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House panel criticizes ICANN domain selection

Republicans and Democrats question the process that led to the selection of only seven top-level domain names in November.

WASHINGTON--He may be a founder of the Internet, but Vinton Cerf was not immune from the wrath of Congress on Thursday, when he was forced to explain the actions of the Internet domain name body he heads.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an organization created three years ago to oversee the Internet's address system, has been criticized by online advocates since its birth. When Cerf took the helm from Esther Dyson as ICANN's chairman, many hoped the organization would become more open. But many members of the House Commerce Telecom Subcommittee and some witnesses suggested that hasn't happened.

Cerf was in the hot seat for ICANN's selection in November of seven new top-level domain names: .aero, .co-op, .info, .museum, .name, .pro and .biz. Witnesses charged that the application process was closed, arbitrary, and didn't permit opportunities for applicants to rebut arguments against them.

"The domains you chose were not necessarily the most qualified, the most worthy and the most attractive to consumers," House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., told Cerf moments after thanking him and his "good friend Al" Gore for inventing the Internet. Tauzin said that although the appeals of some denied applicants may not be strong, he hopes that the domain selection process will not be subjective in the future.

Cerf acknowledged to Tauzin that some qualified applicants weren't granted top-level domains; he would not divulge the number of rejected applications.

"Our objective was to start with a small number of companies," he said. "We anticipated we would use that to guide our next selection."

Too secretive, too arbitrary, too quick
The idea of reapplying was small comfort to applicants that lost their nonrefundable, $50,000 application deposits, according to losing applicants Lou Kerner, chief executive of DotTV, and David Short, legal director of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Cerf endured no shortage of criticism from disgruntled aspirants. Kerner noted that ICANN's directive from its inception called for a "sound and transparent process" but said his experience had been "unfair, closed and anti-competitive." He faulted ICANN's self-imposed deadline for not leaving the 19 board members enough time to review the applications.

Short said IATA's application met the original nine criteria laid out for receiving a top-level domain but that at the last minute ICANN added a 10th, representativeness, saying the airline association didn't include enough segments of the travel industry to hold the .travel domain.

Leah Gallegos, president of AtlanticRoot Network based in Virginia Beach, Va., said she didn't bother to apply with ICANN because she already was awarded .biz through a domain organization outside the United States.

"Why should we apply to keep something we already have?" she told the subcommittee, adding it was unlikely her company could afford a $50,000 fee to enter a "lottery."

Although ICANN runs the most influential Internet address system, others also exist. Businesses can register domain names using so-called alternate roots, such as .biz, which was available outside the United States even before ICANN officially added it to its list of top-level domains. Now there is a question over what status the alternate roots will have in the global address system.

The Commerce Committee's Tauzin said he was concerned about the affect the operation of .biz, which was assigned to NeuStar by ICANN, would have on AtlanticRoot and its alternate root. But Cerf wasn't concerned.

"I would turn it around," he said, suggesting alternate root top-level domains interfere with ICANN's assignments. "ICANN continues to believe there should be only one root," he said.

NeuStar Director of Corporate Development Kenneth Hansen defended the U.S. organization.

"I can say with confidence that the manner in which ICANN conducted the application process far exceeds measures taken by private companies," he said.

Along with Tauzin, Subcommittee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., said ICANN will remain under the scrutiny of Congress. He said it should learn from the controversies surrounding its selection of the first new top-level domains since .com, .org and .net were created fifteen years ago.

Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee, warned that running ICANN in the age of the commercial Internet is different from when Cerf was working with his fellow Internet founders in a university environment.

ICANN is set to discuss the same subject Feb. 14 before the Senate Commerce Communications Subcommittee.