GAO Clears ICANN's Legal Underbrush

SAN FRANCISCO (07/07/2000) - A report issued Friday by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found the Clinton administration's conduct legal and proper while it was establishing private control of the Internet's domain-name system.

The findings come as sweet vindication for the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversaw the transition, as well as for the nonprofit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which took over the domain-management role last year.

Since its inception, ICANN has been dogged by a series of questions about its legitimacy -- and several blunders of its own making -- that have given critics continued ammunition to attack the group. But the GAO report should take many of those issues off the table, allowing ICANN to get down to business at its upcoming board meeting in Yokohama, Japan.

According to GAO, the Clinton administration had legal authority to delegate oversight duties to ICANN. The report also found that ICANN was an independent creation of the private sector and that the government didn't have any significant role in creating the nonprofit or choosing its initial board of directors.

The report also stated that ICANN has authority to levy user fees to cover its costs. Perhaps the largest controversy surrounding ICANN ignited after the group proposed a US$1 fee per domain name to be paid by the companies that registered their names. Some people in U.S. Congress and the Internet community dubbed the fee an illegal tax, and ICANN subsequently backed off the plan.

With legitimacy questions no longer an issue, ICANN turns next to the issue of creating new generic top-level domains. A staff report released last month recommended creating a handful of new domains by the end of the year, and ICANN's board is expected to approve that plan, though perhaps with some delay in the timetable.

ICANN also is expected to tackle the funding issue at the Yokohama board meeting. Country-level registries so far have resisted paying fees assessed by ICANN but will meet with the group in Japan to seek a compromise.

Only one other potential snafu remains for ICANN. The group is scheduled to elect five members for its 19-member board of directors this fall. Any person age 16 or older with an e-mail or postal address can register to vote; however, as of last week, fewer than 30,000 people worldwide had done so.

Some Internet and public interest groups, such as Common Cause, the Center for Democracy and Technology and the American Civil Liberties Union, are concerned that ICANN will bungle the election by imposing too many restrictions on who can run for the board seats, thus undermining the goal of making ICANN more representative. The groups want ICANN to make it easier for potential candidates to qualify to run in the election. They also fear that the group will not hold elections for another four board seats that need to be filled soon.

The GAO conducted its inquiry after an unnamed senator inserted a request for the report into an appropriations bill in the third quarter of last year. The House Commerce Committee, other lawmakers and the Clinton administration had already looked into similar issues.

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