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ICANN pushes for public participation in top level domains

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The Internet Corporation for the Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN) has taken what appears to be a welcome step toward increasing public participation in the controversial area of generic Top Level Domain (gTLD) approval. ICANN, which determines the technical standards that govern the internet, has long been criticized for its opaque and capricious approach to approving new gTLDs.

Although a fresh press release did not specify just how the public will participate outside of the current ICANN structure, which ICANN has conveniently detailed with an updated FAQ site, we assume that the recent increase in public participation blogs on ICANN’s own site will be a big part of it.

ICANN subjected itself to considerable criticism after the Lisbon meeting for its flip-flopping on the .xxx domain, and an increase in public participation could be one way to ensure that such fiascoes don’t happen in the future. Hopefully, this signifies that ICANN will be proactive on the issue – public participation in and of itself doesn’t guarantee a clear and fair process on a controversial topic such as .xxx. The participation is welcome, but ICANN still needs to apply transparent standards equally, which clearly did not happen with .xxx.

The development of a new gTLD approval process is only part of an expansion of the internet itself. At the Lisbon meeting, ICANN spent considerable time educating the public on the new Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), and recently released a toolkit for developers to assure that the IDN system doesn’t interfere with the smooth operation of the internet itself. Domains will now be available in a universal character set rather than ASCII, allowing for domains in Chinese or Arabic, for example.

“This is all about choice. We want the diversity of the world’s people, geography and business to be able to be represented in the domain name system,” said Dr Paul Twomey, President and CEO of ICANN. “That is why it’s so important for people to participate in the development of a new gTLD process. We will get input from businesses, governments, and the public at large in the coming months and at the ICANN meeting in Puerto Rico on 25-29 June 2007. If the new approval process comes on-line as planned, the global Internet could see new top-level domains added and available between June and August 2008.”

“When ICANN was founded in 1998, only a few TLDs, including .com, were generally available to the public for registration of domain names. Our mission has been to expand the number of TLDs available to users – and we have made great progress,” Dr Twomey said. “When the new approval process is complete, Internet users around the globe will have more choice in the TLD market.”

ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) is the policy arm for development in this field, and it will continue to build on what it has done in developing new approval process. GNSO materials are available on ICANN’s website. Of the current total of 120 million sites, Verisign’s .com accounts for 62 million, providing a cool $418 million in annual revenue for ICANN’s longtime antagonist.

This reporter has argued in the past that ICANN should publish clear and consistent rules for gTLD registration, and allow anyone who fulfills the requirements to sink or swim on their own. Whether or not an expansion in gTLDs will ever weaken Verisign’s stranglehold on the most profitable segment of the registry market remains to be seen.®

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

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