ICANN Heading to a Fork in the Road

WASHINGTON — ICANN’s got some decisions to make.

The organization responsible for assigning Internet names, known in longhand as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, will see its agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department expire at the end of September, and its fate going forward has been the subject of escalating debate.

Here at the National Press Club, a parade of stakeholders considered the latest proposal, which calls for ICANN to transition its governance to the private sector, giving the domain name registries and registrars it serves more explicit oversight of the organization.

“Accountability is a perennial issue with ICANN. People complain about it all the time,” said Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. “Except for the pretty loose ties to the U.S. government, ICANN really is only accountable to itself.”

ICANN, incorporated as a California nonprofit, has been operating as a quasi-independent body under the aegis of the Commerce Department since its inception in 1998. But the intermittent influence the U.S. government exerts over the organization that makes decisions that affect the world wide Web has drawn sharp criticism abroad. Earlier this week European Union Commissioner Viviane Reding called for the group to become fully independent after Sept. 30, with a group of representatives from 12 countries around the world formed to oversee it, effectively ending U.S. hegemony.

The Commerce Department recently put out a notice of inquiry seeking comment on how it should proceed.

Lenard and New York University business professor Lawrence White presented a policy paper this morning arguing against the international collective Reding proposed. Instead, they would like to see ICANN continue to operate as a U.S. nonprofit, but move its oversight from the public sector to the private, a path they claim would make it more accountable and promote competition among registries by freeing up more generic top-level domains, the suffixes attached to Internet addresses like .com and .net.

Critics of their proposal — and there were many at this morning’s event — warned that such an approach could freeze out the other stakeholders in the process: ISPs and the Web site owners who buy domain names from the registrars.

What incentives, they asked, would the relatively small number of registries have to throw open the gates to allow the gTLD free-for-all that Lenard and White would like to see?

Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice, a group that generally advocates for a light regulatory touch on matters of Internet governance, said Lenard and White’s plan would be akin to the Federal Communications Commission giving broadcast stations the power to decide who gets access to wireless spectrum.

The authors countered that ICANN, as currently structured, has failed to meet its own goals of expanding gTLDs and promoting competition, in part because it hasn’t had a clear directive to do so.

[cob:Special_Report]Paul Levins, ICANN’s executive officer and vice president, was on hand to defend the organization.

According to Levins, the idea that ICANN would allow itself to slip into patently anticompetitive behavior without stronger oversight is “demonstrably not true.”

He also took issue with the charge leveled by some critics that the group operates under the thumb of the U.S. government.

Rather, ICANN has moved ahead with the process of opening up gTLDs, a pro-competitive move that the TPI supports, over the objections of the Commerce Department, he said. ICANN’s plan could eventually allow site owners to register vanity domain names. For example, instead of operating under the domain Microsoft.com, the software giant could register the .microsoft domain.

“We’re not seeking privatization — we’re already private,” he said.

Levins also disputed the lack of accountability at ICANN, noting that the organization takes pains to court broad international participation in its decisions.

“The model has worked tolerably well. It’s successful,” he said.

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