Tired of complaints about almost everything it does, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has a solution-just quit listening.
Observers predict directors of the domain name oversight body are likely to adopt most of president M. Stuart Lynn's reorganization plan, further diminishing ICANN's accountability to the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) and the individuals and small businesses the DOC charged it to serve. Lynn's vision will prevail, say critics, because the board desires to put ICANN beyond the reach of effective oversight authority and give it more control over how a half-billion surfers reach 38 million Web sites.
Billed as a cure for time wasted on democratic process, Lynn's plan replaces board members elected by Internet users with directors from governments in each of the world's five major land masses. Lynn couldn't say how 240-plus governments will divvy up five seats. Critics say it's just a gambit to spread accountability thinner and empower large e-commerce interests-registry operators, registrar subcontractors, ISPs and corporate trademark holders.
The reason for such suspicions is that Lynn's proposal only codifies what's already become standard ICANN practice, says Karl Auerbach, one of five directly elected board members likely to be replaced by year-end.
"ICANN only listens to those who pay it money," charges Auerbach, who has had to sue to see the books of the organization he supposedly supervises. "Even its board meetings are paid for by the people it is supposed to regulate."
But without that support, counters Lynn, a cash-strapped ICANN wouldn't be able to afford its current level of operations. Lynn wants additional staff and an immediate "300 to 500 percent" hike in ICANN's $5 million budget. Additional funds are to come from whichever governments get board seats, and from unspecified use fees.
Critics worry about loss of accountability and "mission creep" in what is widely acknowledged-even by Lynn-to be a failed experiment at Internet management so far.
While there is disagreement about how far ICANN's charter extends, it starts with determining how many top-level domain (TLD) registries like .com, .org and .net are available and who can use them. ICANN determines the supply of cyber real estate available, the syntax of your domain name, where you can buy it and, indirectly, what it costs and what it's worth.
As easy-to-remember .com names grew scarce, ICANN faced criticism for not moving quickly enough to add new domains. And though it approved seven new TLDs at the end of 2000, most didn't become available until this year. Also, critics say "boutique" TLDs, such as .aero, .coop, .museum, .name and .pro serve limited audiences.
The SBA complains that the practice of giving current .com and .net owners a headstart in registering new domains is unfair to new businesses. It also undercuts the goal of increasing supply, says Eric E. Menge, SBA Assistant Chief Counsel for Telecommunications. But ICANN wasn't moved by the SBA-or, for that matter, by a request from Congress for a .kids domain.
Because new general domains devalue .com and .net franchises, expect only boutique TLDs to be approved in the future, says University of Miami law professor Michael Froomkin, co-founder of ICANNWatch.org. Boutique TLDs are less problematic for large corporations that, Froomkin and others charge, use ICANN's rules to take domain names away from smaller registrants.
In a study of 4,000 ICANN arbitration cases, University of Ottawa law professor Michael Geist found more than 80 percent were decided in favor of complainants-typically large enterprises. Geist claims that ICANN rules allow complainants to "shop" their cases to those for-hire arbitrators who consistently find in favor of petitioners.
ICANN's methods are starting to attract attention in Congress. Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) has questioned the legality of ICANN's creation and "whether safeguards for due process and judicial review are adequate and whether ICANN has shown that they are the appropriate body to manage the DNS."
ICANN's board is more concerned with being perceived as a tool of the U.S. government, says Lynn, and wants to sever ties as soon as possible. ICANN wants the DOC to give it the Internet root servers-the master indices of names-that the DOC still controls. Burns has asked the DOC not to give ICANN any more power.
Some refer to this period as ICANN's "constitutional moment," implying there will be some watershed board meeting or critical vote. More likely, Lynn's proposals will simply be enacted gradually. No one with alternative proposals has the influence to enact them.
You'll just hear less and less about ICANN operations from now on.