New Internet corporation faces vocal critics

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- the group positioned to take over crucial administrative and policy-setting duties for the Internet --has faced its critics but done little to address their demands or secure their trust. During a meeting at the weekend, various groups and individuals charged that appointment of the group's members was not subject to sufficient public scrutiny and that ICANN needed more public and financial accountability.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) -- the group positioned to take over crucial administrative and policy-setting duties for the Internet --has faced its critics but done little to address their demands or secure their trust.

Going into a meeting at the weekend, various groups and individuals charged that appointment of the group's members was not subject to sufficient public scrutiny and that the ICANN needed more public and financial accountability. The not-for-profit corporation is poised to succeed the US government's Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) for handling Internet protocols, domain names and IP addresses.

Not being an official board meeting, there were no resolutions to agenda items, which were: membership; avoiding conflicts of interest and transparency; and the relationship of the board with the Supporting Organisations, groups that provide technical expertise, recommend policy and serve as members on the ten-person ICANN board.

Board officials indicated that an elective structure of the At-Large members of the ICANN (three of the board's seats will be made up of Supporting Organisations) will be established after the dissolution of the initial board in a year or two. In response to questions, it stated that its bylaws dictate that it must take decisive action if the Supporting Organizations get bogged down in technical battles. And the board pledged to improve the transparency of its operations, though not to the point of web-casting its meetings.

The board was clearly open to anything, including suggestions on how it should be funded, which it hopes to address at its next meeting in March.

"Amending our bylaws will be an option at any meeting of the board," said ICANN interim president and CEO Michael Roberts. "This is a work in progress."

Starting out the day, interim board chairman Esther Dyson spelled out the ICANN's goal of building a "bottom-up consensus" and constructing an "organic" system with checks and balances for administering the Internet for the greater good of the public.

Addressing the concern that ICANN board members were appointed, rather than elected, Dyson said, "we are dealing with reality and we will deal with that reality for the one or two year transition [until another board is formed]. We're trying to work with you going forward, rather than backward."

But that plea did little assuage angry attendees who spent the better part of the morning open microphone session questioning the ICANN's authority and asking why the ICANN hadn't accepted changes to the bylaws proposed by other groups, such as the Boston Working Group.

"The problem we have is that we have a lack of trust and trust has to be earned. It is not transitive. It is earned and begging is not a good strategy," said Einar Steffenrud, founder of the Open Root Server Confederation (ORSC). "We want the bylaws to protects us from you" with provisions for financial accountability and the ability to sue the board.

Citizens rights advocates said that administration of the Internet belonged where it was -- with the government -- in order to protect the lifestyle of Net users, rather than the commercial interests of corporations. Several international attendees, such as a Latin American contingent, claimed that their countries were being shut out of the process.

Meanwhile, Donald Telage, senior vice president of Internet relations and special projects at Network Solutions (NSI), which manages registration of domain names, told the group that "we need a more robust mechanism to handle the commercialisation of the Internet" and urged speed in the process.

Some issues have major economic impact, attendees pointed out, giving as examples IP address allocation, domain name management and who has authority over country-code Top Level Domains (cc-TLDs) -- which hand out domains for countries such as .fr for France.

Unfortunately for the impassioned speakers in the crowd, members of the ICANN board had precious little to say regarding its formation and future policy, since many members were new to the issues and the forum was not a board meeting. Members referred attendees to the existing bylaws on several occasions in response to concerns.

Ultimately, the ICANN did not appear to succeed in gaining the support of its critics.

"This was an opportunity to continue the process and get the Internet community behind them but they didn't and now we're in limbo," said Jay Fenello, president of Iperdome in Atlanta, which is building a company around personal web pages with the .per suffix. "The U.S. government has said it will provide supervision for two years. My suggestion would be that there's no transfer of assets until there are definitive answers to the questions here today."

Others urged the ICANN to slow down and reconsider its structure.

"We have real concerns with the pace with which they're moving and the relationship of the SO's (Supporting Organisations) to ICANN. We don't think employees and nominees should be reviewing their own decisions because there's no objectivity," said Eric Lee, director of public policy at the ISP lobbying and policy group, Commercial Internet eXchange Association (CIX) in Washington, D.C.

Dyson and other board members defended their actions until now, noted that Saturday's meeting was not aimed at making decisions and hoped its critics could see that its intentions are good.

"We learned how much we have to learn. We probably should have said more but frankly we don't want to say the wrong things and we need to get secured," Dyson said. "The last thing we want to do is make crazy decisions."

The ICANN can be reached at http://www.icann.org. Transcripts and minutes of today's meetings can be found in a week at www.cyber.law.harvard.edu/icann/archive.

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