Fairness of ICANN's Naming Process Comes Into Question

Fairness of ICANN's Naming Process Comes Into Question

Vinton Cerf

The nonprofit organization that oversees the assigning of Internet domain names and addresses is coming under fire from House critics, who question the fairness of the naming process.

At a hearing early this month, Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., said industry complaints about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN, were only the tip of the iceberg of potential problems that Congress should monitor.

"Our role should be to ensure that the process by which ICANN, a private, nonprofit entity with global responsibilities, selected domain names was open and fair to all applicants," Tauzin said at the Feb. 8 hearing before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet.

Other subcommittee members also expressed concerns about the industry complaints they heard. Tauzin, who chairs the full committee, said Congress must examine whether ICANN's procedures were clearly articulated and consistently followed.

"To the extent we find shortcomings in this new process ? and I already have ? I hope we can provide some guidance that will serve as a road map in the future," he said.

More rounds of domain-name selections are expected, Tauzin said, adding that his committee will continue to review the process.

ICANN, formed in 1998 and based in Washington, has a 19-member international board of directors from technical and policy advisory groups. Board members were selected in a worldwide online election last fall. The organization was founded to take on certain administrative and technical management aspects of the domain-name system and the Internet address space.

Defending ICANN, Chairman Vinton Cerf told the committee the group is functioning well for such a young organization with a difficult job.

Despite recent criticisms, Cerf said ICANN has been able to find a consensus on a decision to introduce seven new, top-level domains into the system. Most of the controversy appears to be focused on the recent top-level domain selections.

Lou Kerner, chief executive officer of dotTV Corporation International of Los Angeles, told the panel his company supports ICANN generally, but has serious concerns about the top-level domain selection process, which he said it views as "fundamentally flawed and lacking in due process."

The Internet domain-name system is based on a hierarchy of names. At the head are top-level domain names such as .com, .org, .net and the two-letter country codes such as .uk (United Kingdom), .jp (Japan) and .ca (Canada).

Next, Kerner said, are the millions of second-level domain names that have been registered by individuals and organizations, such as http://amazon.com, http://earthlink.net and http://npr.org.

Kerner's dotTV led a consortium of international corporations, including Lycos Inc., XO Communications, OnlineNIC, SK Telecom and 7DC, which submitted two applications for new top-level domains but was rejected.

Kerner said ICANN used a selection process that was vague and could not adequately review proposals, given the unanticipated number of applicants. He urged Congress to intervene now to ensure a fair and equitable method for approving new domains.

"The approval of new [top-level domains] is an important matter for congressional review, and the Commerce Department should not be permitted to implement ICANN's recommendations until such a review takes place," Kerner said.

Representatives from AtlanticRoot Network Inc., which operates its own domain-name registration service, told the panel they were treated unfairly in the ICANN selection process. Not only did ICANN reject AtlanticRoot's request for a top-level domain, it even refused to acknowledge the company's existence, said Leah Gallegos, president of AtlanticRoot.

"The process used for this selection was ill-advised, badly handled and ignored the very premise for which ICANN was established: to preserve the stability of the Internet and do no harm to existing entities," Gallegos said. "We are now faced with a substantial loss, due to ICANN's refusal to recognize that we exist."

While Cerf acknowledged ICANN still has much to accomplish, he said it has come a long way in a short period of time. Created in November 1998, it did not really become fully operational until a year later with the signing of a series of agreements with Network Solutions Inc., which was then the sole operator of the largest and most significant registries.

As one of its first actions, ICANN created an accreditation system for competitive registrars and, pursuant to its Network Solutions agreements, gave those new competitors access to the Network Solutions' registries, Cerf said. There are now more than 180 accredited registrars.

"While there are still issues to be dealt with, I think it is widely recognized that ICANN has been very successful in changing the retail name-registration market from a monopoly market to a highly competitive market," he said.

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