ICANN, under fire, targets alternate top-level domains

Facing increased pressure from upstart companies that are contesting its authority over the designation of Internet top-level domains, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) plans to directly tackle the issue of so-called "alternate roots" at its regular quarterly meeting that starts Friday in Stockholm.

M. Stuart Lynn, who became president and CEO of ICANN in March, said in the introduction to a "discussion draft" posted on its Web site earlier this week that the matter will be addressed at the Stockholm meeting to explain why the nonprofit organization views alternative top-level domains (TLD) as harmful to the structure of the Internet.

While the official TLD process overseen by ICANN may not move quickly enough to satisfy some critics, Lynn wrote, it's stable and provides a framework that's needed in order to avoid havoc on the Internet. He charged that unofficial TLD systems have been created by companies outside of ICANN's control because their top-level domain proposals weren't accepted by the organization or as "expressions of the disagreements" they've had with ICANN and its backers.

The issue of alternate TLDs is coming to a head following criticism of the pace at which ICANN is moving to add new top-level domains and recent moves by companies to step up efforts outside of the organization's official process. Two weeks ago, for example, a group of companies formed a new association that's seeking to recognize all TLD holders, including alternate root operators that feel they're being ignored by ICANN.

That followed a March announcement in which Pasadena, Calif.-based start-up New.net Inc. launched 20 new Internet domains as alternatives to .com, .net and the other ones that have been officially sanctioned by ICANN -- a move that some users and analysts said could cause confusion for companies looking to protect their corporate trademarks.

Lynn's draft is scheduled to be discussed during a public forum in Stockholm on Sunday. But Leah Gallegos, a board member of the new Top Level Domain Association Inc. group and president of AtlanticRoot Network Inc. in St. Simons Island, Ga., today criticized Lynn's analysis of the TLD situation.

"What [he's] saying is absolutely ludicrous," Gallegos said. "Who died and conferred upon [ICANN] the totalitarian rule over the Internet?" Instead, she contended, ICANN needs to recognize that there are more than 500 TLDs being operated around the world by some 200 administrators, all outside the official domain name system.

"They need to be cooperating with the entities that are out there," Gallegos said. "If they don't, they're creating a major catastrophe." That could arise, she added, if duplicate TLDs put in place by different companies cause Internet users to be unable to reach Web sites because of contention issues.

The most well-known top-level domains are those recognized by ICANN, including .com, .net, .edu and .org. But many others exist outside the authority of the organization, although they're viewable on the Internet only if special configuration settings have been added to the Web browsers of users.

David Hernand, New.net's CEO, said in a statement issued yesterday that his company began offering its TLDs because ICANN has been too slow to create new top-level domains. Instead of relying solely on ICANN's process, he added, market forces should help determine the acceleration of new TLDs.

"ICANN has come under fire from a wide variety of individuals and organizations around the world for its handling of the political and economic aspects of administering the domain name system," Hernand said. "We believe that the decisions about which TLDs to release and who should administer them would benefit tremendously . . . by using the market to create a climate for innovation."

In a white paper posted on its Web site, New.net proposed that ICANN simply drop its responsibilities for approving new TLDs, leaving it up to the marketplace. Under the proposal, ICANN would continue to "administer the technical aspects" of the domain name system. Hernand plans to attend the ICANN meeting in Stockholm to address the topic of administering TLDs.

Also scheduled at the meeting is discussion of a separate proposal by Lynn to create a task force charged with developing a plan for monitoring the introduction of new TLDs and evaluating their performance and their impact on the domain name system. Included in the proposed duties of the task force, which would be chaired by Lynn, is recommending "potential criteria to be used as guidelines for evaluating when and how additional TLDs should be considered by the [ICANN] board."

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