Picture a meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Try not to shudder.
Sure, it would probably take place in a nice hotel somewhere, and no doubt it would include a good breakfast. But when the agenda finally gets rolling and the discussions actually start, what
a nightmarish roundtable this must be. Domain name disputes. Battles over fees. Illegal lotteries.
No wonder the forces behind ICANN are calling for an overhaul. Last week the organization announced a proposal to eliminate the user-elected seats on its board and replace them with representatives from governments around the world. Public interest groups are already howling.
Ever since it was launched about four years ago, ICANN has been the regulatory body we love to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong a word. As it has tried to bring some kind of order to the Web’s astronomical growth, ICANN’s biggest obstacle has been indifference. In Europe, for example, registrars have flatly refused to pay fees for domains like .uk, accusing ICANN of failing to properly secure the servers that link them. Late last year, the heralded launch of .biz names to businesses was stonewalled by a Los Angeles Superior Court judge on the grounds that some of the names had been assigned through an illegal lottery, further casting doubt on ICANN’s credibility, which accredited the firm charged. Even the launch of the .info domain was marred by a negative study by a U.S. business school, which joined the chorus of critics who have said ICANN is not responsive enough to its customers.
The trouble here is that ICANN looks like a government body and acts like a government body, but it doesn’t really have the same kind of accountability. Indeed, it could be argued that it was only formed so that the U.S. government wouldn’t have to deal with domain name issues. Its great achievement — ending Network Solutions’ monopoly over .com addresses — was to have been only the beginning. ICANN should be the agency we rely on to ensure fairness, competitiveness and efficiency in Internet registration. Instead the industry seems to see it as a plodding bureaucracy out of touch with the needs of its users — the same view many constituents take of their government.
Inviting public-sector participants to the board would seem to end ICANN’s justification for its own existence. If governments are going to regulate the Internet, the only reason to keep ICANN would be to ensure that corporate interests are heard, but no one seems worried about that. Indeed, ICANN has been routinely lambasted for bowing to corporate interests. As for users, they were granted an equal share of the seats on the 18-member board in the original charter, but that didn’t last long. Long before the mainstream public was buzzing over chads in the Bush vs. Gore presidency debacle, angry users raised charges of ballot-stuffing in the ICANN voting process. Now users get six seats. Under the new proposal, they would be eliminated entirely.
The most disturbing thing about the ICANN overhaul is that its president, Stuart Lynn, has admitted none of the details to determine how governments would take part have been worked out, though he wants it done quickly. We all want regulatory bodies to be speed up their processes, but efficiency should not come at the expense of a proper strategy.
We have already seen monopolies and unfair business practices happen in regulated industries like software. ICANN, or something like it, is a necessary evil to keep the playing field as level as possible. It won’t be able to do that, however, without more government control. Those who recoil at the prospect of public sector intervention may want to look at the historically low turnouts in many national elections: you get the government you vote for.
Gaining respect and trust is a challenge for every administration, but ICANN’s struggle to determine its own membership shows it lacks the focus and stability to execute on its mandate. Governments should not only have a place at this table; they need to steer this embarrassment of a project back on track.