Esther Dyson, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' interim chair, led the attack in response to a letter from Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology, which questioned ICANN's authority and tactics.
The Commerce Department and international governments anointed ICANN to administer the Net's plumbing and to foster competition in domain name registration, which NSI has dominated since 1993 under a federal contract. Because the domain system is central to the Internet, a protracted conflict between the organization and the company could slow everything from the development of e-commerce to legal settlements over disputed names.
Nader's letter grilled ICANN about the scope of its powers and decisions. Dyson at first went on the defensive, describing the contentious landscape and challenges the nonprofit corporation faces and identifying NSI as the No. 1 obstacle to progress in the field.
"NSI is in no hurry to see [its] monopoly eroded," she replied to Nader. "Thus it has been funding and otherwise encouraging a variety of individuals and entities to throw sand in the gears whenever possible, from as many directions as possible."
She went on to accuse NSI of stalling a test period for its a shared-registration system that would allow ICANN-accredited registrars to compete directly with NSI by selling names ending in ".com" and other popular domains. ICANN says NSI's contracts with new registrars makes it impossible for them to publicly communicate their difficulties.
"The nondisclosure agreements it imposes on competing registrars are so onerous that many who wish to participate in ICANN's competition initiative cannot do so without permanently restricting their ability to compete in this space in the future," Dyson said.
NSI wasted no time in returning the fire. "Frankly, we're stunned," NSI spokesman Brian O'Shaughnessy said today.
"It's the most aggressive public attack on NSI from a body that is to be unbiased and nonarbitrary," he added. "It's going to be harder for us to work with this board."
NSI also maintains that competition is developing smoothly. "Register.com is competing with us right now," O'Shaughnessy said. "We know we're going to lose market share, but it's in our interest to be the dominant player in a larger marketplace."
Since ICANN was recognized by the Commerce Department late last year, moves by the interim board have been strictly scrutinized and often picked apart at its handful of public meetings around the globe. But NSI and ICANN always have tried to maintain civility in public--especially under the weight of both of their separate agreements with Commerce.
Now, however, ICANN's letter proves that the gloves are decidedly off. ICANN is intentionally broadcasting its problems with NSI because it wants to heat up public pressure on the company to cooperate with ICANN and to sign an accreditation agreement--which it has not done.
Although the feud undoubtedly will affect many plans and policies, NSI still holds the sacred key to the ".com" empire. Dyson said in an interview today that ICANN still wants to work with NSI but that a fire has to be lit under the company.
"We want people like Nader, who are known for championing the little guys against abuses of power and monopolies, to know that we are not the bad guy," she said. "Everybody wants us to be open, and when we are asked direct questions we answer them--and we wish NSI would do the same."
Nader also spurs reaction
In the heated letter, ICANN did respond to Nader's concerns. It also is planning to release a six-month status report today on its progress so far.
Nader and James Love, who heads up the Consumer Project on Technology, questioned whether ICANN was making decisions it had no business making under the Clinton administration's so-called white paper, which lays out how this transition should take place.
"The current board, which I assure you would very much like to keep its tenure as short as possible consistent with doing its duty, has undertaken no policy initiatives not expressly contemplated in the white paper, or for which there was not some urgency of action necessary to meet the principal objectives of the white paper and of ICANN itself," Dyson wrote.
Nader also wanted to know whether ICANN would use its control over root name servers to block access to any IP address or domain name and how such a decision could be made. Referring to ICANN's action at its last public meeting in Berlin, Dyson told Nader that it was considering options to deal with trademark disputes over domain names, for example.
ICANN endorsed a World Intellectual Property Organization call "for consistent administrative dispute resolution procedures in principle, and referred that recommendation to its newly formed constituent unit, the Domain Name Supporting Organization, for its review and specific implementation recommendations," she said.
ICANN also has formed a committee of experts to look into oversight of the root server system, which allows sites to be live on the Net, she said.
"At this moment, ICANN does not control the root servers, although it expects to do so by the end of the transition period," Dyson wrote. "Any policies relating to the root servers under ICANN oversight will, of course, be subject to the standard notice, comment, and consensus procedures that precede any ICANN decision that could significantly affect the Internet."