Looking Toward the Future

Looking Toward the Future

by Vint Cerf

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was formed 9 years ago, following a period of considerable debate about the institutionalization of the basic functions performed by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) [1]. Nearly simultaneous with the inauguration of ICANN in September 1998 came the unexpected and untimely death of the man, Jonathan B. Postel [2], who had responsibility for these functions for more than a quarter century. The organization began with very limited sources of funds, a small and overworked staff, and contentious debate about its organizational structure, policy apparatus, and operational procedures. The organization underwent substantial change through its Evolution and Reform Process (ERP) [3]. Among the more difficult constituencies to accommodate in the organization's policy-making process was the general public. An At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) [4] emerged from the ERP and has recently formed Regional At-Large Organizations (RALOs) in all of ICANN's five regions.

Today, ICANN is larger, more capable, more international, and better positioned to fulfill its mandate. It stands for one global, interoperable Internet, and the model of stakeholder representation has worked. But the Internet and its vast user population have grown during the same time by a factor of more than 20 in all dimensions. The 50 million users of 1997 have become nearly 1.2 billion users today. The 22 million hosts on the network have increased to nearly 500 million today. The bandwidth of the core data circuits in the Internet have grown from 622 million bits per second to between 10 and 40 billion bits per second. This dramatic growth in physical size has been accompanied by an equally dramatic growth in the number and diversity of applications running on the Internet. All forms of media now appear on and are carried by Internet packets. Consumers of information are producing more and more of it themselves with e-mail, blogs, instant messaging, social and game-playing Websites, video uploads, and podcasts. The Internet continues to evolve and although ICANN has achieved more than most people realize, it must continue to evolve along with it.

Operational Priorities

ICANN's primary responsibility is to contribute to the security and stability of the Internet system of unique identifiers. In the most direct way, it carries out this mandate through its operation of the IANA. There is no doubt that the conduct of this function in an exemplary fashion is essential not only to ICANN's mission but also to inspiring confidence in ICANN as an organization.

But ICANN's role in the Internet goes beyond these specific IANA functions. ICANN is an experiment in the balancing of multiple stakeholder interests in policy about the implementation, operation, and use of the Domain Name System (DNS) and the address spaces of the Internet. Its policy choices can directly affect the business models of operating entities involved in the management of domain names and Internet addresses. The privacy and Internet-related rights of registrants and, more generally, Internet users may also be directly affected. Some policy choices raise public policy concerns in the view of governments and methods and will be needed to factor such concerns into the making of ICANN policy.

Effective, fair, and timely policy development should be a priority for ICANN. That this policy development needs to be achieved in a global setting is simply another challenge to be met. ICANN leadership and staff must seek to maintain and improve the ability of all of ICANN's many constituencies to achieve consensus or at least to prepare the ICANN Board to make choices when consensus may not be forthcoming. Because policies often have technical, economic, social, and governance implications, it is vital that ICANN's practices draw on expertise in all these domains.

Clarity in the roles and responsibilities of the many participants in the Internet arena, especially those with specific interest in ICANN policies and practices, will be helpful and should be documented. In some cases, the documentation might take the form of relatively formal relationships such as the contracts between ICANN and domain-name registries and registrars. In other cases, they may need only to characterize in plain terms the roles that each party plays.

In some areas, such as root-zone operation, excellence can be measured in such terms as responsiveness, scalability, resilience to disruption, and ability to adapt to changing needs such as Domain Name System Security (DNSSEC) [5], Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs) [6], and the addition of IPv6 records to the root zone. Many parties currently play a role in the maintenance of the root-zone file, and clear documentation of responsibility and lines of authority will be beneficial. As the technology of the Internet continues to evolve, the roles of various parties may need to change to meet the objectives of stability and security of the Internet system of unique identifiers. Managing the evolution of these roles represents another priority for policy development and implementation.

Because of the potential effect of decisions made through the ICANN policy process, it is important to implement checks and balances that make all aspects of ICANN's operation accountable and transparent. Work is still necessary in this area so that independent review of legitimate concerns arising out of policy making is possible when deemed necessary.

At the same time, it is vital that the mechanisms chosen do not have the effect of locking up the policy-making process and preventing any decisions from being made. We need to seek a balance between a potentially unfair tyranny of the majority and an equally unacceptable tyranny of the minority.

The general success of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Process (UDRP) [7] suggests that ICANN should seek mechanisms for resolving disputes arising in connection with implementing ICANN policies that scale, permit choice without abusive "forum shopping," and make efficient use of ICANN resources.

