The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has no official power--yet. But once it gets the green light from the U.S. government, it will kick-start a plan to transition control of the domain-name system to its interim board of directors, thus removing the reins from the government-funded Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) and domain registrar Network Solutions, both of which now run the underpinnings of the Net.
The changeover is expected to open up competition in the registry market, and is intended to allow international input regarding the legal and technical issues that have arisen with the explosion of online commerce and Net usage worldwide. The issues are complex and controversial, and ICANN's proposed bylaws will be fiercely debated at the public meeting to be held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this Saturday. Still, the meeting is supposed to focus on the nonprofit's accountability and openness, as well how stakeholders will be represented by the proposed membership structure of ICANN.
The online community and the budding sector of alternative registrars already are circulating lists of concerns about ICANN's statements, including questions such as whether countries should be able to have full control over their top-level domains, such as ".us" for the United States.
The highbrow discussions and infighting over the future governance of the domain-name system often seem mundane and overly technical, but the importance of such issues cannot be overstated.
At stake is the stability of the Net--and a lot of money. The lucrative registrations for ".com" and other popular domains aren't the only things up for grabs. Ultimately, every e-commerce- or advertising-supported site on the Net will be affected by the final structure of the registry system, because the new rules are supposed to tackle critical business issues like, for example, whether the domain name "news.com" can be trademarked.
The International Association of Top Level Domains (IATLD)--which includes the administers of ".la" (Lao People's Democratic Republic) and ".mx" (Mexico)--already has raised a red flag about ICANN's statement that it "will respect each nation's sovereign control over its individual top-level domain."
According to the association, that notion lies in contrast to the current system--in which countries do not have the sole say over those domains--and therefore could "nationalize and segment" the Internet, according to IATLD.
"Governments have an interest, but whether they own a particular [top-level domain] is a complicated question," said Antony Van Couvering, a spokesman for the IATLD. "The Net is global and not owned by individual countries. What we're saying is let's continue the [status quo]."
Today there are more than 220 country-code top-level domains.
"A radical change, such as implementing arbitrary national authority over private businesses and organizations, could put the whole Internet in jeopardy," Stafford Guest, administrative manager for the .nu domain in the tiny island-nation of Niue, said in a statement. "You'd have to be concerned about the Internet's stability, continuity, and basically the ability to maintain the current Internet system and policies."
Such issues, however, are just the tip of the iceberg.
For example, under ICANN's proposal, there will be four membership delegations--three of which will represent specific areas of expertise, such as Internet protocols. One delegation will be elected at large. The election system is one wrinkle the board will try to iron out after it receives comment at Saturday's meeting.
Many in the online community say the public meeting is a good start, but that ICANN's activities already have been too secretive. Case in point: It remains a mystery how the nine interim board members, who are supposed to be neutral, were chosen. IANA, Network Solutions, and the Internet Society all threw names into the pool of candidates, but further details of the selection process were never made public.
"There are no limits to this board's power, including the ability to scrap their bylaws and start from scratch," Einar Stefferud, of the Open Root Server Confederation (ORSC) negotiating team, wrote in a letter to Becky Burr, associate administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
"For these and other reasons, we believe that the ICANN bylaws are unacceptable. We strongly suggest that the NTIA reject the current ICANN application because of the inadequacy of its draft bylaws," he continued. "Our ORSC hope is that your rejection will force the ICANN board to use their upcoming Boston meeting to seriously address the remaining concerns that the Internet community has with their latest published bylaws, and to find a compromise solution that everyone can live with."
ICANN interim board members said they will listen to all these concerns at the meeting and that nothing is cut in stone.
"Not only are we going to get ideas, but what we really want to do is have a discussion," Esther Dyson, Net luminary and interim chairwoman of the board, said in a recent interview.