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ICANN approves dotcom contract

9-6 in favour. All hell about to break loose

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ICANN has approved a controversial dotcom contract that will see VeriSign handed control of the internet's most famous product forever.

The Board of the Internet overseeing organisation held a special meeting last night where the contract received nine votes in favour, five against and one abstention.

The contract still has to be approved by the United States government, which should be a formality, although at least one congressman has written to the head of the Department of Commerce recommending the deal be shot down.

The controversy reigns over several elements in the new contract. For one, it provides VeriSign with a "presumptive right of renewal" over the dotcom registry - effectively handing one company complete control of all dotcom domains forever.

Twinned with this, the contract enables VeriSign to raise its prices by seven percent a year for the next six years (although it will have to justify rises in two of those years). VeriSign will also be given control of all expiring domain names - now the biggest market on the internet.

In return for the contract, VeriSign will drop its ruinous lawsuits against ICANN and also recognise ICANN as the internet's de facto authority, ending an historic split at the top of the internet.

However, while ICANN says that the settlement "will clear the way for a new and productive relationship between ICANN and VeriSign facilitating ICANN's stewardship and technical coordination of the Internet's domain name system", an increasing chorus of people are beginning to question whether board approval of the deal, against widespread opposition, is a signature on its own death warrant.

A fortnight ago, eight of the world's biggest registrars, representing 60 per cent of all the domain names bought and sold in the world, wrote a strongly worded letter to ICANN asking it to reject the contract.

It wasn't right, they argued, that VeriSign was being given permanent control of the dotcom registry, nor that it was allowed to raise prices at a time when everyone else is lowering prices.

The same fears were expressed right across ICANN's membership, and the contract itself sparked the creation of a new organisation called the Coalition for ICANN Transparency (CFIT).

CFIT is suing ICANN in the United States claiming a damaging lack of visibility over its decision-making processes. By signing off the existing dotcom contract ICANN risks "undermining its role in internet governance and its ability to deliver on its promise to end-users", CFIT has stated. It also risks "the long-term security and stability of the global communications platform and public confidence in it," the organisation argues.

In response to the approval last night, CFIT spokesman John Berard warned that it was only the beginning, rather than the end, of the process. "Voting in favor of a bad deal doesn't change the deal's dynamics, it just confirms ICANN's refusal to listen to legitimate criticism coming from every corner of the internet community. There will not be less litigation. There will likely be more litigation."

One respected ICANN observer, lawyer Bret Fausett, has already pondered publicly whether an exit plan is needed for ICANN. "It's probably not too late for ICANN to save itself," he argues, "but if it can't, a safety net is being quietly tied beneath it."

Testimony before the US Senate in 2002 by Karl Auerbach, a former ICANN Board member who sued the company to force it to allow him to review vital company records, has also become required reading by many following ICANN's progress. In, he pondered: What would happen to the internet if ICANN were to vanish?

Meanwhile, ICANN is holding a press conference later today and has promised to put up statements by board members about the deal in the next two days. That delay may portend critical words about ICANN's behaviour by its own board.

The board has held no less than four special meetings since the start of the year, two in the past week alone. The VeriSign deal has been the main or sole topic of conversation each time. The scheduling of so many meetings has been in response to pointed questions by board members combined with the organisation's determination to pass the contract before the next public meeting of ICANN in New Zealand this month.

That ICANN as an organisation has so much to gain from reaching agreement with VeriSign has compromised its intregrity, critics claim, and the approval of the dotcom registry against the wishes of its constituencies highlight the fatal flaws in its make-up. ®

How the board voted

In favour: Vint Cerf (Chairman), Alejandro Pisanty (Vice-Chairman), Mouhamet Diop, Demi Getschko, Hagen Hultzsch, Veni Markovski, Vanda Scartezini, Paul Twomey (President and CEO), and Hualin Qian.
Against: Raimundo Beca, Susan Crawford, Joichi Ito, Njeri Rionge, and Peter Dengate Thrush.
Abstention: Michael Palage.

Related links

ICANN statement on contract approval
Brett Fausett: ICANN exit plan
Karl Auerbach: What would happen to the internet if ICANN were to vanish?

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