Outreach, transparency, and broadly participatory processes on an international basis are not inexpensive. It is vital for ICANN to continue to refine its models for sustainable operation, accounting for the economics of the various actors in the Internet arena that rely on ICANN's operation, and fairly apportioning costs of ICANN operation to appropriate sources of support. Not all of the beneficiaries of ICANN's work derive the same level of revenue from the Internet (and some, none at all). ICANN must account for this discrepancy when devising mechanisms for supporting its operation, and it should work to make transparent the need to provide services to parties who may not be able to contribute commensurate with cost. Adequate and stable funding for ICANN is necessary if ICANN is to fulfill its charter. Over the past several years, ICANN has significantly increased its ability to staff vital functions, contributing to the effectiveness of the organization. It should be a priority to assure adequate reserves to weather unanticipated expenses or periods of decreased income.

Organizational Perspectives

ICANN is a multistakeholder institution operating in the private sector but including the involvement of governments. Throughout its history, ICANN has sought to draw on international resources and to collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate with institutions whose expertise and responsibilities can assist ICANN in the achievement of its goals. ICANN should seek to establish productive relationships with these institutions, cementing its own place in the Internet universe while confining its role to its principal responsibilities.

As part of its normal operation, ICANN engages in self-examination and external review of the effectiveness of its organizational structure and processes. Improvements in all aspects of ICANN operation and structure will increase confidence in the organization and its ability to sustain long-term operation.

Finding and engaging competent participants and leaders in each of ICANN's constituent parts must be a priority. ICANN should seek to improve its ability to identify from around the world and attract highly qualified staff, executive leadership, board, and supporting organization participants. It is possible and even likely that improvements in the processes by which this process is done today will have significant payoff in the future.

Although ICANN does not bear a specific responsibility for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) developed during the conduct of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) [8], it has an opportunity to contribute to them both directly and indirectly. Its operation of its IANA functions and support for actors in the domain-name, Internet-address, and standards-development areas provides ICANN with a specific opportunity. Participation in forums dedicated to developing policies for Internet expansion and use offer indirect ways for ICANN to draw upon and provide expertise in these areas.

It has been demonstrated that the presence of ICANN staff in various regions and time zones around the world and familiarity with local languages and customs has been beneficial to parties reliant on ICANN for its services. ICANN should continue to seek ways to improve its effectiveness in this area. The introduction of the Fellowship program that supports the participation of qualified candidates in ICANN-related activities is a vital step in facilitating ICANN's outreach to the developing world. We should pursue expansion of this program through partnerships with other like-minded organizations in the interest of the globalization of ICANN.

It is possible that the present formulation of ICANN as a not-for-profit, charitable research and education entity under California law could be beneficially adapted to a more international framework. As part of its long-term strategic development, ICANN should evaluate a variety of alternatives on the possibility that a change could increase the effectiveness of its operation.

The successful creation of five Regional At-Large Organizations, one in each of ICANN's five regions, needs to be followed by a serious effort to engage these entities in the formulation of ICANN policies and in dialog with the general user community. The various constituency reviews that form part of ICANN's normal processes should address the role of these entities in the conduct of ICANN business. To the extent that civil society is not fully represented through the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) [9] and the ALAC/RALO system, an organizational home may be needed to accommodate the interests of that constituency.

The five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) [10] represent a key element in the Internet and ICANN pantheon. The RIRs have responsibility for allocating IP address space to Internet service providers and sometimes individual end-user organizations. They are the means by which bottom-up global policy is developed and recommended, through the Number Resource Organization (NRO) [11], to ICANN. It will require substantial coordination and cooperation between the RIRs and ICANN to work through the coming years of depletion of available new IPv4 address space and the rising implementation of the new IPv6 address space.

There is little doubt that economic incentives will emerge that will distort fair and neutral IPv4 address-space allocations as the available space is depleted. Minimizing the effect of this transition will be the joint responsibility of ICANN and the RIRs.

Similarly, ICANN's cooperative relationship with the Root Server Operators [12] will also demand coordination and capacity building as IPv4 and IPv6 addresses are associated with old and new domain names and as the IPv6 infrastructure grows. A vital objective is to assure that the IPv6 Internet and the IPv4 Internet are, to the extent possible, completely and totally coterminous. Every termination needs to be reachable through both address spaces. In the absence of this uniformity, some IPv6 addresses may be unreachable from others, defeating the goal of a single, interoperable, and fully reachable network.

Meeting the Challenges

As ICANN approaches the close of its first decade, the operational Internet will be turning 25. In the course of its evolution, it has become a global digital canvas on which a seemingly endless array of applications has been painted. Despite the broad swath of its current applications, it is almost certain that many, many more will be invented. All of them will rely, for the foreseeable future, on the basic architecture of the system, including the global Internet address space and the DNS. But the structure will become more complex. Two parallel address spaces, IPv4 and IPv6, will be in use. ICANN needs to promote the adoption of IPv6 so as to limit the side effects of the exhaustion of the unique address space provided by IPv4.

