ICANN faces hearing in US Congress over domain selections

The organisation that was given responsibility for managing the internet's domain name system by the US government just over two years ago may now be facing a challenge to its legitimacy in the US Congress.

          The organisation that was given responsibility for managing the internet's domain name system by the US government just over two years ago may now be facing a challenge to its legitimacy in the US Congress.

          The US House Commerce Committee, citing concerns about the process that the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) used last year to select seven new top-level domains, has said it will hold a hearing this Thursday to investigate whether the Marina del Rey, California-based organisation is thwarting competition by limiting the number of additional domains to the ones it chose.

          ICANN's critics are expected to ask the committee to push for the domain selection process to be re-opened. The new top-level domains (TLD) approved by ICANN's board last November remain months away from being available for use, and people close to the situation say Congress potentially could get involved by putting pressure on the Department of Commerce to stop their implementation.

          "We believe that the process has been fundamentally flawed," says Lou Kerner, who runs a domain name registry as the CEO at dotTV, a Los Angeles-based company that issues URLs using the .tv TLD that originally was given to the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu as its country-code domain. Kerner, who was part of a consortium that unsuccessfully sought ICANN's recognition for a new .nom domain, has been talking to the House Commerce Committee and may be asked to testify at this week's hearing.

          ICANN is also facing criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups, which sent a letter to the Commerce Department last month asking the agency to withhold approval for the new TLDs and threatening the possibility of legal action if that doesn't happen. In the letter, the ACLU and its backers charged that ICANN's selection process was "woefully inadequate by any measure."

          In addition, ICANN could be hit with litigation from businesses that failed to win approval for their TLD proposals after paying a $US50,000 application fee. More than 200 proposals were submitted by 44 applicants, but the ICANN board voted to add just seven new domains -- aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name and .pro - to join existing ones such as .com and .org.

          ICANN's decision to limit the number of new domains has won praise from some observers. "If you're going to introduce new domains, introduce them responsibly . . . so there isn't a wholesale ripping off of intellectual property," says Mark Heltzer, government relations manager at the International Trademark Association in New York.

          But others say they agree with Kerner that the approach taken by ICANN was unfair. "It's pretty obvious that more top-level domains means more opportunity for small businesses and entrepreneurs to get meaningful domain names that reflect their business interests as well as [their] free speech interests," says Mikki Barry, president of the Domain Name Rights Coalition, a Herndon, Virginia, group that represents small companies and entrepreneurs.

          Esther Dyson, who recently stepped down as ICANN's chairman, says she would have liked to have added more TLDs. After the board's November vote, in fact, Dyson described the approval of the seven TLDs as "a first giant step for domain-kind" and indicated that long-term plans call for many more to be added over time.

          But for now, Dyson said in an email interview last week, ICANN wants to keep the process to a manageable size for technical reasons, primarily to avoid overloading the servers that translate domain names into actual IP addresses. "You want to avoid unnecessary technical challenges to a system that seems a little stressed currently," she says.

          Dyson defended ICANN's decision as "reasonable" under the circumstances. The organisation "is supposed to recognise consensus rather than act on its own whims," she says. "While quite [a] few people want a large or even unlimited number of new TLDs, another large group wants no new ones or a limited number. So we took the conservative route in the middle . . . which means that almost everyone considered it a compromise rather than their own desired result."

          The controversy surrounding ICANN isn't surprising, says Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, noting that the group was given a difficult job to begin with. "If there hadn't been these contentious issues, you wouldn't have needed ICANN in the first instance," he says.

          The possible alternatives to ICANN's stewardship of the domain name system aren't obvious, although Zittrain says the US government has the capability to reassume control if it felt inclined to do so.

          But Rick Lane, director of e-commerce and Internet technology at the US Chamber of Commerce, says a resumption of government control over the domain name process wouldn't be supported by the businesses it represents. The system "has been moving in a very positive direction, and we haven't heard or seen anything out there yet that could replace ICANN," he says. "You don't want to destroy something unless you have something to replace it."

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