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Of ICANN and the registrar zombies

Or, how I stopped worrying and learned to love our internet overlords

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ICANN Lisbon ICANN Lisbon 2007 officially opened today, although in true ICANN style work has been going on all weekend - it's just the public part began today, with the usual welcoming speeches by Chairman Vint Cerf and CEO Paul Twomey.

The opening speeches provided a glimpse into some recent ICANN accomplishments - Libya got its own Top Level Domain (TLD), .ly, after years of fighting for it, the Whois registry is still being fought over, and the Regional At Large Organization (RALO) concept continues to evolve - but much of the first day consisted of arguments about Registerfly, and what it means for ICANN.

The fate of Registerfly, which will be an ICANN accredited registrar until March 31, provided the opportunity for considerable soul-searching by what is euphemistically known as the ICANN community. The astonishingly sudden collapse of a major registrar, which came into the public spotlight through a very personal and seedy lawsuit between two of the founders, rather than through any actions of ICANN itself, has revealed some severe tensions within ICANN about the nature of ICANN's role as the standards body for the internet as a whole.

Allegations of fraud against Registerfly led to a torrent of complaints directed at ICANN - Registerfly's accreditor, remember - after ICANN's usual method of referring customers back to their registrars proved worse than useless, only pouring fuel on the fire.

The mediocre ICANN website - which is thankfully also in the process of being revamped - didn't really provide any kind of forum for public discussion (the General Manager for Public Participation position was left vacant for ages), and so people turned their frustrations to the ombudsman's office, which is meant for complaints about ICANN's own processes. Of course, those might have been part of the problem.

Although an entire gripe site, called Registerflies.com, spent over a year reporting on problems with Registerfly and its panoply of shortcomings and complaining to ICANN itself about the mess, ICANN refused even to post negative comments about Registerfly on its blog. The first week that ICANN opened its blog to the public it received over 500 complaints about Registerfly, the new General Manager for Public Participation, onetime Reg reporter Kieren McCarthy reported today, which included huge numbers of complaints about ICANN's ostrich-like lack of responsiveness to the public.

ICANN is now divided between those, such as ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf, who clings to the fantasy that ICANN is not a regulatory body, and others within the organization who realize that the internet is a unique medium whose very structure is a form of regulation, which is determined by ICANN itself.

Vint Cerf said on more than one occasion today that ICANN's role is to allow the market to shape the future of the internet. Using the carrot and the stick of market capitalism to influence human behavior is all well and good, but to pretend that any market exists absolutely unfettered is sheer delusion. The American capital markets have the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) and London has its Financial Services Administration (FSA), and an almost surreal number of human behaviors are regulated by various criminal codes, for those who care to read them.

So why should the internet, which is as artificial a consruct as there can be, be different? Why is it that I can be criminally cited for crossing against a red light, as at times I have been, and corporate activity gets treated with idealogical kid gloves - we must let the market sort itself out! - solely because it's of a commercial nature? And, fundamentally, how is it the ICANN can even pretend to be something other than a regulatory body, when it determines the very parameters of the internet itself?

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