FRAMINGHAM (07/31/2000) - If you haven't been paying attention to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, this isn't a bad time to start. The little-known but enormously influential organization is making some crucial decisions about the future of cyberspace.
ICANN (www.icann.org) isn't a government body. But the nonprofit organization, created at the behest of the federal government two years ago in a move to open some of the Internet's inner workings to the free market, does seem to exercise quasi-governmental powers at times.
ICANN's board did some of the right things at meetings in Yokohama, Japan, earlier this month. It made formal, if long overdue, moves toward expanding the domain name system - the system that gives computers on the Net the ability to find and recognize one another - with new top-level domains to complement .com, .net and the like. These were baby steps. They won't solve the deep-rooted problems that should worry everyone except the companies and lawyers now thriving on the artificial scarcity created by today's domain system.
The way ICANN plans to expand domain names is reminiscent of the Supreme Court's decision in 1954 to end racial segregation in schools, a process that was to take place with "all deliberate speed" so as not to threaten the deepest social fabric. Schools are still segregated, in part because the court gave opponents the time to come up with new tactics.
ICANN, pleading caution in the name of stability, is moving with deliberate speed, too. As a result, the domain name system may continue to suffer from a shortage that has no basic reason to exist in the first place.
Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), whose monopolistic tendencies sometimes make Microsoft look kind and gentle, will be looking for ways to continue its domination of the system. Its latest plan - to auction off domain names that haven't been paid for rather than return them to the general pool for re-registration - is an outrageous but illustrative move for NSI. When it comes to curbing NSI's manipulations, no reform can come quickly enough.
Corporate trademark holders will also undoubtedly try to use their clout - which has already bowled over Congress, ICANN and the World Intellectual Property Organization - to prevent anyone from using trademarked names in any other context. ICANN's go-slow approach means that any sensible trademark holder will race to register a whole new series of domains, thereby making the new (or existing) registrars rich or richer.
This isn't what I'd call reform. It may be progress, however, because once everyone sees that new domains can be launched smoothly, ICANN will have no excuse not to open the proverbial floodgates. Then, and only then, will the marketplace actually start working.
Dan Gillmor is a technology columnist at the San Jose Mercury News. Contact him at email@example.com.