Controversy follows ICANN to Chile

Five thousand miles away from a US Congress that's been probing its actions, the internet's new governance organisation, meeting here on Wednesday, failed to escape the swirl of controversy and criticism that has marked the privatisation of the internet's addressing system at every stage.

In the first open meeting held by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), critics spent hours debating proposals set for a vote by ICANN's board. Among the most controversial plans was one that would crack down on the legions of so-called cybersquatters. The policy matter has pitted corporate trademark holders, who want to protect their valuable product and brand names, against individual users, small businesses and noncommercial interests, some of which also have valid claims to those names.

Under the proposal, internet domain names that are "abusively" registered by speculators in violation of a trademark or another's rights could be cancelled or transferred after the parties undergo a dispute-resolution process.

But while the big corporations, trademark law firms and professional associations were able to foot the tab to send representatives to Chile for the meeting, most of the little guys were not. Instead, they were relegated to participating remotely over the internet, e-mailing objections and comments that were selectively read to the crowd of about 200.

"A lot of issues that are of interest to a large group of stakeholders not present here are suddenly on the table," Alan Davidson, of the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, DC, who made the trip, pointed out to the board. "A large group of stakeholders have not been able to be part of this because of resources or because a lot of them don't know that they should care."

Kathryn Kleiman of the Association for Computing Machinery, a scientific and educational organisation, told the ICANN board that the definition of "cybersquatting" needs to be better defined. The broad definition offered by a United Nation's organisation that developed the dispute-resolution proposal -- likely to be embraced by ICANN at the meeting -- could penalise small users or noncommercial users who have valid claims to domain names, said Kleiman. She also recommended that some type of penalty or "reverse hijacking" be developed to ward off overzealous trademark holders who unjustly go after the little guy.

The staff of ICANN has recommended that the board adopt the dispute-resolution policy regarding cases of cybersquatting where complainants can demonstrate that the owners registered the names in bad faith, seeking to deprive some entity of a trademark or other right. But ICANN has qualms about several factors that still need to be worked out, including concerns about an imbalance between appeal rights of challenger and domain name holder and the need for a sort of user's guide that spells out the rights of domain-name holders.

Some of the remote participants urged the ICANN board to delay its vote because it has yet to recognise a group of individual domain-name holders, while it has allowed the participation of categories of registrars, trademark holders and other internet users. Mikki Barry, president of the Domain Name Rights Coalition, wrote that she "feels there is not a consensus of the internet community" and that "too many people could be labelled cybersquatters who aren't".

During the public commentary, the ICANN board mostly listened as it sat at a dais on the stage of a meeting room at the University of Chile. "We've heard a lot of input on this," said ICANN interim chairman Esther Dyson. "We understand there needs to be more specific input in the drafting committee, and it will be considered."

ICANN is seeking to develop consensus for policies regarding a host of issues involving the privatisation of the domain-name system. The US government, which decided to get out of the business of the internet's administration in favour of industry self-regulation, last year approved that ICANN take over the task. Since the domain-name system was commercialised in 1993, it has been administered by government contractors, most prominently Network Solutions Inc (NSI), the Virginia company that built a multibillion-dollar business by selling names in .com, .net and .org.

While the measure to limit cybersquatting is the most prominent item on ICANN's agenda, it is by no means the only proposal creating controversy. The nine-member interim board is also likely to approve a measure to extend its own term for an additional year, ending September 30, 2000, at which time the board is to be replaced by a larger board made up of elected representatives from various stakeholder groups.

The ICANN board meeting was opened to the public following calls from US Congress and even the US Commerce Department, which has been generally supportive of ICANN. In the past, portions of the group's meetings have been closed. On the eve of recent Congressional hearings, ICANN also took other steps to address mounting criticism, including nixing a $US1-per-domain-name fee to support ICANN financially. The group is now seeking $2 million in loans to pay its bills until an alternate fund-raising scheme can be developed.

While today's board meeting will be open, complaints were made that other committee meetings were closed to the public this week, including a meeting of an influential government advisory group that plans to recommend to the ICANN board that country-code domains should be considered public property. Paul Twomey, an Australian government representative who heads the committee, argued that the closure was needed because representatives of some 28 governments would not have been as frank had the press attended the meeting.

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