A vast and new range of non-Latin, internationalized domain names may be registered, certainly at the second or lower levels in the domain-name hierarchy, and many will be proposed for the top level. Their diversity will create new challenges for the protection of users from confusing and potentially abusive registrations. New dispute resolution principles may be needed to deal with domain-name registrations and delegations of new top-level domains. The exposure of ASCII punycode strings in browsers or other applications may produce additional stresses in the intellectual property arena (for example xn--cocacola ).

Digital signatures will play an increasingly important role in validating the assignment of domain names and Internet addresses, and new protocols are certain to be invented and their parameters recorded by the IANA. Infrastructure for the management of digital certificates or other authentication mechanisms will be needed to realize the value of the DNSSEC concept.

More generally, the multilayer architecture of the Internet shows vulnerabilities of various kinds that demand redress. Attacks against the DNS root servers, name resolvers, and general name servers at all levels must be mitigated.

Some of the components of the DNS are actually used to exacerbate the effects of Denial-of-Service (DoS) attacks. Although ICANN does not have responsibility for developing the Domain Name technology, it can use its visibility and area of responsibility to highlight the need for increased security measures for the protection of the technical infrastructure of the Internet and to facilitate its implementation where ICANN has a direct involvement in its operation.

An increasing number of mobile devices will become Internet-enabled, as will appliances of all kinds. Access speeds will increase, enabling many new applications and enhancing older ones. All of this activity will contribute to increasing reliance on the Internet for a wide range of functions by an increasingly larger user population. Electronic commerce will continue to expand, placing high priority on the stable, secure, and reliable operation of all aspects of the Internet, including those within ICANN's purview.

Although some of these aspects of the evolution of the Internet will be of direct concern to ICANN, the ICANN organization and processes will need to pay attention to additional matters as well. The business processes that sustain the management of the Internet address space and domain names will almost certainly need to adapt to account for new applications. Some of these applications will monetize various aspects of the Internet in unexpected and innovative ways that will challenge existing policy and procedures. It will be extremely important for ICANN to evolve and strengthen its implementation of multistakeholder policy development. The interests of a wide range of entities must be balanced in the process.

Although adherence to a set of technical standards has allowed millions of component networks and systems to interwork on the Internet, it is also the case that many varying business models have sustained their operation. The richness and diversity of these models is one of the reasons that the Internet has proved to be so resilient in many dimensions. ICANN's policy-development processes need to account for an informed understanding of the economics of these varying business models and the ways in which ICANN policy may affect them.

On the Domain Name side, the development of market-savvy rules of operation for operators will be essential. ICANN needs to assure compliance with policies developed through the ICANN consensus process to establish confidence in the policy processes and their execution. Clear rules for the creation of new Top Level Domains (TLDs) of all kinds must be adopted and enforced.

The roles of registrars, registries, wholesale registry operators, root-server operators, regional Internet address registries, governments, and standards and technical research and development bodies, among others, need to be characterized so as to set expectations and permit the establishment of practical working relationships. The documentation of best practices will be beneficial, especially where the introduction of the Internet is new.

In matters of public policy—including but not limited to public safety, security, privacy, law enforcement, conduct of electronic commerce, protection of digital property, and freedom of speech—broad and international agreements may be needed if the Internet is to serve as a useful, global infrastructure. Many of these matters lie outside the formal purview of ICANN, but some ICANN policies and resulting operational practices will contribute to the global framework for life online. ICANN must seek to contribute to public confidence in the Internet and the processes that govern its operation. It cannot accomplish this objective alone. The coordinated and cooperative efforts of many distinct entities will be essential to achieving this goal. At the same time, ICANN must protect its processes from capture or abuse by interests that are inimical to the openness and accessibility of the Internet for everyone.

A Collective Goal

As of this writing, only about 1.2 billion people around the world use the Internet. Over the course of the next decade, that number could conceivably quintuple to 6 billion, and users will be depending on ICANN, among many others, to do its part to make the Internet a productive infrastructure that invites and facilitates innovation and serves as a platform for egalitarian access to information. It should be a platform that amplifies voices that might otherwise never be heard and creates equal opportunities for increasing the wealth of nations and their citizens.

ICANN's foundation has been well and truly fashioned. It is the work of many heads and hands. It represents a long and sometimes difficult journey that has called for personal sacrifices from many colleagues and bravery from others. It has demanded long-term commitments, long hours, days, months, and years. It has called upon many to transform passion and zeal into constructive and lasting compromises. ICANN has earned its place in the Internet universe. To those who now guide its path into the future comes the challenge to fashion an enduring institution on this solid foundation. I am confident that this goal is not only attainable but now also necessary. The opportunity is there: make it so.

For Further Reading


[2] Vint Cerf, "I Remember IANA," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 1, No. 3, December 1998. Also published as RFC 2468, October 1998.



