David Rowan, editor of WIRED magazine, launches a ferocious broadside at the internet’s global domain registry ICANN, concluding the organisation is no longer fit for purpose.
Sorry, internet: it’s time to place your custody in safer hands.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Californian body effectively responsible for all internet domains, is no longer a fit and proper parent. On behalf of all of us who ever use the internet, I call for adoption papers urgently to be drawn up before our collective child is further damaged by a self-regarding body whose arrogance, conflicts of interest, greed and mismanagement would be laughable were ICANN not a monopoly.
Let me tell you why. From tomorrow, ICANN is offering “entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and communities around the world” a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: the chance to bid for their own internet suffix in place of the .com or .net at the end of a domain. The new suffixes – .wired, say, or .kernel – are called generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), and according to ICANN they “pave the way for increased consumer choice by facilitating competition among registry service providers”.
All you need do is hand over an “evaluation fee” of a mere $185,000 for each suffix (so .kernel and .thekernel would together be $370,000). The fee is fully non-refundable if you’re turned down, of course, and excludes your legal costs.
ICANN president Rod Beckstrom calls the new fundraising initiative “the most significant opening in the history of the domain name system”. He also calls it an “innovation”. For sure, there will be benefits for those who seek non-Latin or non-ASCII domains, which will be on offer.
But those former ICANN executives I’ve spoken to are outraged that the body they once held dear is pursuing what they see as a coldly greedy strategy that will confuse consumers, encourage cybersquatting, and serve the interests of those who profit from domain name registration.
And it’s not as if there’s a hunger among the corporate world to extend top-level domains in this way. In fact, last November, the US Association of National Advertisers sent a petition to the US commerce secretary, John Bryson, expressing “strong concern” about ICANN’s entire process. “ICANN’s action was taken despite widespread and significant objections raised throughout the process by many in the global community of internet users,” the petition stated.
“ICANN’s decision was not made in the public interest, does not promote consumer trust, and does not benefit the public, as required in the Affirmation of Commitments between ICANN and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).”
It also pointed to “troubling conflict of interest questions – which cast a shadow over the entire process leading up to ICANN’s decision”.
To allow the plan to be implemented would be unwise, the petition said, “given its undisputed costs and its merely putative benefits. The ICANN proposal would unduly burden a diverse range of public and private brand holders, as they would be forced to spend ever-greater amounts of time and resources simply to protect their brands.
“In addition, there is an unacceptably high risk that the ICANN plan would confuse consumers, increase the already unacceptable level of fraud and identity theft on the internet, create new opportunities for Internet crime, and jeopardize cyber security.”
The petition’s signatories? Eighty corporations and trade associations including Adobe Systems Incorporated , American Express, Burger King Corporation, The Coca-Cola Company, Dell Inc., Ford Motor Company, General Electric Company, Hewlett-Packard Company, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg Company, Nestle USA, Procter & Gamble, Publicis Groupe and many more. Hardly a fringe group of protestors – but ICANN ignored them and ploughed ahead.
Last week, Lawrence Strickling, administrator of the US Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, wrote to ICANN imploring it to minimise the need for companies to register these domain names merely to protect themselves from others buying them.
“In meetings we have held with industry over the past weeks,” Strickling wrote, “we have learned that there is tremendous concern about the specifics of the program that may lead to a number of unintended and unforeseen consequences and could jeopardize its success.” ICANN ploughed ahead.
And in December, the US Federal Trade Commission chairman, Jon Leibowitz, said that implementing the programme could be a “disaster” for consumers. ICANN ploughed ahead.
Then the US National Retail Federation, a trade body, recently wrote to Congress condemning the lack of transparency in the programme, and its huge potential cost. ICANN… well, you know the score by now.
Delays and conflicts
Maybe ICANN is simply too caught up in its own incompetence to respond. At a board meeting last week to assess progress, it emerged that a new version of the applicant guidebook – the bible that every applicant and their lawyers must rely on – was scheduled for release… today, just one day before applications are opened.
There will be further delays, too: the body due to run the trademark protection database will not be chosen until the end of February either. Further safeguards – such as a system to let states oppose applications – won’t be ready for a further month. And so it goes on.
Rod Beckstrom, meanwhile, is stoking up his sales pitch. “Time is short,” he told a Beijing event last month. “If you have not done so, now is the time to get expert advice and get your marketing people engaged to take advantage of new opportunities. If you need help there are many companies around the world that offer this service.”
And don’t think you can simply ignore that golden $185,000 opportunity – who knows which rivals could damage your business by getting there first? “If you do not choose to apply,” he said, “you should still pay attention to those who do, and use the protections built into the program to safeguard your brand or community.” Get defensively buying, then.
It’s worth asking whether ICANN supporters themselves stand to benefit from this “innovation”. Let’s examine, for example, the biographies belonging to ICANN’s board of directors.
ICANN’s website tells us that one board member, for instance, is Bruce Tonkin, “currently Chief Strategy Officer for Melbourne IT Limited.” Melbourne IT, we are told, “was the first commercial administrator for the .com.au namespace (beginning in 1996), and in 1999 was one of the first five test-bed registrars when ICANN established registrar competition for the existing com/net/org registry. Melbourne IT now provides domain name registration services for many gTLDs and ccTLDs.”
Then there’s Ram Mohan, “Executive Vice President, & Chief Technology Officer of Afilias Limited.” Ram “oversees key strategic, management and technology choices for the company in support of the generic top-level domains (gTLDs) .INFO and .ORG, sponsored domains .mobi, .asia, and .aero and country code domains including .IN (India) and .ME (Montenegro).”
What about Rajasekhar Ramarajs, “the Founder and till recently the CEO of Sify Limited, the pioneer and leader in Internet, Networking and eCommerce Services in India”?
Or Michael “Mike” Silber, “Head Legal and Commercial of Liquid Telecomms …Mike previously served as regulatory advisor to the South African Internet Service Providers’ Association”?
Or Chris Disspain, “Chief Executive Officer of .au Domain Administration Ltd”?
The list goes on. I’ll say one thing for Rod Beckstrom. He’s not wrong about this being “the most significant opening in the history of the domain name system”, is he?