The Internet's coordinating body kicked off a new Web gold rush at its July 16 meeting here. But at the same time, it adopted new, restrictive policies that will reduce public involvement.
A timetable for new domain names beyond the existing.com, .net, and .org was approved by the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers.
But the ICANN board then set a very high, nonrefundable fee of US$50,000 merely to apply to run a "registry server" for any new string. At that exorbitant price, even large universities may hesitate to propose much-needed expansions, such as.info, .home, and so on.
In a major shift of power, the board rewrote ICANN's bylaws, eliminating the requirement that nine out of 19 of its directors be elected by Internet users at large.
Now, instead of guaranteeing that nine directors will be democratically elected, the bylaws state that only five will be elected this year.
This is significant because most of ICANN's 19 interim and appointed directors are involved with for-profit Internet businesses. When the U.S. Department of Commerce contracted with ICANN in 1998, its bylaws "balanced" the directors with financial interests by promising Internet users the right to elect nine out of 19 directors soon.
Instead of honoring this commitment, the 19 currently appointed directors have voted for a study of "whether the ICANN Board should include at-large directors" at all.
Concerned Internet users from around the world testified against the bylaw changes overwhelmingly at a hearing before the board acted.
The European Commission's Christopher Wilkinson, during his testimony, objected that "The board is being extremely cavalier about these changes to the bylaws."
Barbara Simons, past president of the Association for Computing Machinery, said, "not leaving nine in the bylaws will do damage" to public support for ICANN.
In an address at the hearing, even Paul Twomey -- an Australian official who chairs ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee and is no radical -- issued a warning in remarkably blunt terms (for a diplomat).
ICANN, Twomey said, is in danger of becoming "defined by the supply side: the content owners, the trademark holders, the people who run the registries" -- in other words, becoming just another trade group whose decisions reflect its own financial interests. "The alternative is that it becomes an organization thoroughly focused on the needs of the users, an organization that serves users," Twomey said.
If it's a mere industry association, Twomey concluded, "It would need to realize that governments and consumer organizations would pay much more attention to ICANN over consumer protection and monopoly issues."
Joe Sims, ICANN's legal counsel, defended the board. During the hearing, he alluded to "the problem that the board sees with this kind of an election, in which the at-large members make up half of the board."
The appointed directors decided, Sims said, "that we will solve that problem in the long run by reducing the [elected] at-large members from one-half to less than one-third."
Reducing the publicly elected directors below one-third, of course, means they can't block future bylaw changes that require a two-thirds majority. Hey, problem solved.
Early on, ICANN created a firestorm by holding closed board meetings. It then assured U.S. officials and others that its board meetings would be open. But ICANN seems reluctant to embrace civil norms, such as requiring that its board meet only in public.
Two sources who decline to be identified confirmed that board members assembled for an unannounced dinner meeting in the Yokohama Grand Inter-Continental Hotel two nights prior to the beginning of the board's official session.
I'm sure ICANN's directors are fine people who make wonderful neighbors, but they vote their interests. Thus, they expand their power and reduce democratic participation.
ICANN didn't need to exclude innovative proposals with a $50,000 fee. To cover its staffing costs, it could have required, say, a $250,000 setup fee from the winners of the registry competition, who will make millions.
ICANN didn't need to eliminate its guarantee of nine elected directors. It could have amended its bylaws after doing the study.
Now that only five directors will be elected, it's more important than ever that they represent the interests of the vast Internet public.
Go to members.icann.org/join_now.htm today. To vote in the election, you must register by July 31. If ICANN's poorly scaled server doesn't respond, try again later. And watch this space for further ICANN follies.
Brian Livingston's latest book is Windows 2000 Secrets (IDG Books). Send tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. He regrets he cannot answer individual questions.