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ICANN caught red-handed

Rewrites rules to exclude disruptive influence

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The Internet's overseeing body, ICANN, has been caught red-handed manipulating its own rules to protect existing members at the expense of its stated philosophy of openness.

A series of delays in processing an application by domain registrar New.net to join one of ICANN's representative bodies (called constituencies) was followed last week with the rejection of the company's bid.

However in the subsequent explanation as to why New.net was not entitled to join the body, ICANN inadvertently undermined many of the current members of the Business Constituency (BC) - including such names as AOL, AT&T, BT and MCI Worldcom.

This is hardly the first time that ICANN has been accused of bending its bylaws in order to fit the wishes of the organisation's directors - its predilection for holding all important meetings in complete secrecy stands completely at odds with its public role. But rarely has the antipathy towards those who threaten ICANN's views on how the Internet ought to run been so apparent.

New.net applied to become a member of the Business Constituency (one of seven such groups) on 25 July this year. The BC asks for a six-week period to consider new applicants and New.net wanted to make sure it was within this time period so it could attend BC meetings at a big conference in Uruguay in September.

At the Uruguay meeting, the BC was due to discuss a report on "alternate roots" and come up with conclusions and recommendations to pass onto the wider ICANN body. New.net is one of the main companies (certainly the most well-known) that provide alternate roots - i.e. domains that end with something other than the ICANN-approved endings like .com, .net and .org.

However, when New.net arrived at Uruguay it was informed that the BC's "Credentials Committee" had all been on holiday for six weeks and so there hadn't been time to consider its application. This was universally seen as a stalling tactic and the meeting over the report went ahead without New.net's presence or input.

However, the company was surprised when a month later the BC rejected its application, saying that it was a "registry/registrar" (for which there is another constituency) and no one group could be a member of more than one constituency at a time.

New.net asked for clarification on this no-more-than-one-constituency decision, especially since it has no precedent and goes against the reality of the situation on the ground.

The BC secretariat replied saying: "The BC charter does not exclude registries and registrars from membership merely because of their participation in another constituency. The Charter distinguishes providers of network connectivity/transport, domain name and other services that enable the development of electronic business, from their customers. The BC is an independent voice for the customers of such providers. It is the potential divergence of interests, not the mere participation in another ICANN constituency, that underlies the membership criteria."

Which seems like a reasonable response until you consider that most of the current members of the Business Constituency have far more glaring conflicts of interests that New.net, which is small fry in comparison. Companies which cover all aspects of "providers of network connectivity/transport, domain name and other services" and in far greater depth than New.net include AOL, AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Korea Telecom, MCI Worldcom and Telefonica.

One seasoned observer of ICANN, Milton Mueller, has said of the situation that it was "equivalent to allowing Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Honda decide who gets to enter the auto manufacturing business".

There is certainly genuine outrage that ICANN is being so blatant in its control of critical voices. On ICANN's official site, it describes its approach to decision-making thus: "ICANN's objective to operate as an open, transparent, and consensus-based body that is broadly representative of the diverse stakeholder communities of the global Internet".

Since New.net has been a steady success whereas the companies selling the new official TLDs .info and .biz have stumbled and fallen in the past few weeks, it would certainly suggest that it is representative of many Internet users.

ICANN has to learn that it can no longer expect to continue running the Internet as a gentlemen's club. The dismissal of New.net is indicative of a greater cancer at the heart of ICANN.

Why is ICANN so over-sensitive to any group that dares to question how things are done? Any organisation afraid to embrace change or criticism is doomed to failure. The fact that that organisation runs the Internet - the greatest leap forward in communication among men since the telephone - makes it all the more ironic. ®

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