ICANN's Cairo Conclave Creeps Along

CAIRO (03/09/2000) - Even though the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has changed the backdrop for its latest public meeting to the ancient Egyptian capital, one thing hasn't changed: the fitful, yet languid pace ICANN uses to conduct business.

Little is at stake at this week's meeting of the nonprofit entity that administers the technical aspects of the Internet, besides an expected board of directors' vote on adoption of an at-large membership structure, including at-large balloting for half of ICANN's permanent board.

But the chief topic of discussion, as usual, is the allocation of Internet domain names. This time, the talk focuses on creation of new "generic top-level" domains such as .store or .inc, to relieve the crush of domain name registrations in .com and edu. Also swirling is the question of how to administer existing "country-code top-level" domains, such as .uk and .fr.

While the at-large membership issue isn't as sexy as new domain names are, it goes to the heart of ICANN's future.

To wit: Can an organization that's nominally global and democratic actually pull off a global, democratic election? For months, ICANN has been laboring to establish an at-large membership, and allow those members to start voting for the nine directors who will eventually replace ICANN's original interim board, including chairwoman Esther Dyson. Last October, ICANN adopted bylaws that set up a three-stage process for this: In the first stage - now underway - ICANN will take membership applications on a specially established Web site.

In the second stage, members will vote for an 18-person at-large council. In the final stage, the council will elect the nine new ICANN board members. ICANN hopes to complete the whole process by Sept. 30, probably so that the nine long-suffering interim board members, including Dyson, can resign before they completely lose their minds. But two public interest groups, the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause, have issued a critical study of the proposed at-large process. The two groups object to the at-large council, and say that members should directly elect the at-large board members after an extensive ICANN-sponsored public education campaign.

They also say that membership qualifications should be as loose as possible; an independent auditor should be engaged to monitor the elections; and that ICANN first should define the scope of its authority in writing. "It's like going from the Constitutional Convention straight to online voting without the intervening 200 years," says CDT executive director Jerry Berman. "There ought to be accountability."

It's unclear whether ICANN's existing board will take Berman's advice to go slow, or will vote on Friday to lurch ahead instead. But ICANN is unlikely to dispense with the at-large council. That's because the council is intended to create a legal filter between ICANN and potentially millions of at-large members. Under the laws of California, where ICANN is incorporated, full members of nonprofit groups have the right to sue the organizations over disagreements on policies and practices. But those same laws define members as those who cast ballots for boards of directors. ICANN needs the at-large council to withhold full legal membership from the at-large subscribers.

Tuesday's news that VeriSign domain-name behemoth Network Solutions has had little if any effect on deliberations about creating new top-level Internet domains. ICANN's Domain Name Supporting Organization continues to thrash around in search of a policy consensus. The organization's Names Council heard a working group proposal Wednesday to start small by creating a handful of new domains and watching to see what happens. The Names Council asked the working group to rework its proposal and resubmit it within 10 days, to be followed by a four-week public comment period. A spokesman for the Consumer Project for Technology, which "specialized" domains such .sucks and .union, said the CPT will petition the Department of Commerce next week to issue formal rules governing new generic top-level domain names.

A Department of Commerce spokeswoman declined to comment on the deal without studying its terms first. But the department is expected to have no formal say in the matter. A November agreement with NSI gives the department the right to approve the transfer of ownership of the lucrative central registry of .com, .net and .org names. But under the terms of the deal, no NSI assets are being formally transferred to VeriSign. That means that NSI would remain the sole legal entity administering the registry. Either the Department of Justice or the Federal Trade Commission will conduct a routine antitrust review of the deal.

Trademark holders continue to oppose what they see as the premature creation of new generic top-level domain names, arguing that kinks in existing domain name dispute resolution need to be worked out before new names are added. Another DNSO working group has been haggling over a proposal to give trademark holders the right of first refusal in registering their trademarks in new domains.

Separately, the Governmental Advisory Committee is asking ICANN for a greater say in the administration of country-code top level domains, which nominally belong to countries in the GAC but which are often administered by independent companies.

The GAC met behind locked doors for several hours Wednesday afternoon before emerging to submit a carefully worded communique promising to keep working with ICANN, and recommending that ICANN go slow on new generic top-level domain names. Despite the fact that Cairo is halfway around the globe from Los Angeles, the site of ICANN's headquarters and its November board meeting, the attendee list has changed little.

There are plenty of lawyers, lobbyists and corporate spokespeople, but very few ordinary Internet users of the sort ICANN wants to include in its at-large membership. The Markle Foundation, the philanthropist organization that funded the CDT/Common Cause study, announced Tuesday that it and the Ford Foundation would contribute $75,000 each to a special travel fund to help subsidize travel to future ICANN meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for July in Yokohama, Japan.

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