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Tech Industry

Why it's time to rein in ICANN

Sonia Arrison, director of technology studies at Pacific Research Institute, says it's time to rethink the concept of an Internet gatekeeper.

    What happens when you get lost on the Internet? That question is hardly theoretical. It has become the basis of a major Internet regulation feud, one that might determine who shapes the next era of the Net.

    At the heart of the dispute is the launch of Site Finder, a service created by VeriSign, the company that years ago was given responsibility for domain name registry databases for .com, .net and .org domains. Site Finder helps solve what is often known in the communications industry as the "fat fingers" problem: Web surfers who inadvertently type in an incorrect or misspelled Internet address.

    It's a familiar problem. Millions of Internet users get lost online each day by typing misspelled or incorrect Web site domain names. Usually, they see an unhelpful "Error" page or, even worse, an unwanted pornography site. But in recent months, several companies have moved to provide something more useful: They divert so-called trash traffic to a search page. VeriSign sends trash traffic to Site Finder, which offers a list of alternative sites.

    America Online offers a similar function. Google does it. So does Microsoft's MSN Internet access service. And NeuStar, which administers the registry of Web addresses ending in .biz and .us, has tested its own service to redirect all misspelled or nonexistent Web addresses ending in .biz and .us to a search engine page.

    Consumers are far from complaining. VeriSign says that in its first week of operation, Site Finder's search tool was used more than 11 million times. And lost Web users used the "Did you mean?" function, which lists actual Web sites similar to the misspelled Web address, 1.6 million times to get to their intended online destination.

    Yet, apparently, in launching its service VeriSign has stepped on the toes of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a small, nonprofit organization created by the Department of Commerce in 1998 to provide technical coordination of Internet domain names.

    ICANN quickly assembled a meeting of its Security and Stability Advisory Committee arguing that VeriSign could not launch Site Finder without its approval. It also demanded that Site Finder be taken off the Internet. But this request, based on the argument that Site Finder somehow threatens the stability of the Internet and undermines efforts to combat junk e-mail, seems shallow.

    In launching its service VeriSign has stepped on the toes of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
    Internet service providers can reconfigure their antispam filters to work with Site Finder. They can also readily block VeriSign from redirecting trash traffic to Site Finder and send it to their own search page. AOL has already done so, so what's the problem? This debate puts the spotlight on why ICANN--an organization without government accountability that operates largely outside of public view--gets to decide what services Internet consumers can use.

    To be sure, ICANN has a board of distinguished experts, including Internet legend Vint Cerf. But while the organization is key in helping to establish complex technical standards, it often finds itself steeped in controversy over what many see as its overzealous urge for policymaking.

    Part of ICANN's stated purpose is to develop policy through "private-sector, bottom-up, consensus-based means," but as most people know, consensus is often impossible and issues must be settled in other ways.

    In Congress issues are settled by votes, and in the marketplace they are settled by the invisible hand. But the process at ICANN, as many have complained, often takes less palatable forms. This brings up the question of whether the organization is still the relevant vehicle for promoting competition and solving Internet policy problems.

    It often finds itself steeped in controversy over what many see as its overzealous urge for policymaking.
    Recently, bureaucrats at the United Nations revealed their desire to take over ICANN's functions, but business and other policy leaders argue that it's time to finish genuine privatization of the domain name system. That the organization is facing increased pressure from these radically different viewpoints goes to show the inherent instability of its quasi-regulatory nature. The best solution in this case is to allow market forces to take over so decisions can be made in a more efficient and cooperative manner.

    In the meantime, ICANN claims it has the authority to give VeriSign's lucrative business of registering and renewing .com, .net and .org domain names to someone else.

    That's a big hammer, but ICANN shouldn't swing it. The organization should instead refocus its energy on finding ways to fulfill its mission that are more acceptable to the community it serves.

    By positioning itself as Internet gatekeeper to determine whether Site Finder or some future service must get its stamp of approval, ICANN is doing a disservice to consumers and revealing rather clearly that, despite claims to the contrary, its desire to run the Internet is strong.