On the eve of its first anniversary, the non-profit organisation selected by the Clinton administration to oversee the Internet's name and addressing system is coming under fire for failing to generate enough interest from US corporate users.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has attracted just a handful of U.S. companies and trade associations to its quarterly meetings, which have been held in such locales as Santiago, Chile; Berlin; and Singapore. Only a few dozen US companies are members of ICANN's working group for business users. In addition, just one American - Internet pioneer Vint Cerf - was among the first nine members elected to the ICANN board last month.
The concern about U.S. corporate representation in ICANN is notable because more than half of Internet domain names are registered to U.S. businesses. The U.S. has more Internet users than any other country and leads in creating 'Net content. U.S. companies are also making significant investments in the Internet infrastructure around the globe.
The issue could be a political hot potato for ICANN, which is holding its first annual meeting in Los Angeles this week.
"It seems rather bizarre that an organization that is overseeing the technical infrastructure of the Internet has such small representation of U.S. interests," says a congressional staff member tracking ICANN's activities. "We're hopeful that more American businesses will get involved."
In the coming months, ICANN will debate several issues of interest to business users, including:
Adding new generic top-level domains, such as .store and .shop.
Expanding the use of country codes such as .us to distinguish U.S. businesses from foreign businesses.
Ensuring the privacy of information within the database of registered domain names.
Determining how disputes over domain names will be resolved.
Establishing how ICANN will be financed, which may include fees levied on Internet stakeholders.
"If you do business over the Internet, ICANN is going to impact you," says Theresa Swinehart, associate counsel for international affairs at MCI WorldCom and a leader in ICANN's Commercial and Business Entities Constituency. "If business wants to have a say, it needs to come to the table."
Some observers on Capitol Hill and in the U.S. business community worry ICANN is trying so hard to build international support that it could end up creating an organization in which the status of the U.S. is not equal to its investment in or influence over the Internet.
"ICANN is largely dominated by a handful of inside players who have long-standing involvement in the Internet's infrastructure," says Don Tel-age, a senior vice president of Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI), the Herndon, Va., company that held a contract with the federal government to oversee the domain name system before it was transferred to ICANN. "These are academics, members of the Internet Society and a lot of non-U.S. players."
Telage, who ran for an ICANN board seat but wasn't elected, admits the issue is not "politically correct."
"There's a lot of talk about making sure that ICANN's board has geographical diversity, but the board is not necessarily representational of business interests," he says. "If 70% of the investment in the Internet is from U.S. companies, why are we limited to the same number of board seats as a continent that has made one-tenth of our investment?"
Marilyn Cade, director of Internet and electronic commerce advocacy at AT&T, says ICANN's board should listen to all Internet stakeholders but give weight to the views of Internet-focused corporations.
"People who are building the Internet and supporting the Internet . . . have a significant vested interest and often are more informed on the implications of policy decisions," Cade says.
U.S. businesses are invited to participate in ICANN debates by joining one of the organization's constituency groups or by attending its meetings. Groups have been created for business users, service providers, domain name registrars and companies interested in trademark issues.
"We're trying to reach out to users - not just from start-ups, but also the corporate types," says Esther Dyson, interim chairman of the ICANN board. Dyson points out that corporate IT managers can't get on the ICANN board unless they get involved and run for election.
"The U.S. controls the Internet now. U.S. companies need to at least be represented if a domain name format is going to change," says Thomas McLoughlin, a Windows NT system administrator at Duke Solutions.
One ICANN issue to watch is whether U.S. corporations participate in the election of nine at-large board members next year. The at-large board members will replace the interim board, which has five U.S. members, including a representative of the corporate user community: Frank Fitz-simmons, senior vice president of global marketing for Dun & Bradstreet.
"Hopefully, we'll get more U.S. business interests in-volved in the at-large election process," says Barbara Dooley, president of the Commercial Internet Exchange Association in Washington, D.C. Even more important than electing Americans to the ICANN board is electing people who understand the needs of 'Net-oriented businesses, she adds.
"You can get constituencies that have a lot more voting and political power than their commercial influence," Dooley says. "This can be a real problem for companies that are not involved in this process. They're ignoring the fact that decisions are being made that will affect the way e-commerce will be done."
Roger Cochetti, program director for Internet policy and business planning at IBM, says the nationality of the at-large board members will be less important than their expertise.
"For the vast majority of things that the ICANN board will be doing, it does not make a difference if they're American or Japanese," he says. What matters is that board members have "a good technical, operational and business sense about how things should be organized," he says.
Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America, says the fact that only one American was elected to the board so far may actually be good for ICANN. "There are still parts of the world . . . who see the Internet as some kind of U.S.-centric threat," he says. "This is an opportunity for them to understand that the Internet is really an international medium."
In addition to Cerf, other members of the ICANN board are Amadeu Abril iAbril, law professor (Spain); Jean-Francois Abramatic, chairman of the World Wide Web Consortium (France); Rob Blokzijl, chairman of the European open forum for IP networks (Netherlands); Jonathan Cohen, a lawyer (Canada); Philip Davidson, a British Telecommunications executive (U.K.); Ken Fockler, an Internet consultant (Canada); Alejandro Pisanty, a director of academic computing at a university (Mexico); and Pindar Wong, founder of an ISP (Hong Kong).
(Network World Fusion Managing Editor Sandra Gittlen contributed to this story.)