ICANN: The most important organization you've never heard of | Internet fragmentation | DW | 05.12.2023
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Internet fragmentation

ICANN: The most important organization you've never heard of

Elena Plexida reveals the vital mission of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and dispels myths about Internet fragmentation.

What is the most important organization you never heard of?


We talked to Elena Plexida to find out the answer:


What is ICAAN and its mission?  

Elena Plexida:  ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and our mandate is to maintain a global, interoperable, single, stable internet. We have a colleague who says it's the most important organization you've never heard of 

We are responsible for the technical fundamentals of the Internet, the domain names, IP addresses and Internet protocols that bind them all together. It's the common technical language used by all the networks and connected devices and the reason why we have a global Internet.  


Is the Internet fragmented

Technically speaking, no. ICANN is part of a family of technical organizations that help maintain the global Internet. The governance work of all technical organizations is based on the multi-stakeholder approach. This governance model is quite unique in that the policies and rules for the fundamentals of the Internet requires participation from engineers, business, civil society, and governments. We have common rules that enable and protect the global Internet. Technically speaking, while the Internet can be broken, to define it as fragmented is misleading.  


Can you give a tangible example of fragmentation? 

Moving from one application to another to access different content is user fragmentation, but it’s not the same as Internet fragmentation. That’s when you’re using on your laptop and can only access the content that your web browser gives you. Then you’d have to use a second laptop to access other content. The implications for communication, human rights, and freedom of expression would be terrible.  

In my view, the Internet is the biggest peace project of our time. It's something that humankind has made collectively and has evolved to be open. No single part can be isolated.  

The Internet is the greatest equalizer in the world. It can give you information wherever you are, which enables equality in human rights: we all have the same opportunity to access information, which means empowerment. A fragmented Internet means no communication.  


On the content level, what can we do to ensure equal access for individuals or communities, especially in in the global South? Talk to us about the digital divide.  

The digital divide is a very big issue that needs to be addressed. Today, over 5 billion people use the Internet, out of an estimated global population of over 8 billion. The question of access concerns whether users can actually use technology to access the Internet. For the ICANN, the crucial aspect is the local identifiers we use first, the human readable thing for us to go online. To make the Internet more inclusive and bridge the digital divide, domain names must become more internationalized. At present, most are in English.  

For example, I am Greek and we don’t use the Latin script. My grandmother can do anything, but she can only read Greek. Because she doesn’t know English, she can’t do an online search. We must ensure that users can overcome the language barrier, and this work is ongoing.  

The Internet Engineering Task Force has proposed a protocol for internationalized domain names, which would improve access, but we also need the software applications to follow suit. Web browsers and email clients need to be able to recognize all the different scripts.  

It’s also a question of raising awareness. Governments and journalists play a role here in reaching citizens. For example, on 28 March this year, ICANN held the Universal Acceptance Dayto promote best practice that ensures all valid domain names and email addresses – regardless of script, language, or character length – can be equally used by all Internet-enabled applications, devices, and systems. This will be a recurrent event to address the digital divide.  


How can we balance national security and privacy with the goal of a global connected Internet?  

That's not a matter for a technical organization such as ICANN. We don't have the technical capability or mandate to look into content or the right to privacy. Rather, it's a matter for policymakers, in agreement with civil society. But whatever balance is struck must also be relevant for human rights issues.  

Technical communities also have a role to play here. We have seen very good initiatives to ensure privacy online. For example, the EU e-Privacy directive regulates cookie usage, email marketing, and other aspects of data privacy. As a user, I want to be able to choose, rather than have someone else choose for me.  

But the first draft of the directive would have interrupted the routing of the Internet, by making users give consent all the way along the chain of communication. That’s not how the Internet works.  

Another example, again from Europe, is the European Data Protection Board, which considered that domain names are personal data. Technically, this means that we cannot process them because we have no legal basis to do so. And then you as a user cannot even establish your online communication because we cannot get your consent first. The European Court of Justice also judged that IP addresses can under certain circumstances be considered personal identifiable information. Again, it’s the same issue. The balance between security and privacy is not something that technical organizations can define, but we must be consulted.  


Finally, what is the role for journalists and media organisations who work in do media literacy and media develoment training in guarding against Internet fragmentation?  

The very fact that you are raising awareness is great. The Internet has been taken for granted. Everyone assumes that it will just work. But it can be interrupted, and people need to understand where the risks come from, and how they can be mitigated. As I said, separating content and the fundamentals is important. The fundamentals must also be separate from state politics.  


Elena Plexida, is part of ICANN's government engagement team, responsible for monitoring global initiatives related to the technical aspects of the Internet. In her work she engages with policymakers to provide insights into how the Internet functions, ensuring they consider this knowledge when shaping legislative initiatives and addressing the broader challenges associated with the Internet ecosystem. 

 Interview: Bahia Albrecht