A state judge in Los Angeles on Monday lifted the veil of secrecy that has surrounded many of the group's internal deliberations for the last four years, dealing an embarrassing setback to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
During the 90-minute hearing, Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs said that ICANN board members could not be denied their right under California law to review financial records, travel logs, legal contracts and other internal documents. ICANN has a contract with the U.S. government to oversee key Internet functions, most notably approving new top-level domain names such as .info and .biz.
ICANN board member Karl Auerbach, a veteran Internet engineer now working at a start-up, sued the organization in March after being rebuffed in his request to review records, first made in November 2000.
Janavs pointed to California law, which says that board members at nonprofit groups such as ICANN have "the absolute right at any reasonable time to inspect and copy all books, records and documents of every kind."
Monday's decision does not directly affect many of the debates swirling around ICANN, such as which new top-level domains to add and whether to allow the Internet public to vote for board members. But it does increase scrutiny of the organization at a time when ICANN is reeling from attacks from critics who have decried it as secretive and overreaching. Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said in March that he believed that ICANN was a "fundamentally flawed and ineffective governing entity."
ICANN downplayed the effect of the judge's order, which gave ICANN until Friday to hand over most of the records. "ICANN respectfully disagrees (with the judge) and will consider whether to appeal this decision upon review of the court's written judgment, which will be issued next week," ICANN said in a statement.
Judge Janavs said that Auerbach must be able to review records designated "confidential" no later than Aug. 9, but he must give ICANN at least 10 days notice before publishing them.
ICANN had proposed that Auerbach follow a complex procedure that would have limited his ability to review the organization's records. "The court specifically found that the ICANN procedure was violative of California law," said Jim Tyre, an attorney for Auerbach.
ICANN claims "to be so open and transparent, while they deny to their own directors fairly basic financial information," Tyre said.
Auerbach, whose term expires this fall, was elected to represent the United States and Canada after he pledged to reform ICANN from within.
"Auerbach's intent to reform ICANN is not a legitimate basis for limiting his role as director," Cindy Cohn, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said in a statement. "Today's headlines exposing rampant corporate fraud demonstrate the need for careful oversight by directors."
The EFF is assisting Auerbach with his suit, Auerbach v. ICANN.