Since its founding in 1998, the controversial Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has weathered violent political turbulence and survived volatile technical controversies.
However, in a few months, the nonprofit ICANN may face one of its toughest challenges ever when its longtime board Chairman Vint Cerf steps down.
A board member since 1999 and chairman since 2000, Cerf has been instrumental in helping ICANN through thorny crises and painful evolution.
All along, despite flaws and missteps, ICANN has fulfilled its core duty: to oversee the Internet's address system and ensure the overall security and stability of the Internet.
This is no small achievement and a lot of the credit for that goes to Cerf, who will give up his seat on the board in October to comply with ICANN term limit policies.
Assessments of his tenure vary but the consensus is that Cerf, while far from perfect, has been a very effective chairman who has steered ICANN skillfully during these critical early years, and that he will be a tough act to follow.
"Vint is incredibly knowledgeable and thoughtful and he lent a great deal of credibility and experience to the ICANN board," said David McGuire, director of communications at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit think tank for Internet public policy issues. "He'll be missed."
Despite the recurrent criticisms that ICANN responds disproportionately to U.S. government interests, Cerf is credited for patiently building consensus and creating a collegial, collaborative atmosphere among the group's different constituencies.
"He has done a superb job. Although Vint is best known for his technical contributions, he also has considerable political skills," said Mark Uncapher, senior vice president and counsel at the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Virginia.
If instead of Cerf, ICANN had an impatient chairman who routinely short-circuited the group's collaborative decision-making process, the Internet might be in very bad shape today, he said.
"That might have led to the ultimate threat: the balkanization of the Internet, where countries go in different directions and there isn't a single point of contact the way there is with ICANN," Uncapher said.
In addition to being generally considered a strong, reasonable and sensible leader, Cerf also brought another important asset to the ICANN board: his reputation, which, to put it mildly, is hard to match.
Considered one of the fathers of the Internet for his work in creating its basic architecture, Cerf is respected and admired worldwide, having received many awards and recognitions.
This standing as a legitimate Internet luminary has allowed Cerf to intervene and prevent acrimonious disagreements within ICANN from escalating into warlike, point-of-no-return confrontations, experts say.
However, having a living legend as board chairman has also had negative effects. "His strong leadership is his best quality but it has also backfired on him, as some board members have at times felt strongly influenced to vote the same way as Vint, even when he was wrong," Oscar Robles-Garay, general manager of Mexico's Internet NIC (network information center) for the .mx domain, wrote in an e-mail interview.
Milton Mueller, professor of information studies at Syracuse University in New York, credits Cerf with giving ICANN stability and cohesiveness to the board, but faults him for "a very conservative and limiting approach to ICANN policies."
"He has been in general willing to go along with U.S. control and hasn't been a big advocate for internationalizing ICANN," said Mueller, who is also a founder of The Internet Governance Project (IGP) interdisciplinary consortium.
For Ian Peter, senior partner at Ian Peter & Associates and founder of the Internet Mark 2 Project in Australia, Cerf excelled in giving broad credibility to a young organization and guiding it through its critical growth phases.
However, Cerf lacks strong corporate management skills and has let bureaucracy grow "massively under his oversight," Peter, whose Internet Mark 2 Project analyzes issues affecting Internet governance, said in an e-mail interview. Cerf also leaves unresolved the issue of the U.S. government's ICANN oversight, Peter wrote.
Work in Progress
This issue dates back to ICANN's formation as an international organization that could progressively absorb Internet management functions until then handled by the U.S. government. The process to give ICANN full autonomy hasn't been completed yet, despite the belief of many that it's overdue.
In addition to this political hot potato, Cerf's successor will have a full plate of ongoing policy and technical issues that are in various stages of discussion, testing and implementation.
Those include generic top level domains, internationalized domain names and the organization's attempts to become more accountable and transparent. Other efforts are a significant revision of the process for accrediting registrars and the implementation of digital signatures for helping authenticate matches between domain names and Internet addresses.
ICANN experts interviewed generally agree on some key skills and traits that Cerf's successor needs to have, such as a strong technical knowledge of Internet architecture issues; and an ability to build consensus by being approachable and open to diverse ideas. And, oh yes: a willingness to work for no pay. ICANN's chairmanship is pro bono work.
"I don't think there's anybody in the ICANN community who is looking for 'Vint Two' because there isn't one," said Paul Twomey, ICANN's CEO, during a press conference Friday at the closing of the group's 29th International Public Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "The board is very concerned about this issue."
On to Other Projects
The board will elect Cerf's successor at its next International Public Meeting in Los Angeles, which starts on October 29 and ends on November 2 this year. Needless to say, making a good choice will be key to the future of this extremely important organization.
"There's nobody saying X is the answer and everyone agreeing. There is lot of discussion and the board is prepared for a decision on it," Twomey said.
After eight years heavily involved with ICANN, one thing is certain: Cerf will not have to be dragged kicking and screaming from his board seat.
On the contrary, when he bids adieu to the board in October, he plans to distance himself from the organization for at least one year. Cerf, who is 64 years old, will make himself available for consultations, but he will not take on any formal duties.
One reason is that he wants to devote more time to other activities, including, as he describes it, his "day job" as Google's Chief Internet Evangelist. "I've given a good chunk of my time to ICANN already," Cerf told IDG News Service this week.
Plus, he believes it will be good for his successor and the board members, as they establish their way of working together. "I don't want to be a hovering shadow," he said.
He will at some point become eligible for a board seat again, but no one should hold their breath waiting for him to rejoin.
"To be quite honest, eight years is a long time. I'm not sure I'd stand for re-election to the ICANN board," he said.
It seems, then, that come October, his era at ICANN will end, and the organization will have to take on another challenge: learning to live without Vint Cerf.
(Nancy Gohring in Seattle contributed to this article.)