issue with a number of different parties approaching it from their own perspectives. To begin with, ICANN has been working on this issue for years, so there is a combination of fatigue and impatience within the community. Fundamentally, the divide breaks down along the lines of those who are concerned about policy and technology – whether the Internet can safely integrate all these new TLDs – and those who see a huge business opportunity and want to seize it as quickly as possible.

The tension between the parties was palpable. Interestingly, one of the most vocal business interests proposed a path forward from the conference floor on Thursday morning that morphed into a Board of Directors resolution Friday morning. I happened to be sitting beside some key stakeholders at the moment the resolution was announced and their surprise was obvious. Who says the ICANN Board does not respond to stakeholder input!

The biggest step forward coming out of this meeting was regarding internationalized domain names (IDNs), more specifically the fast track IDN ccTLDs. This represents a massive change to the Internet whereby language scripts other than Latin character-based languages can be used for domain names, or urls. This is a huge step forward as it will really facilitate those using other scripts to get online, to truly globalize the Internet. Imagine for a moment that if all Internet addresses were based on the Chinese character set how difficult it would be for those of us who communicate in English and French to use the Internet…well, that is the position much of the world is in right now. Arabic, Chinese and Cyrillic based languages, among others, are in this predicament.

The good news is that ICANN’s Board approved a resolution to start accepting applications for new IDN ccTLDs starting on November 16, 2009. The challenge will be to integrate non-ASCII based characters into the root zone servers (and others) as well as the numerous policy elements that are associated with this issue.

The most surprising issue for me? The non-issue of the Agreement of Commitments (AoC), the new contractual arrangement between ICANN and the U.S. Government which barely seemed to get any attention or mention. The U.S. government now has an indefinite contract as the top watchdog for the overall ICANN process and hardly a mention was made of it. I guess it was a testament to the belief that an acceptable balance of tradeoffs was found.

The usual grumbling aside, this meeting was a very positive step forward for the Internet, and a very positive meeting overall for ICANN.

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Who are we?

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Who are we? Why are we here? And why do we have such vocal critics?

I’ll address the last question first. I think that basically they fall into two general camps – though I’m likely to be criticized for this – the first are those who don’t really understand what CIRA does or what our responsibilities are. And shame on us for not telling our story better and educating people on CIRA’s reason for being. We are working on it, but it does not come naturally for an organization that has spent most of its young life as a technology operating company.

The second set disagree with our mix, pace, and chronology of activities. They want us to do more of X before Y, or a bigger dose of A rather than B. The vernacular often used here is “armchair quarterback”. This doesn’t mean that their views aren’t honestly or passionately held, it’s simply that the view from the sidelines is often quite different from the view on the field. But what is the view from the field? What is CIRA actually supposed to be doing?

We recently had our Board of Director elections. Fortunately they went well, with participation up 20% and several very strong new Directors added to the Board. However, during the election I was struck by the high degree of misunderstanding about the role of CIRA. CIRA was founded in the late ’90s as a not-for-profit, non-share capital, corporation designated to “…administer the .CA (dot-ca) domain space on behalf of Canadian users”. There are a number of other elements associated with this objective, such as the notion that the dot-ca is a key public resource; that we promote the development of electronic commerce; that CIRA rely on market forces and private sector leadership; that we follow fair and sound business practices; and that we are very transparent in our activities. There are others, but this provides a flavor of our specific obligation to the government. This is what we MUST do. In other words, we run the dot-ca registry and the Domain Name System (DNS) that underpins it.

What does this mean? Basically that when you register a dot-ca domain name you can be assured that you will have a unique address – we manage nearly 1.3 million of them – on the Internet and that your domain will not be hijacked. It also means that for everybody who types in a dot-ca address or sends an email which ends in dot-ca, the traffic will be routed to the correct place. We do this 24/7/365. We are never down. CIRA facilitates more than 600,000,000 transactions on an average day. That is over 400,000 a minute, in a 100% uptime environment. That is the core of what we do.

In 2006, CIRA updated its Letters Patent to expand one of its objects, in order to give CIRA the flexibility to now also “develop, carry out and/or support any other Internet-related activities in Canada”. This means that when we have taken care of our core obligation, the one that the Government of Canada requires us to do, and we have sufficient surpluses, we can support our Internet community undertaking “other Internet-related activities.” As a federal not-for-profit, CIRA may only do the things outlined in our Letters Patent. What people may not realize, however, is that our corporate objects do not set the things CIRA is required to do, but rather the scope of the activities CIRA is allowed to do.

Our Board of Directors has stipulated that for prudent planning and risk management practices, a reserve equal to a full year’s operating costs must be accumulated. Even though we are not quite there yet in terms of our reserve requirements, CIRA is already engaged in a number of these Internet-related activities. We play a significant role on the international stage, including having members of our executive in key roles of global responsibility. CIRA was the key catalyst in kicking off the next round of development for the software that runs 85% of the DNS, a significant contribution both to the domestic and international Internet community. Further, we are also a major supporter of Media Awareness Network, a not-for-profit organization focused on equipping young people with the tools and knowledge to use the Internet safely and wisely.

Our Board continues to work in this object of the corporation. Interestingly, it is this least “critical” function that generates the most criticism. In spite of the fact that we are already doing quite a bit as mentioned above, it is never enough, not the right thing, not fast enough. Ironically we get criticized for focusing on our core mandate, the one on which every Canadian and every Canadian business depends and benefits from.

So while our armchair quarterbacks may shout from the sidelines, the average Internet user can rest assured that we will continue to keep our eye on the ball. Through our actions we will maintain our global reputation as one of the best registries in the world, and as our resources allow, continue to build on our existing investment in other Internet-related activities for the benefit of all Canadians.

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