ICANN Hit by Critics as TLD Vote Nears

In the final hours before its board of directors is expected to pick and choose between proposals to add new top-level Internet domains, the non-profit organization that manages the domain name system is facing a barrage of criticism and threats of lawsuits over its selection process.

One of the most stinging critiques of the still-emerging role the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is playing as the manager of the domain name system came from Vinton Cerf, an ICANN board member who is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the Internet because of his involvement in co-developing the TCP/IP protocol.

At a four-day series of meetings ICANN is holding here, Cerf yesterday told his fellow board members that he has a "certain amount of discomfort" with ICANN's process for choosing new top-level domains (TLD) because of its emphasis on evaluating the finances of the applicants that submitted proposals. "This feels like a venture capital firm," said Cerf, who added that he wants ICANN to focus more on the technical merits of the various proposals.

ICANN's 19-member board is expected to vote later today on 44 applications from companies and organizations that are seeking to add new TLDs that would join existing ones such as .com, .net and .org. Many of the applicants also want to form new domain name registries that would compete with the one now operated by VeriSign Global Registry Services, a Mountain View, Calif.-based unit of VeriSign that manages the back-end process of maintaining domain names.

But a report, written by ICANN's staff and made public last week, that criticised aspects of about half of the proposals for new TLDs has tensions running high among some applicants.

For example, ICANN's review procedure angered Lou Kerner, a partner at the dotNom Consortium, which wants to offer a .nom domain for use by individuals looking to register personal domain names. The ICANN staff faulted the consortium's application on technical grounds as part of its report.

But Kerner said he was incredulous over the staff's analysis, especially since he already runs a domain name registry as the CEO of dotTV, a Pasadena, Calif., company that issues URLs using .tv at the end. The company got rights to .tv through an agreement with the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, which was assigned .tv as its country code.

Kerner, along with the other applicants, was given three minutes to defend his TLD application before the board. But instead, he spent his allotted time attacking ICANN's process and warning of potential of lawsuits from the losers.

"The right to due process should outweigh expediency," Kerner said, a remark that got sustained applause from many of the attendees in a packed hotel ballroom here.

But Esther Dyson, ICANN's chairwoman, was unsympathetic to Kerner's arguments. "We gave you a chance to speak, and you did not take very good advantage of it," Dyson said. However, she told Kerner that she would be willing to talk with him privately about the selection process.

Cerf attempted to throw out an olive branch to Kerner, telling him that the process is "not the last opportunity" for getting a new TLD approved. But Kerner responded that there would be "a tremendous advantage to being first to market" with additional TLDs.

ICANN received close to 200 proposals for new TLDs, with many applicants submitting multiple proposals. The organisation's staff reviewed the applications for their technical, business and legal soundness and winnowed the number of TLDs it's recommending for potential approval to less than 20, including .biz, .web, .union, .museum and .co-op.

The ICANN board is expected to vote to initially add less than 10 TLDs as part of a proof-of-concept phase that would be intended to measure the viability of expanding the number of top-level domains beyond the ones used now.

The goals of the applicants vary. For example, the Washington-based National Cooperative Business Association wants to run a registry for the .co-op domain, which would be restricted to the approximately 750,000 cooperatives worldwide. The association believes consumers who specifically seek to do business with cooperatives would be able to find them more easily if their Web sites could use .co-op, said Paul Hazen, its president and CEO.

"Co-ops traditionally have not fit easily into .com," Hazen said. "We're not true investor-owned businesses." But they also don't fit into the .org TLD, he added.

But it may be impossible for ICANN's board to appease everyone. Almost all of the issues raised at yesterday's session, which lasted nearly 11 hours, met with criticism. In many respects, the meeting was the live equivalent of a rancorous series of exchanges on an Internet mailing list.

One particularly contentious issue concerns the protection of corporate trademarks from cybersquatters after new top-level domains are created. Intellectual property groups tried to convince the ICANN board to ensure that any new TLDs include "sunrise" provisions giving trademark holders the right to register protected names before anyone else can usurp them.

Michael Heltzer, government relations manager at the International Trademark Association in New York, said the provision being sought by his group would have limits. For example, companies wouldn't be able to register creative misspellings or derogatory uses in order to block others from using them. "It's not as much as we would like, but it's a start," Heltzer said.

But the plan is being opposed by David Corish, the owner of Functional Metal, a maker of custom lighting and ironworks in Los Angeles. Corish argued that giving trademark holders first rights to pick out the domain names they want is unfair to small businesses such as his. "It gives some companies access to domain names on a silver platter," said Corish, taking a position that's also supported by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

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