Critics Charge ICANN Experiment Has Failed

Civic and educational organizations around the U.S. sent an open letter to
a top National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
official Wednesday, calling on the government to hold an auction for policy
management of the Internet’s biggest domain extensions in September 2003.

Harold Feld, the Media Access Project associate director and a North
American representative for non-commercial Internet users on ICANN’s ‘Names
Council,’ said an open auction for management of the U.S. root server is
the best way to get ICANN’s attention.

“Requiring ICANN to compete with others for the management of the domain
name system will best serve the American people and the Internet community
of the world,” he said. “ICANN has been terribly unresponsive to the
Internet community. That will change if they know they can be replaced.”

What is the genesis of this move? The U.S. Department of Commerce penned a contract with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in 1998 to manage the
U.S. root server, the server responsible for .com, .net and .org, the
world’s most popular domain extensions. The DoC’s mandate was for ICANN to bring stability and security to the U.S. root server.

ICANN is responsible for the policy decisions that determine how issues
like domain name registration and trademark disputes are handled; they are
also responsible for instituting new top-level domain (TLDs).

The DoC handed off (total cost: $0) the root server to the private group from Marina del Rey, Calif., on the condition it met and abided by the terms set for in a memorandum of
understanding (MOU). Namely, ICANN would manage the U.S. root server, provided it elected board members to offset corporate interests and
operate in an open and transparent fashion.

In a letter to NTIA administrator Nancy Victory, 13 advocacy groups said the four-year ‘experiment’ has failed, and that a change needs to be made. Simply, it charges that ICANN has not lived up to the memorandum it signed with the DoC.

“Four years ago, the Department of Commerce (DoC) embarked on an
experiment to test whether public resources could be managed by private
entities. However well intentioned, and despite some efforts to address
the concerns raised in the initial competition for the management contracts
in 1998 relating to openness, transparency and accountability, there is
general consensus that ICANN as currently constituted cannot carry out the
functions assigned it by the DoC.”

“We know more about how the Cardinals select a new Pope at the Vatican than
we do about ICANN’s internal affairs,” said Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA),
ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the
Internet, the Congressional body that oversees ICANN’s policies and decisions.

It’s this secrecy that has many wondering if ICANN directors really know
what it is doing to manage the policies that affect the most popular domain
extensions on the Internet, since its actions are never released. It’s
own president, Stuart Lynn, has acknowledged the failings at ICANN
and has initiated a sweeping reform policy to right its operations.

That might not be enough, the letter to the NTIA maintained. The authors believe the
changes necessary will be too hard for ICANN directors to vote through
unless they have the “incentive” of losing its contract with the DoC as an

“Prudence would suggest that, while (the DoC) can hope for success of
ICANN’s internal reform process, it must prepare for failure. Commerce’s
duty to the American people requires Commerce to act with planning and
forethought, rather than to accept, for lack of a better alternative,
whatever solution ICANN may propose.”

It’s a feeling shared by members of the domain name supporting organization
(DNSO) general assembly, a forum for the “common Internet Joe” to voice
their opinion on domain name management at ICANN.

In an online vote conducted last week, the general assembly — by a 148-54
margin, with 15 abstaining — ruled the DoC should open up the U.S. root
server to competing bids.

“An open competition should aim to achieve comprehensive privatization and
internationalization of DNS services, consistent with the need for
stability, but also innovation, competition and freedom,” the DNSO-GA
resolution stated.

The 13 groups who signed the letter are: the American Civil Liberties Union,
Competitive Enterprise Institute, Computer Professionals for Social
Responsibility, Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Project on
Technology, Internet and Telecommunications Counsel Consumers Union,
Syracuse University School of Information Studies, Domain Name Rights
Coalition, Electronic Privacy Information Center, Electronic Frontier
Foundation, New America Foundation, Public Knowledge and the United Church
of Christ Office of Communication, Inc.

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