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ICANN speaks out for registrar reform

Dr Twomey drops the dime

As Registerfly fades into oblivion, ICANN has at last taken it upon itself to address many of the questions raised by the company's precipitous collapse.

ICANN issued a statement on its website today detailing a variety of issues to be addressed at the upcoming ICANN conference in Lisbon.

President and CEO of ICANN, Dr Paul Twomey, left no doubt as to the depth of the problems brought to light by the Registerfly fiasco, and to the amount of work to be done to ensure that it does not happen again.

Registerfly, which currently controls about two million domains for 900,000 different users, recently lost its ICANN accreditation after a long-simmering scandal surrounding dodgy domain registration and hosting services erupted into the public eye in a nasty lawsuit between two of the founders. ICANN's hesitant response to the crisis - nothing quite like this had happened before, and ICANN was clearly unsure how to proceed - only fanned the flames as angry Registerfly customers barraged the ICANN blog with complaints about the company and ICANN's apparent impotence.

Customers who had lost their businesses or personal websites took no solace in the fact that Registerfly itself was on the verge of collapse, and vented their frustrations mightily. Ultimately, ICANN yanked Registerfly's accreditation, giving it until 31 March to enable transfer of all domains. The larger picture, of course, involved ICANN's governance of the net itself, and led to the question - now what do we do?

ICANN has now called for an overhaul of the entire registration and accreditation process, and given the first look at what the future of the relationship between ICANN, the registrars, and domain holders might look like.

"What has happened to registrants with RegisterFly.com has made it clear there must be comprehensive review of the registrar accreditation process and the content of the RAA (Registrar Accreditation Agreement), Dr Twomey emphasized. "This is going to be a key debate at our Lisbon meeting scheduled for 26 March to 30 March 2007. There must be clear decisions made on changes. As a community we cannot put this off."

Tough talk from an organization generally considered toothless.

Dr Twomey's strongly worded statement continued: "ICANN introduced competition to the domain name market in 1998. Back then there was one registrar. There are now over 865. That's a good thing because it has made domain names cheaper and offered more choice. But the RAA was designed and signed when the domain name market was much smaller. The market now supports about 70 million generic TLD names and is growing. Registrants suffer most from weaknesses in the RAA and I want to make sure that ICANN's accreditation process and our agreement gives us the ability to respond more strongly and flexibly in the future."

The announcement listed a plethora of problems with the current system, in which ICANN has little authority over a corrupt or derelict registrar other than to yank the accreditation.

Proposals for what ICANN's role in organizing the structure of the internet should be, or if ICANN is the right group to do it at all, are legion, and could fill an entire conference on their own. Still, the list of options on the table for discussion shows that ICANN is tired of screwing around with Registerfly, and wants to institutionalize changes along the lines advocated by El Reg in the last few weeks.

The most important issue - some kind of escrow system to hold data in trust in the event that there is a dispute about who the owner is - has apparently already been accepted as necessary by ICANN, and even bolder proposals, involving possibly even a new entity to address these disputes directly, are also on this impressive list of potential reforms.

Purpose of Register Accreditation Policy and Agreement -

What is the primary purpose of the Registration Accreditation Agreement? Is it a compliance tool? If so how can it be strengthened to protect registrants?

Rating of Registrars - How should ICANN and/or the registrar constituency encourage a system that rates registrars according to customer service and performance and should this be available to registrants?

Affiliated Registrars / Group ownership - Affiliated registrars have common ownership or control. What is the best mechanism for ICANN to hold affiliated registrars accountable for an affiliate's actions?

Additional compliance enforcement tools - Stronger compliance tools need to be included in any reform to the RAA. What are those tools? Do they encompass liquidated damages? Should registrars be able to be suspended more readily? Are there other options? What are the mechanisms that allow such options to be enforced quickly?

Transfer policy - What elements of the transfer policy need to be reformed? Should registrants have an alternative to their current registrar for the issuing of authcodes and the unlocking of them? Should ICANN or another entity be able to do this?

Registrar operator skill testing - How is it possible to assess registrar skills and to train registrars to a common standard of performance upon which registrants can rely?

Accreditation by purchase - It is possible for companies to "avoid" accreditation application process by buying a registrar. How can abuse of this loophole be stopped?

Proxy registrations - There needs to be an examination of proxy registrations in light of difficulties faced in registrar data recovery. What is the balance between privacy and disclosure?

Reseller liability under RAA - What tools are needed to ensure better accountability by resellers to registrants?

Registrar data escrow - What data needs to be escrowed? If implementation needs to move faster, greater resource allocation is required. What level of resourcing is necessary?

Clarification of ICANN's responsibilities and the options available to registrants - ICANN recently posted a guide for registrants on its website but additional consumer options (outside ICANN) should be identified for and provided to registrants. Is there a need for a new entity to assist customers and intervene on behalf of their concerns?

The need to deal with disputes involving the domain registration system itself, such as who really owns a disputed domain or a domain unlawfully placed in redemption, promise to overshadow already important topics leaked to the press regarding privacy rights and the Whois registry.

The battle between privacy advocates, principally from Europe where privacy laws are typically stronger, and property rights lawyers, primarily American, over just how much registrant data needs to be public knowledge, has reached a tentative truce, in which only the name and resident country of the registered domain holder will appear in the Whois registry. A third party contact will now be allowed.

The current system, in which false proxies were used to obscure the registrant's personal details, has proven to be the worst of both worlds, as Dr Twomey argues.

"What is presently happening with RegisterFly makes it clear that there are also some problems with proxy registrations. Specifically, proxy registrations are available as a choice, but people who have them have great difficulties getting access to their data and having their domain name transferred where a registrar is uncooperative or has other problems with transfer. ICANN has had difficulty accessing this data too. We need to expedite data escrow. There has been a long and detailed discussion and much interaction between ICANN staff and registrars on this issue. But we need to reach a conclusion. Recent events and the Lisbon meeting present that opportunity."

That opportunity is long overdue, and El Reg will be covering the conference in full next week to see where it leads. ®

Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office

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