[5] Miek Gieben, "DNSSEC: The Protocol, Deployment, and a Bit of Development," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 7, No. 2, June 2004.



[8] Daniel Karrenberg, Gerard Ross, Paul Wilson, and Leslie Nobile, "Development of the Regional Internet Registry System", The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 4, No. 4, December 2001.



VINTON G. CERF is vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. In this role, he is responsible for identifying new enabling technologies to support the development of advanced Internet-based products and services from Google. He is also an active public face for Google in the Internet world. Cerf is the former senior vice president of Technology Strategy for MCI. In this role, he helped guide corporate strategy development from a technical perspective. Previously, he served as MCI's senior vice president of Architecture and Technology, leading a team of architects and engineers to design advanced networking frameworks, including Internet-based solutions for delivering a combination of data, information, voice, and video services for business and consumer use.

Photographer: Vanessa Stump

Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. In December 1997, President Clinton presented the U.S. National Medal of Technology to Cerf and his colleague, Robert E. Kahn, for founding and developing the Internet. Kahn and Cerf were named the recipients of the ACM Alan M. Turing Award, sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of Computer Science," in 2004 for their work on the Internet protocols. In November 2005, President George Bush awarded Cerf and Kahn the Presidential Medal of Freedom for their work. The medal is the highest civilian award given by the United States to its citizens.

Prior to rejoining MCI in 1994, Cerf was vice president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI). As vice president of MCI Digital Information Services from 1982 to 1986, he led the engineering of MCI Mail, the first commercial e-mail service to be connected to the Internet.

During his tenure from 1976 to 1982 with the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Cerf played a key role leading the development of Internet and Internet-related packet-data and security technologies.

Vint was seated on the ICANN Board of Directors at the 1999 annual meeting, having been selected by the Protocol Supporting Organization. He was then selected by the nominating committee for a term on the board of directors that ran from June 2003 through the 2004 annual meeting. At the end of that term, he was selected by the 2004 nominating committee to an additional term, which ran from the end of the 2004 annual meeting through the conclusion of the ICANN annual meeting in 2007. He served as founding president of the Internet Society from 1992 to 1995, and in 1999 served a term as chairman of the board. In addition, Cerf is honorary chairman of the IPv6 Forum, dedicated to raising awareness and speeding introduction of the new Internet Protocol. Cerf served as a member of the U.S. Presidential Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC) from 1997 to 2001 and serves on several national, state, and industry committees focused on cyber security. Cerf sits on the board of directors for the Endowment for Excellence in Education, Avanex Corporation, and the ClearSight Systems Corporation. Cerf is a Fellow of the IEEE, ACM, and American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Engineering Consortium, the Computer History Museum, and the National Academy of Engineering.

Cerf is a recipient of numerous awards and commendations in connection with his work on the Internet, including the Marconi Fellowship, Charles Stark Draper Award of the National Academy of Engineering, the Prince of Asturias Award for science and technology, the National Medal of Science from Tunisia, the Alexander Graham Bell Award presented by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf, the NEC Computer and Communications Prize, the Silver Medal of the International Telecommunications Union, the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal, the IEEE Koji Kobayashi Award, the ACM Software and Systems Award, the ACM SIGCOMM Award, the Computer and Communications Industries Association Industry Legend Award, installation in the Inventors Hall of Fame, the Yuri Rubinsky Web Award, the Kilby Award, the Yankee Group/Interop/Network World Lifetime Achievement Award, the George R. Stibitz Award, the Werner Wolter Award, the Andrew Saks Engineering Award, the IEEE Third Millennium Medal, the Computerworld/Smithsonian Leadership Award, the J.D. Edwards Leadership Award for Collaboration, the World Institute on Disability Annual Award, and the Library of Congress Bicentennial Living Legend medal. In December 1994, People magazine identified Cerf as one of that year's "25 Most Intriguing People."

In addition to his work on behalf of MCI and the Internet, Cerf has served as a technical advisor to production for the "Gene Roddenberry's Earth: Final Conflict" television series and made a special guest appearance on the program in May 1998. Cerf has appeared on television programs NextWave with Leonard Nimoy and on World Business Review with Alexander Haig and Caspar Weinberger. He is also a distinguished visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where he is working on the design of an interplanetary Internet.

Cerf holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Stanford University and Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from UCLA. He also holds honorary doctorate degrees from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), Zurich; Luleå University of Technology, Sweden; University of the Balearic Islands, Palma; Capitol College, Maryland; Gettysburg College, Pennsylvania; George Mason University, Virginia; Rovira i Virgili University, Tarragona, Spain; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York; the University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands; Brooklyn Polytechnic; and the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. Cerf's personal interests include fine wine, gourmet cooking, and science fiction. Cerf and his wife Sigrid were married in 1966 and have two sons, David and Bennett. E-mail: