RealTime IT News

ICANN Fleshes Out Global Ambitions

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) continues its tri-annual get-together in Rome this week, as Internet enthusiasts, big-name corporations and government entities discuss the organization's plans to expand its presence globally.

On tap for the week are discussions ranging anywhere from Internet governance to IPv6 to individual representation within the organization.

ICANN has announced the formation of the country code top-level domain (ccTLD) Names Supporting Organization, an important step in getting international consensus on issues that affect not only the U.S.-centric .com, .net and .org TLDs (a.k.a., domain name extensions), but the domain extensions that cater to specific countries (for example - Australia, .au; United Kingdom, .uk; and France, .fr).

It's the first step in what will likely be a contentious battle for ICANN as it enters the world stage as its own entity, not as a "subcontractor" to the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC).

The private not-for-profit organization, formed with the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the DoC in 1998, is responsible for Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol identifier assignment, generic (gTLD) and country code (ccTLD) Top-Level Domain name system management, and root server system management functions.

The .com, .net and .org TLDs, though managed at the U.S. root server level and located in the U.S., have a broad array of international customers. In addition, ICANN has become the de facto governing body for all domain name policy in the world, making decisions that affect all countries around the world, not just the U.S.

Because of ICANN's efforts to include international efforts, the DoC decided in September 2003 to free the organization from its "subcontractor" status to the U.S. government and privatize, this time as an international body beholden to itself to govern Internet policy and technical decisions.

ICANN officials say the reaction so far has been generally positive, including the government agency relinquishing control over the organization, the DoC, according to its September amendment to the MOU.

"The Department reaffirms its policy goal of privatizing the technical management of the DNS in a manner that promotes stability and security, competition, coordination, and representation," Amendment 6 of the original MOU states.

When the dust settles, the DoC will take a subservient role in ICANN's management, just like every other foreign governmental agency -- within the government advisory committee (GAC), a body that represents governmental interests in Internet policy decisions.

It's something that's never been done before, and doesn't have a legal precedent, said Kieran Baker, an ICANN spokesperson.

"It's equivalent, maybe, to a public trust in the U.K., where the company will continue to operate in the public's interest and serve its constituents, which in our case is pretty much the world, in a way," Baker told internetnews.com. "It will obviously maintain its relationships within the GAC. This will be a new precedent whenever it comes to fruition."

Eight days ago, ICANN took its first globalization steps with the 13-0 vote by its board of directors to open up a regional center in Brussels. According to Dr. Paul Twomey, ICANN president, it will be the first of many around the world.

The reasoning, Twomey and ICANN officials say, is because it gives Internet users a local venue for discussing and implementing new technologies and standards for Internet use. As it stands, the Marina del Ray, Calif.-based organization is almost a perpetual road show, with board members and committees traveling to far-flung locations around the world three times a year to conduct business that affects individual Internet users.

People are willing to travel and willing to discuss things globally, but they also like to discuss things regionally," Twomey told internetnews.com. "We've got to be attuned to what the different views are in the regions, and I think to a certain degree this does."

Twomey said there are seven other countries that have expressed interest in housing a regional ICANN office -- Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific regions. These regional offices would wield the same authority as a district office in the States, managing funds and implementing resolutions and recommendations made by ICANN's board of directors at the regional level.

Russ Rader, director of technology and innovation at Canadian-based Tucows, said the international emphasis ICANN has been making the past year is a good thing. Although ICANN already has global representation within the organization (through at-large individual and regional Internet registries (RIRs) participation), he's happy to see more involvement.

"Certainly, (Twomey) is attuned to that larger stake of shareholders," Rader told internetnews.com. "It's certainly nice to know that the entire range of voices will continue to be represented, and certainly (Twomey's) taken some good concrete steps towards that."

Also on the table at this week's ICANN meetings in Rome are the hot topics of the waiting-list service (WLS) and SiteFinder, programs instituted by VeriSign that has some competitors seeing red.

WLS is a program instituted by VeriSign several years ago, which puts people on a paid waiting list to buy up expiring domain names. Critics charge the program is "anti-consumer, anti-competitive and unnecessary," with domain name wannabes paying as much as four times the price of a domain name just to get on a waiting list.

On Friday, a group of registrars, called the "Domain Justice Coalition," filed suit against both ICANN (which has tabled the issue for the past several years) and VeriSign.

The suit came just a day after VeriSign itself filed a lawsuit against ICANN for delaying the WLS issue in committee for years, among other issues. VeriSign claims ICANN has overstepped its bounds as a technical body by arbitrating the WLS issue, as well as the SiteFinder issue.

SiteFinder is another program instituted by VeriSign, launched quietly last November that redirected Web surfers to a VeriSign-sponsored advertising page. Internet experts denounced the program on technical grounds and ICANN followed up with an order to VeriSign to shut the service down while it waited for the results of a report due in January, which has yet to be published.

Though the issues are likely to be the central topic of the week, most of the crucial decisions won't be made until the Saturday board of directors meeting. At last week's press conference, ICANN's Twomey said WLS and SiteFinder would be discussed at the public meeting, but didn't elaborate on whether any action would be taken.