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Welcome to ICANN Watch

Without question, the most powerful organization operating on the Internet is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). This Party of We discussion is an open dialog on what ICANN is and isn’t doing – good and bad – that impacts on how all of us use the Internet.

First, some background.

ICANN, founded in 1998, is a California non-profit corporation overseen by sixteen directors chosen through an internal committee selection process. It was formed in response to a request for proposal (RFP) issued by the United States Department of Commerce (DOC) which, at the time, was in control of the Digital Name System (DNS) for the Internet. The RFP asked for bids from independent non-profit corporations to take over running the day to day operations of the DNS. ICANN won that bid.

There are no shareholders so the only group to which ICANN is structurally accountable is its Board. Its bylaws provide that ICANN must be responsive to the various stakeholders who use and operate on the Internet. This is allegedly accomplished through a complex committee structure and meetings held around the world. However, there is no legally binding mandate regarding how ICANN’s Board is held accountable to the stakeholders. There is a so-called “Affirmation of Commitments” with the United States Department of Commerce, a document with virtually no legal teeth to it and one that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the bureaucratic arm of the Department of Commerce, oversees in administering the Affirmation of Commitments.

Following a June 2012 ICANN Board vote after years of deliberation and debate, on January 11, 2012, ICANN opened a window for applications from anyone who would like to own a new top-level domain (TLD) and compete with the 22 existing TLDs, e.g., .com, .org, .net, .travel, etc. Each application costs $185,000 and if there are duplicate applications for the same TLD, an auction will be held to determine the winner. The window closes on March 29, 2012. According to testimony by ICANN spokesperson, ICANN expects as much as 1,000 applications, if not more. Those applying can seek to own generic words, e.g., .soda, .bank, .fastfood, etc., brand names, e.g., .cocacola, .columbiasavings, .mcdonalds, etc., as well as domains in foreign languages.

It was not until the June vote, however, that the many issues surrounding ICANN’s decision to open up the DNS and its internal operations were examined under a bright spotlight.

The result has been an uproar for virtually every stakeholder constituency ICANN is charged with protecting. Editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Time Magazine and more condemned ICANN’s plans to open up the DNS. The United States Federal Trade Commission told the U.S. Congress that ICANN’s plan would be a “disaster” for consumers. Members of the U.S. Congress joined in voicing those concerns. The non-profit community objected. Independent governmental agencies, including the United Nations, World Intellectual Property Organization and World Bank objected and suggested ICANN slow down and reconsider its decision. The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artist announced opposition to the ICANN plan. The Association of National Advertisers formed the Coalition for Responsible Internet Domain Oversight (CRIDO), a coalition of over 160 trade associations and leading brands, in opposition to opening up the DNS. The U.S. Congress held hearings, seriously questioning whether ICANN’s proposal made any sense. To be candid, I represent the ANA and CRIDO, so I have an admitted bias. That’s OK. Bias is a natural part of a healthy debate.

Despite all of the objections and concerns expressed by many stakeholder groups, ICANN refused to change anything in its plans and forged ahead with accepting applications. Instead, ICANN made assurances to the Internet community that it would look into their concerns and address them as the program unfolded.

The most salient lesson in what transpired over the six months from the ICANN vote to expand the DNS and the opening of the window to apply for new TLDs is that no one appears to have any meaningful oversight of ICANN. The DOC and NTIA have shown no desire to assume that role despite the fact they are a party to the Affirmation of Commitments. So far, no other governmental organization anywhere in the world has stepped up to the plate to oversee ICANN. In short, ICANN is very much an independent, and some would say rogue, organization that controls the backbone of the most important communications and commerce engine in history. The fact that ICANN itself is run by only sixteen directors who are essentially unaccountable to anyone is mind boggling when you consider what’s at stake in the decisions the ICANN Board makes.

And while the Party of We may not have any better success than anyone else who has attempted to reign in the ICANN Board, we can at least use this forum as a place where ICANN’s decisions and operations are revealed under a bright light and made as transparent as possible. A forum where both supporters and distracters of ICANN can speak their minds so no one, least of all ICANN, is unaware of how the Party of We feels with respect to its actions, pro and con. And if the Party of We can topple dictators, derail legislation, and reveal hidden inequities, perhaps ICANN will listen and realize the Party of We is ignored at ICANN’s risk.

For a complete summary and repository of all of the documents referred to in this entry and to see the testimony in Congress, the many letters written to ICANN that have yet to receive responses, and the breadth and depth of those objecting, visit www.crido.org.

Please join me in ICANN Watch and open the door to an informed Party of We.

Doug Wood, We Expert

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