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ICANN explains ‘thinking’ behind top domain decisions

It was never anything to do with how good the application was (?!)

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ICANN has explained its peculiar rational behind the choice of global top-level domain names, and defended accusations that the entire process was flawed, at a Congressional sub-committee.

Chairman of ICANN, Vinton G. Cerf, was faced with a barrage of criticism over the process, its limited time span, and the final choices made. He defended the decision to charge all applicants a non-refundable $50,000, saying that the fee was needed to cover the cost of the process since ICANN has no money of its own.

He admitted it was a shame that its staff report into the bids - on which decisions were heavily based and was full of errors - wasn't available to anyone except ICANN until only days before the decisions were made. He claimed this was because of the large number of comments made by members of the public, which were then tied into the report.

As for complaints that ICANN refused to talk to applicants: this just isn't true. ICANN staff refused to have private conversations with them. "For this process to work, the vast bulk of ICANN's work must be transparent to the public, and so with very rare exceptions (such as matters dealing with personnel issues), everything ICANN does it does in public." [cough! splutter! cough!] We must warn you that Mr Cerf's definitions of "private" and "personnel" are liable to be very different from your own.

The three-minute pitch that comprised the entire personal contact that applicants had with ICANN staff was also justifiable. Oral presentations "were never intended to be the sole or primary source of information for the Board". And "the opportunity to make a presentation at the public forum was simply the final step in an extensive process, available so that any last-minute questions could be asked or points made."

We haven't heard if he commented on the accusation that the incredible speed with which the entire process was run (and original aspects of the process dropped) was due to the fact that the At-Large members (again, that's the directors voted for entirely democratically by the Internet community) were due to start. As it was, the decisions were made before they took their places and none of them had a hand in the process.

However, the most interesting bit about Vinton's testimony was the explanation of how ICANN viewed the entire process. The decision over what gTLDs were approved and who was given the right to run them apparently had nothing to do with how good the actual applications were.

"This effort was not a contest to find the most qualified, or the most worthy, or the most attractive for any reason of the various applicants," he told the committee. "ICANN is not and should not be in the business of making value judgments. What ICANN is about is protecting the stability of the Internet and, to the extent consistent with that goal, increasing competition and competitive options for consumers of domain name services. Thus, what ICANN was doing here was an experiment, a proof of concept, an attempt to find a limited number of appropriate applicants to test what happens when new TLDs of various kinds are added to the namespace today."

It would seem that ICANN has a serious identity problem here. No matter what it may think it is, it has effectively managed to win executive power of the Internet. With this power comes not only technical responsibility but also commercial responsibility. If ICANN is unable to make a fair decision, it should have found another organisation to do it.

He goes on to say the same thing a few times, but sums it up in this phrase: "This was never a process in which the absolute or relative merit of the particular application was determinative."

So have we all misunderstood ICANN? It is just a techie outfit that has been lumbered with all these other responsibilities and everyone is being a bit unfair to it? Well, we'd agree that it's not up to the job. But then the organisation has gone out of its way to make itself as powerful and non-attributable as possible, so it only has itself to blame. We'd welcome the formation of another body to take over the non-techie aspects of the Internet. In fact, we'd be delighted. ®

Related Links

Vinton's testimony
The Committee run-down

Related Story

Congress sets date for ICANN review

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