Congressmen turn on ICANN

And why only the Internet will suffer

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Incredibly, after nearly five years of well-documented and widespread abuse by the organisation charged with running the Internet, ICANN, US Congress has decided it doesn't like what's going on and two Congressmen have introduced legislation "to ensure healthy competition in the Internet naming market".

The Fair Transparent and Competitive Internet Naming Act has been introduced by Brian Baird and Jay Inslee, both Congressmen from Washington state, and was sparked by ICANN's attempt to hand another monopoly to its main benefactor VeriSign - this time giving it exclusive rights to all domains that expire.

However, what is interesting is that Baird and Inslee has written into the legislation that the US government's General Accounting Office (GAO) "study the operating procedures" of ICANN. The words "can" and "worms" are simply not big enough to explain the size of this were it to happen.

Both Congressmen appear to only be interested in the WLS issue - the handing over of all expired domains to VeriSign. And the only reason this interests them is because two of the companies most set to suffer from the WLS plan - Dotster and eNom - just happen to be based in Washington. In fact, the official press release says: "Brian Baird and Jay Inslee introduced legislation today to ensure healthy competition in the internet naming market and protect tech jobs in the Northwest", so it's quite clear where they're coming from. In this sense they appear to have hit a mine while digging for a dime.

You see, the approval of the WLS does indeed need review. VeriSign proposed to ICANN that if would be a nice idea if it was given complete control of every single expiring .com and .net domain. This, apparently, would clear up the terrible mess of competing registrars fighting over expired domains and bring clarity to the end users. For this service it would charge "no more than" $24.

It took about 30 seconds for everyone in the Internet industry to start shouting. First the issue of a $24 fee. How on earth could this figure be right when VeriSign already runs the .com and .net registries and when it charges just $6 for domain renewals (something it makes a tidy profit from anyway)? Where in God's name did this extra $18 per domain come from? There was no explanation given and ICANN seemed happy with it.

Then, there was the not unreasonable observation that by giving VeriSign control of expiring domains it was effectively shutting down any new business to any other registrars. VeriSign believes it has a god-given right to own, run and be paid for every .com domain - which in the early days of the Internet it did. This is the company that was sued, and lost, for sending out completely false and misleading emails to domain owners conning them into re-registering their domain with VeriSign - and here was VeriSign writing out its own cheques.

So, the WLS scheme was not popular. ICANN put it out for discussion. It came back completely against the proposal. ICANN put it out again to a different group. Same thing happened. It put it out again to another group. Still no one would do anything but condemn the idea. And then, the ICANN Board of Directors completely over-ruled everyone and everything and approved the scheme anyway.

It is this process that the legislation introduced hopes to get to the bottom off and until it does, it insists that the WLS plans be halted.

Except, as anyone that has followed ICANN will tell you, this process of divide-and-conquer by asking the same question again and again until someone gives the right answer has been going on for years. Although only recently has the Board become so complacent that it goes ahead with what it wants without any backing at all.

This corrupting process has seen ICANN rewrite its own rules at will, keeping people on the Board for years after they were supposed to have left. This process has written out the Internet users' right to vote for members of the board - just this week we heard that the people that will be running ICANN for the next three are almost to a man from its tightly defined elite. This process has alienated most other countries in the world to the extent that they are refusing to contribute funds to the organisation. This process has turned what was supposed to be a standards body interested only in the technical side of the Internet into a political animal whose budget and staff has expanded out of all proportion to the job it needs to do.

And it is this process that a US government auditing body would rip to shreds within a week given half a chance. Effectively, if ICANN's decision-making process was allowed to be held up and criticised and as a result the WLS decision reversed, ICANN would implode as the weight of every other unjustifiable decision pressed on it.

It is likely that the GAO would be allowed to do what the legislation suggests? No. But it is possible. The Congressmen's concerns are jobs going in their district. Patch that up and ICANN's off the hook. ICANN may tried to ring-fence the damage to just the WLS by offering another debate or by tying VeriSign into a more competitive set-up - anything but let its decision-making process be examined.

However, whether the whole thing comes to nothing or if it ends up destroying ICANN, there is only one real loser and that is the Internet. The Internet is supposed to live above geographical boundaries, it is supposed to be a medium that empowers everyone, provides everyone with freedom and allows everyone access to everyone else.

But in a sad reflection of current global politics, despite everything that is said and all the calming words that come from the US, the Internet is run by America and it will not let it go.

When, despite hundreds of critical voices from all over the world over several years, the only change that can be made to an organisation that is running the World Wide Web is one that is run through the United States legal system because of the fear of loss of jobs in Washington State, well, then we have a situation that is never going to be right.

This legislation is just the writing on the toe-tag for ICANN's corpse. This dream of an autonomous, independent Internet body is already dead. What happens once everyone realises that will be a defining point of this century. ®

Related link
US Congress legislation press release

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