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ICANN's I Can't Attitude Alienating Internet Community

Advocates and adversaries are cranking up the rhetoric as they get ready for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers meetings starting Friday in Stockholm.

ICANN officials have a raft of topics up for debate in a series of meetings that last until Monday, including the ratification of its 2001-2002 budget, finalizing approval of the .name domain and increasing the application fee for new registrars to $2,500. Also up for discussion is the establishment of new regional Internet registries.

The agenda is sure to fuel the flames of many ICANN critics who feel the self-styled Internet governing body is overreaching its authority and alienating the worldwide community.

So out come the press releases, designed to whet the appetites for all interested parties. On one side, you have the pro-ICANN contingent (made up largely of U.S. government officials, VeriSign and ICANN officials) and on the other, those against ICANN's recent actions (made up of the rest of the world).

Earlier this week, Stuart Lynn, ICANN president, posted a document on his site calling for the establishment of a unique, authoritative root server for all domain name server (DNS) activity. Not surprisingly, ICANN would be that unique root server, a policy that would stand in direct opposition to the many alternate domain root servers already located throughout the world, many of which have been around for years and operating their own domain name extension registries.

In his call to war, Lynn's document states that alternate roots impede ICANN's mandate by the U.S. Department of Commerce to bring stability and harmony to the Internet names and numbering system. As such, "ICANN's stability-preservation mandate requires that it avoid acting in a manner that encourages their proliferation" and "give no preference to those who choose to work outside of these processes and outside of the policies engendered by this public trust."

Nowhere is this policy more visible than ICANNs decision this year to include seven global top-level domains (gTLDs) to the existing crop that includes .com, .net, and .org. One of the approved domains, .biz, has been in use by alternate root server Atlantic Root Network, Inc., for years.

It's a decision that seemingly runs counter to ICANNs supposed goal of bringing stability to the Internet, critics say, because no action could bring more instability than allowing another company to sell already-existing domain names.

Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank and author of "Domain Wars" said the decision by ICANN to run with its own version of .biz is proof-positive of ICANN's missed opportunity to foster inclusion in the Internet community.

"This is proof that time and time again ICANN has been very inconsistent in their policies and at times show a logic that is not in accordance to the long-term safety and long-term procedures of this whole system," Javed said.

Javed said ICANN had a chance years ago to sew up the Internet community under one root server, a move he saw as a positive step for the Internet community. But because of the missed opportunity, its possible ICANN will have to rely on a standard's-based platform working with other root servers.

Two papers written for the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Wednesday by Jason Higgs of Higgs Communications lay the groundwork for a proposed virtual inclusive root.

This "super root" would be considered the "sum of the consensus between all root zones on the public Internet," Higgs said, a patchwork quilt of root servers managed by someone above both the alternate root servers and ICANN's root server.

Another proposal is that ICANN endorse the other root servers, coordinating domain name selections to avoid name collisions. It's unlikely to happen, unless the organization is ready to recant its earlier .biz selection, based on the Internet credo of first-come, first-served. That's unlikely since NeuLevel has been a long-time contributor to ICANNs coffers.

So, until that time it's likely the number of name collisions will increase as NeuLevel, the .biz registry, starts signing up domains. Because its never happened before, its unclear what will happen when an Internet user types in the URL for a .biz domain name that's been "double-dipped," but what's clear is ICANNs apparent disregard for the consequences.

One possible outcome of this domain name double dipping, Lynn said in his document, was the likelihood of "cache poisoning." Because the DNS assumes there is only one root in the world, he said, it could lead to misdirected Web pages and confusion for the server, opening the door to malicious hacker attacks.

Thrown into the mix is the recent idealabs! venture at New.net, which introduces its own domain name extensions. The company has gained popularity in recent weeks for its catchy domain name extensions for sale, including .xxx, .shop, .inc., .family and .tech.

While an alternate root server like the others around the world, it has gotten traction by signing the top Internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.S. and around the world to its program. Juno Online Services last week joined ISPs EarthLink, Inc., Excite@Home and NetZero (an idealabs! Company) in providing its subscribers access to the alternate Web extensions.

New.net proposes ICANN continue in its role as a technical body but no longer issue new TLDs. Instead, let "innovators" develop their own TLDs and, if successful, get included in the ICANN root server as a matter of course.

"We believe that the decisions about which TLDs to release and who should administer them would benefit tremendously from...market forces rather than central control by one organization," said David Hernand, New.net chief executive officer. "By using the market to create a climate for innovation in the DNS, all Internet users will benefit."

New.net's proposal is not surprising, considering its aggregate base of 42 million Web users already viewing its root server, a distinct advantage over other alternate roots.

An interim report released by the NGO (non-governmental organizations) and Academic ICANN Study (NAIS) Thursday weighs in with its own conclusions of the ICANN infrastructure.

The NAIS has been trying to figure out what ICANN's role in the Internet entails, and how the organization is fulfilling its mandate by the Commerce Department to include bottom-up participation by the world community.

When formed, ICANN was expected to be a fairly even mix of policy wonks and techies busily plotting the best course for worldwide Internet domain names, ruled by a board of directors.

Nine of the 19 directors would be selected from within ICANN from the domain name supporting organization (DNSO), address supporting organization (ASO) and protocol supporting organization (PSO). Nine at-large directors would be determined by worldwide elections, to ensure the will of individual people would be served. The 19th director would be the ICANN president and chief executive officer in a tie-breaker/mediator role.

This mix of at-large and appointed directors is what sold the international community on the ICANN at its foundation, and lent the agency instant legitimacy.

But for some reason, that never happened. The nine directors from the DNSO, ASO and PSO were selected, but only five at-large directors were elected, in a process that left many advocates skeptical. What's more, ICANN officials filled in the remaining four at-large directors slots with its own appointees, who have yet to be replaced.

Because of this, many now consider the group the effective equivalent of a top-down government agency trying to enforce its own rules on the worldwide community.

The NAIS report states that "while governments play a role in ICANN through the government advisory committee, there are many reasons why that role is a limited one" and that "governments are viewed with skepticism as insufficient or a poor fit for Internet management where rapid change, technical expertise and responsiveness to new social developments are needed."

Making matters worse, the elected directors of the at-large membership are due for re-election next year, and a report detailing improvements to the current voting process will not be completed by next month's deadline. In November 2001, the final voting mechanism is supposed to be in place.

Knowing the June deadline is impossible to meet, NAIS officials say meeting the November deadline is "essential."

"Every day that passes without resolving this issue decreases the legitimacy of decisions that ICANN is making," the report concludes.