Egypt, Al Gore and the .XXX Domain–Bill Clinton Keynotes ICANN in San Francisco

Last night, Bill Clinton–arguably the first Internet President–got a little nostalgic.

“We are actually here today because the people sitting in your seats 20 years ago imagined a different world, though they didn’t know exactly how it would come out,” he said in a keynote speech for the 40th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, at the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco. “They just knew that a networked world would probably work better than a bureaucratic one.”

Yes, indeed, the world has come a long way from when Clinton was in office.

In fact, Clinton noted that to the 800 attendees last night–correctly calling himself “the president at the dawn of the Internet age”–that there were only 50 Web sites in 1993 when he was inaugurated, and 36 million when his term was up in 2001.

Clinton’s speech, a paid appearance, touched on his history with ICANN, as well as the intersection of the Internet, geopolitics, poverty, the global distribution of wealth and infrastructure.

ICANN is the multinational, non-governmental organization that researches, debates and enforces decisions that affect how traffic gets sent around the pipes of the Internet.

It decides, for instance, that Libyan domain names end in .ly.

Clinton’s focus last night was urging the international crowd to try to use technology and their positions around it to build physical and financial infrastructure systems for poorer nations.

He called for a renewed focus on technology-sector job growth and touched the geopolitical implications of free access to the Internet.

Invoking the recent revolution in Egypt, he said that ICANN needed to ensure universal access to a free Internet and the continued vibrancy of the Web.

“That’s why it’s important that you want the Internet to stay forever young,” said Clinton. “One hundred years from now, you want somebody in some godforsaken place that’s been beat down to be able to do what the kids in Cairo did.”

At the conclusion of the address, Clinton sat on stage with ICANN President and CEO Rod Beckstorm and answered pre-selected questions.

The former President mostly stayed above the fray of the major debates surrounding this ICANN meeting, only peripherally mentioning the next day’s headline issue–the possible adoption of the .xxx top level domain.

That issue has seethed online for several years, and was supposed to come to a head Thursday. Several attendees related that a troupe of porn stars were expected at the following day’s meetings to protest the adoption of the .xxx domain for adult sites on the Web, as a modern day scarlet letter.

President Clinton’s most direct response was related to sales tax being levied on online purchases. It was his policy preference at the beginning of the e-commerce era to keep sales tax out of online transactions, so that those companies could have the chance to grow, he explained. He said that e-commerce didn’t seem to need the help anymore, and Amazon’s complaints about recent changes sounded like “a high class problem.”

ICANN 40 wraps up Friday, but won’t conclude before addressing other key topics, such as solving the global shortage of IP addresses–the unique numbers that identify every Internet-connected device–and aiding the proliferation of the next generation of online security protocols.

Adding more numbers to the list of IPs, or verifying a site’s identity, doesn’t sound complex. But, on the global scale, even simple changes require massive coordination.

Another issue: Lack of international enforcement could create a haven for online fraud in countries that can least afford it.

It was on this point that the former President’s speech and ICANN’s actual agenda converged.

“We need to ask ourselves if we are forming a more perfect union across the globe,” he said, urging those in the room not to get mired in small disagreements.

His advice: Focus on the larger mission of ensuring that the benefits of Internet access will be distributed equally, worldwide and beyond the foreseeable future.

“You have to be vigilant, because at some point all institutions are led by people more interested in maintaining the present than creating the future,” he said.

Word, Bill.


Must-Reads from other Websites

Panos Mourdoukoutas

Why Apple Should Buy China’s Xiaomi

Paul Graham

What I Didn’t Say

Benjamin Bratton

We Need to Talk About TED

Mat Honan

I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass

Chris Ware

All Together Now

Corey S. Powell and Laurie Gwen Shapiro

The Sculpture on the Moon

About Voices

Along with original content and posts from across the Dow Jones network, this section of AllThingsD includes Must-Reads From Other Websites — pieces we’ve read, discussions we’ve followed, stuff we like. Six posts from external sites are included here each weekday, but we only run the headlines. We link to the original sites for the rest. These posts are explicitly labeled, so it’s clear that the content comes from other websites, and for clarity’s sake, all outside posts run against a pink background.

We also solicit original full-length posts and accept some unsolicited submissions.

Read more »