During the last few years the relationship of African stakeholders with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (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.

The answer may be that African Internet architecture development /would/ benefit from the effective participation of a few well-informed and well-resourced people from each African country who have a role in Internet names and numbers management. But ground-level realities in Africa demand that the issue be put in perspective; even given the importance of Internet for the long-term development of the continent, ICANN’s relevance to the general public may be small compared to other priorities.

CIPESA International ICT policy commentary series Volume 1, Commentary 3, 10 October 2005