ICANN under the gun of Congress, other groups

The group charged with managing the Internet's domain name system, the 2-year-old Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), may be facing a challenge to its legitimacy.

The U.S. House Commerce Committee, citing concerns about the process ICANN used to select seven new domain names, is expected to hold a hearing Thursday to examine whether ICANN's selection process thwarts competition.

ICANN's critics will ask the committee to reopen the domain selection process.

ICANN is also facing the threat of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups over its handling of the domain selection process, as well as litigation from businesses that failed to win approval for top-level domains after paying a US$50,000 application fee.

Whether ICANN can successfully add new top-level domains without sinking under the weight of litigation threats and congressional oversight is far from clear.

The addition of the new domains approved by ICANN's board this past November - .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro - isn't automatic. The U.S. Department of Commerce has final authority over any domain additions.

"The process has been fundamentally flawed," said Lou Kerner, who runs a domain name registry as the CEO of dotTV Corp., a Los Angeles company that issues Web addresses using .tv. Kerner was part of a consortium that sought recognition for .nom.

But ICANN's go-slow approach in adding new domains has won praise.

"If you are going to introduce new [top-level domains], introduce them responsibly . . . so there isn't a wholesale ripping off of intellectual property," said Mark Heltzer, government relations manager at the International Trademark Association in New York.

More Domains, More Opportunity

Others see that approach as unfair. "It's pretty obvious that more top-level domains means more opportunity for small businesses and entrepreneurs to get meaningful domain names that reflect their business interest as well as free speech interest," said Mikki Barry, president of the Domain Name Rights Coalition, a Herndon, Va.-based group that represents small businesses.

Esther Dyson, who recently stepped down as chairwoman of ICANN, said she would have liked to have added more top-level domains but wanted to keep the registry at a manageable size for technical reasons, primarily to avoid hurting the domain name system, the service that translates domain names into IP addresses .

"You want to avoid unnecessary technical challenges to a system that seems a little stressed currently," she said.

There aren't obvious alternatives to ICANN, but the government could reassert control over the domain name process; it has both the contracts and the muscle to do that, said Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. "We've chosen this middle path - sort of an experiment between the public and the private - and we've got to see how it pans out," he said.

Business wouldn't support a resumption of government control of the process, said Rick Lane, director of e-commerce and Internet technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's been moving in a very positive direction, and we haven't heard or seen anything out there yet that could replace ICANN," he said.

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