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Net name body meets amid heavy scrutiny

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers kicks off its first annual meeting in Los Angeles under the watchful eyes of stakeholders in the Net's critical address system.

LOS ANGELES--When the body in charge of the Net's technical underpinnings convened a year ago, it was under siege by critics about everything from how its board members were picked to the breadth of its power.

As it kicks off its first annual meeting here today, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) still hasn't escaped the watchful eyes of stakeholders in the Net's critical address system--but it's safe to say that it has made progress.

ICANN was recognized by the U.S. government last November to administer the Internet's core technical functions and to foster competition to Network Solutions (NSI), which has dominated the domain name registration market thanks to an exclusive government contract.

During its meeting here through Thursday, ICANN's board and supporting organizations will hammer out some, but not all, of the issues still facing the organization.

Among the issues on the agenda is the establishment of an at-large membership made up of at least 5,000 everyday Net users, who will be able to affect ICANN's policies and board elections.

Establishing the groundbreaking membership is a complex task. At its last meeting, ICANN decided to add a layer between itself and the membership in the form of a council comprising up to 18 people. ICANN said it made the controversial move to limit the possibility of at-large members suing the California-based nonprofit over its actions.

ICANN also has fretted over how to fund the creation of the at-large group, although it is expected to get up to $200,000 from the Markle Foundation to start the membership drive.

Other cash concerns
Another money matter that will be debated this week is how to fund ICANN itself. The body has been strapped for cash since its inception. It is expected to vote on a funding mechanism that relies in large part on NSI.

Overall, fees paid by Net name registrars along with those from NSI's main registry, which records all names registered like a white pages for the Net, will make up 55 percent of ICANN's budget, according to its funding draft. Based on its retail and wholesale domain name registration fees, NSI has agreed to prepay ICANN $250,000 but could shell out up to $2 million per year.

Fees from country-code domain name registries, such as ".uk" for the United Kingdom, also will contribute 35 percent to ICANN's budget, in addition to money that will be raised through ICANN's delegations and the at-large membership once it is established.

This week ICANN also is expected to approve its crucial operating agreement with NSI, putting to rest its hardest negotiation of the year. Based on the agreement, NSI is expected to break its domain name sales business into two pieces: one retail and one wholesale.

As usual, ICANN's time frame for implementing these proposals is intense. And the speed of ICANN's policymaking is one topic that will likely draw fire during the public comment period in Los Angeles.

Already the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy has issued a letter calling on ICANN to extend its public comment periods on proposals and to be even more transparent in its decision-making process. For example, ICANN's last summit in Santiago, Chile, was the first time its board meeting was open to the public.

"Procedural questions have arisen at almost every stage of ICANN's activities throughout its existence and are undermining the consensus needed for ICANN to operate effectively," the office's chief counsel, Jere Glover, wrote in a letter to ICANN's acting chair, Esther Dyson.

"Many of ICANN's notice deadlines are too short for small businesses and individuals to respond in a timely and informative manner, " he added. "No one believes the task is easy, but no organization should assume to itself power to govern an international system without meaningful participation by those entities which have a major stake in the issue."

Where it's made headway
ICANN's to-do list is long, and its deadlines have been tight, but some items on the list have already been crossed off.

For example, with the help of new domain name registrars, ICANN has approved a universal policy for speeding the process of settling fights over Net names ending in ".com," ".org," and ".net." Domain name squabbles have been prevalent as many brick-and-mortar businesses have come online only to discover that their desired Net names already have been snatched up.

ICANN also has added to its decision-making circle. Nine new board members have been elected by ICANN's delegations, which include domain name sellers and Net protocol groups.

In addition, the body has made ground by approving almost 90 companies to eventually come online as direct competitors to NSI. Although only a handful of firms are plugged into NSI's registration system, some have made notable gains. Register.com, for one, registered almost 160,000 domain names between July and September, although that number is still a drop in the bucket compared to NSI's more than 6.5 million registrations.