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Prying open the Net's naming system

The body managing the Internet's vital naming system is engaged in the grueling process of opening up its powerful circle to the broader Net community.

SANTIAGO, Chile--The body managing the Internet's vital naming system, which has been lambasted about its closed-door activities since its inception last year, is engaged in the grueling process of opening up its powerful circle to the broader Net community.

At an international meeting here, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) spent a large part of its session yesterday listening to advice about how to set up geographically diverse at-large worldwide membership.

The at-large membership arm of ICANN is supposed to have equal footing with large corporations and technical standards bodies to influence ICANN policy and to elect board members. The first election by the at-large group is expected to take place sometime next year.

The board also will consider a proposal today to recognize a separate noncommercial constituency, composed of organizations such as nonprofit groups and educational entities, which also will have the power to shape ICANN policy.

Both issues are critical to ICANN's quest to win the support of Net users. Online and off, many observers of the ICANN process have complained that the body already has made too many decisions without the at-large body in place.

"Decisions are being made by ICANN that affect individuals on the Net, but it's very difficult to participate in this process right now," said Alan Davidson, staff counsel at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Aside from a static comments page on its Web site, some stakeholders have said that there is no meaningful way for individuals or non-business entities to help mold ICANN policies, which will affect the rights of every business or individual who registers a Net name, the primary portals to information and commerce online.

For its part, ICANN is trying to broaden the spectrum of participants. Already, ICANN staff has rejected the notion that only domain name holders be able to participate in the process.

"ICANN's policy decisions on [the domain name system] and other issues extend well beyond the population of domain name holders," according to a staff report.

The moves by ICANN this week also mark the latest step away from U.S. control over the domain name system. ICANN was recognized by the U.S. government to administer the Net's core technical functions and to foster in competition to Network Solutions, which turned a six-year government contract into a billion-dollar business primarily through its more than 5 million ".com," ".org," and ".net" registrations.

The ICANN board is set to vote tomorrow on a blueprint for creating a minimum 5,000-person at-large membership that will select 9 directors to the ICANN board, expanding the body to 18 members. Members would have to have an email address, physical address, verifiable citizenship, and the financial ability to support the at-large membership.

Still, it is unclear exactly how ICANN will harness people to participate in the at-large membership. Some here suggested that Net name registrars reach out to their customers, while others say that a public service campaign needs to be launched.

"There is a way to build an at-large membership by utilizing the medium," said Ken Stubbs, chairman of CORE (the Internet Council of Registrars), who said that Net access providers should educate their customers about ICANN at the at-large electorate.

However, it costs money to launch campaigns and to run elections--a huge obstacle for ICANN, which has been hard-pressed to garner money to run its own corporation.

Moreover, there will be a cost associated with being a member because ICANN has said it won't foot the bill. The mechanism for raising this money has not been worked out yet, either, but ICANN staff pointed out in their report that a standard nonprofit membership fee is $25 to $50 per person per year. ICANN is hopeful that a nonprofit such as the Markle Foundation will fund the initial outreach and election.

"We're getting some constructive suggestions about how to do this. Now all we need is the funding," said Esther Dyson, chair of ICANN's interim board.