ICANN ... But Can It?

Upcoming Board Election Leaves Congress, Others Questioning Group's Fairness

Mike Roberts

By Kerry Gildea, Contributing Writer

Concerns over new plans of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers for electing a board of directors this fall, combined with looming questions about future domain name registration policies, may prompt lawmakers to look more closely at the organization's operations before the end of this year.

Last year, members of several congressional committees, including two House Judiciary panels, decided to look more closely at ICANN operations. Now, this latest controversy soon may result in more such hearings.

ICANN is a nonprofit corporation formed to assume responsibility for Internet address space allocation, protocol parameter assignment, domain names and root server system management functions previously performed under government contract.

Over the past year, lawmakers have investigated issues such as ICANN's proposals for domain name taxes, trademarks, copyright laws and other regulations. Some members of Congress and the high-tech industry are concerned new regulations will have an adverse effect on the Internet and electronic commerce overall.

New proposals for regulations on these fronts may emerge in the future, which is why so many eyes are on the makeup of the new ICANN board, where those policies would be drafted. And not everyone agrees on the election process for the board or how it will take shape.

This fall ICANN is conducting an online election of its new board members and has selected 18 nominees for it. The organization now is composed of 19 directors: nine at-large directors and nine selected by ICANN's three supporting organizations and the president and CEO. The nine incumbents are ICANN's initial directors and will be succeeded by the new directors selected in this election process.

The at-large nominees have been selected from five geographical areas. The North American nominees are Lyman Chapin, chief scientist of BNN Technologies and a director of CommerceNet; Donald Langenberg, chancellor of the University System of Maryland; Lawrence Lessig, professor of law at Stanford Law School; and Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

But some members of the high-tech industry find a problem with the process. For example, the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility Aug. 3 said only seven of 18 nominees ICANN selected are appropriate and called for a new round of nominees.

"Individuals from these groups possess impressive qualifications, but not to represent Internet users," Chairman Hans Klein wrote in an Aug. 3 letter to ICANN.

Klein said many of the nominees are from the Internet supply industry and intellectual property arena and would not provide a balanced board needed to represent a variety of Internet concerns.

In a July 30 statement to CPSR, ICANN President Mike Roberts said: "Railing away at ICANN because it doesn't meet some ideal model of democracy is likely to be about as effective as complaining that the U.S. Congress is too dominated by the money of those who finance political campaigns."

"Everyone knows that the question is how do you work from within the system to balance competing interests, many of which possess economic power," Roberts said. "Economic strength can be a powerful lever for the advancement of democratic uses of the Internet. It already has been."

He also argued ICANN would represent a wide variety of voices and work to find Internet solutions for users from diverse communities.

"The success of ICANN in finding substantial international consensus among a variety of economic and noneconomic interests in its policy development activities thus far is evidence that the basic model is working," he said. "Being bitter and throwing rocks over the fact that minority views are not always successful is fruitless."

The ICANN board nomination process has been criticized by a number of professional organizations, which say it selected nominees that represented more of the big-business side of the Internet rather than the average and diverse Internet user community.

But ICANN closed its nomination process Aug. 14 and said a fair board would be the end result of the nomination and online election process in October.

Some high-tech industry representatives support ICANN's approach to the Internet and have welcomed the opportunity to serve on the board.

"It's a wonderful example of Internet self-governance. I believe it is one of the most important global groups in existence today," said Miller of ITAA and one of the nominees to the ICANN board.

Other groups have more of a problem with the overall structure of ICANN and want the organization to clarify confusing policies and regulations.

For example, the People for Internet Responsibility (PFIR) said it believes ICANN is proving to be inadequate. "We believe that this is the result primarily of structural and historical factors, not the fault of the individuals directing ICANN's activities, whom we feel have been genuinely attempting to do the best possible job that they could with highly complex, contentious and thankless tasks," PFIR said in a press release.

But PFIR is concerned about the policies that could come out of future ICANN decisions. For example, the group said ICANN announced this year that new top-level domain names would be assigned, but "left the world pretty much hanging in the wind concerning most details," with those details not expected out until the end of this year. And ICANN has established a $50,000, nonrefundable application fee payable by any entity that wishes to be the registrar for a new top-level domain name, it noted.

"While ICANN's desire to deal with organizations that would be able to provide stability to domain-name handling is laudable, an essentially arbitrary fee of this nature has the effect of locking out organizations, especially of a noncommercial nature, who might very well be ideally suited to handling a top-level domain, but who don't have a spare $50,000 laying around to irretrievably devote to an application fee that might well lead nowhere," PFIR said. "Meanwhile, concerns over the fairness of the existing domain-name resolution dispute policies continue to bubble up on a seemingly daily basis."

PFIR proposed that a new, more formally structured, not-for-profit, internationally based organization be established to replace ICANN. The new organization would be comprised of precise delegations to represent a broad range of concerns and interests.

"This new organization would exist solely for the purposes of helping to resolve and manage the range of complex issues relating to the global Internet, many of which are impossible to even begin to effectively approach without international cooperation and broad agreements," it said. "We believe that this organization could thus play a major role towards helping to ensure that the Internet evolves in a manner to best benefit people around the world. Freedom of choice and the encouragement of diversity are extremely important factors when dealing with these issues."

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