Sounds like deja vu for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is charged with coordinating the Internet's domain name system, an international network of Internet domain servers and Web addresses.
Imbroglios have upstaged the organization's role as a Net policy-maker before, although they've done little to change the way the organization works. Now, the group has proposed reforms aimed at cutting the bickering short. But many critics believe the plans may lead to its most significant crisis yet.
At stake, longtime ICANN watchers say, is nothing short of the future of the organization that Net insiders love to hate.
"We're getting to the point where something has to happen," said Internet guru and former ICANN President Esther Dyson.
If you aren't stirred to action by the minutiae of Internet governance, or if you haven't run into snags registering a domain name, then you may not know or care about ICANN. Its troubles have not resulted in much obvious fallout for consumers. Since its inception, competition among companies that provide domain name services has increased, prices have fallen, and a system has been set up to deal with disputes over domain name rights, among other things.
Just below the surface, however, ICANN has been bedeviled by infighting between the myriad interests affected by its pronouncements, including registrars, corporations, academic institutions and even countries.
Criticism ranges from charges that the group's officials fritter away money on business-class plane tickets to complaints the organization is not accountable enough. Or as technology gadfly John Perry Barlow put it in a proposal submitted to the organization, ICANN lacks the "moral authority" to control "a social space that cannot easily be coerced into submission." The body is even facing a lawsuit from one of its own directors, who charges the group's staff illegally barred his access to corporate records.
According to ICANN-backers, such disputes have turned the group into a political punching bag and undermined its primary mission of ensuring that Web addresses are handed out in an orderly fashion.
What's more, domain name squabbles may be little more than a sideshow as the group tries to define its mission in the face of technical challenges--including grappling with increased security risks and a potential shortage of IP (Internet Protocol) numbers that identify individual computers on the Web--as more devices need their own address.
As the group's own draft mission statement, which was posted earlier this month, states: "There must be understood boundaries, or ICANN risks losing its focus."
History of conflict
ICANN was given life by the U.S. government in 1998 as an independent policy-making body to administer the routing system that connects computers across the Internet. It is in charge of approving top-level domains, such as .biz and .info, and runs one of the 13 key root servers that store crucial addressing data relating to the most popular domain .com.
The group's role was conceived primarily as a technical one. But it quickly became political as one of the most visible instruments of the U.S. government's plan to privatize the Net and release it into the wilds of the global economy.
The problems ICANN faces are twofold: The body not only is trying to oversee the development of the Internet, it's also trying to hash out its own governing structure. What's more, the board is a hodgepodge of people from all over the world with different ideas about how open government should be and how broadly ICANN should act. During its three-and-a-half-year history, it's repeatedly grappled with questions about its policies. When it first started out, it didn't even hold open board meetings, laying the groundwork for secrecy charges that have dogged it to this day.
Since its inception, critics have harbored suspicions of the group's corporate and U.S. biases.
"We're largely a bunch of lemmings, and management points at a cliff and we all go jump over it."
Some observers have suggested the disputes amount to a tempest in a teapot. Tom Weber, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, recently compared the group's intrigues to debates between "Star Trek" fans over whether Captain Kirk could "take" Picard.
Those close to the debates take them far more seriously.
"We don't yet know the harm that's been caused by the elevation of (intellectual property) rights over free speech," said Karl Auerbach, the board member who, with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has sued ICANN for access to financial records.
The longtime ICANN critic said any appearance that the board is open is a false one. Auerbach claims directors often make decisions in private meetings or even at the dinner before the board meeting. "We're largely a bunch of lemmings, and management points at a cliff and we all go jump over it."
"I'm the only one doing due diligence," Auerbach said of his unsuccessful efforts to view corporate records. Auerbach claims the group stonewalled him about the information and then wouldn't release it without conditionals--charges ICANN denies.
Michael Froomkin runs a Web page called ICANNWatch.org, which keeps a nearly daily litany of the organization's troubles. He's critical not only of what he calls the "unholy alliance" between ICANN officials and trademark holders, but also of the group's meetings, which he said are inaccessible to many and not widely available on the Web. He is especially perplexed by Auerbach's lawsuit, which he said could shed light on many of ICANN's activities.
"I cannot understand how ICANN could possibly let it come to this," he said.
Froomkin suggests breaking up the body's duties and giving them to existing organizations. The action, he said, would prevent "horse trading" among ICANN officials by separating noncontroversial duties, such as aspects of the Internet's technical maintenance, from controversial ones, such as the intellectual-property issues.
Barrage of solutions
The current firestorm ravaging the organization was touched off earlier this month when ICANN published a series of reform proposals that would pare back its democratic structure.
Those suggestions have been met with a barrage of counterproposals--including breaking up the body and handing its duties to existing groups such as the International Telecommunications Union, the consortium that runs the global telephone system.
"It's obviously a lot more complex than the people who hired me told me it would be," said ICANN President Stuart Lynn, who took over the role a year ago.
Even Lynn agrees that ICANN has a truckload of woes. Last month, he issued a report saying that while the group has accomplished some things--such as the release of new domains--it "is certainly not yet capable of shouldering the entire responsibility of global (domain name system) management and coordination."
"Our mission is not to run an exercise in global democracy. I happen to think we need to be a private organization."
Recently, members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee blasted the plan in a letter to Department of Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. "It is our belief that such proposals will make ICANN even less democratic, open and accountable than it is today," said the letter, which was signed by lawmakers including Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., and ranking Democrat John Dingell, D-Mich. The Commerce Department has some degree of control over ICANN decisions.
Lynn defends his proposal, saying it's only a starting point for reforms. What's more, he said, all the yammering over procedure is getting in the way of the body's real duties.
"Our mission is not to run an exercise in global democracy. I happen to think we need to be a private organization," he said, adding that ICANN needs to remain agile so it can oversee the constantly changing Net.
For example, the group has outlined a slew of obscure technical tasks it must accomplish, including the particularly tricky undertaking of doling out domains as the Internet shifts to running on Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) from the current system. Internet engineers are preparing to overhaul the existing system of 4.2 billion IP addresses, known as IPv4, with a new, bigger system, dubbed IPv6, partly so it can handle more wireless devices crowding the Net.
But Lynn said it's impossible for his group to avoid intellectual-property issues, given that it deals in domain names.
"It's nice to talk about a pure narrow technical mission--I personally would love that--but the tech world doesn't live in isolation," he said.
Whatever happens in ICANN's future, one thing's for sure: Somebody's bound to have a problem with it.
Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.