European domain name registries including Nominet, which runs the popular .uk address system, are refusing to pay fees to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, saying the group has not done enough to guarantee the stability of the servers that link domains.
"We don't know what (ICANN) is there for," said Nominet Managing Director William Black, who is also chairman of the general assembly for the Council of European National Top-Level Domain Registries (CENTR), an association of European registries.
The fight over fees marks the latest battle for ICANN, which has been bruised recently in its attempts to expand the number of domain name suffixes.
Last year, ICANN adopted seven top-level domains--.museum, .biz, .info, .aero, .name, .coop and .pro--and chose a handful of companies to administer them. But the new addresses have become caught in a web of setbacks, including launch delays and legal tangles.
Black said CENTR is primarily concerned about the stability of the database that lies behind the Net's 13 root servers. The servers act as a Yellow Pages for the Internet, showing one domain how to reach addresses in another domain. Without root servers, Net surfers would be unable to reach Web sites.
Separate companies and their employees operate root servers and maintain a database of domains in conjunction with them. The Internet Software Consortium, an open-source development group that operates one of the 13 root servers, said its root server answers more than 272 million queries per day.
Black said the European registries are asking ICANN to establish standards aimed at ensuring root server reliability and to sign contracts with the servers' operators. Since some root server operators are volunteers, the registries want to ensure the systems continue to operate even if the volunteers decide to give up their positions.
"Why shouldn't ICANN be prepared to enter into some sort of service agreement?" he asked.
ICANN, however, said the stability of root servers can only be achieved through a cooperative effort by many organizations, not through a single body.
"Contracts by which some of the operating organizations try to avoid their responsibility by shifting it to other participants would be counterproductive," ICANN wrote in an e-mail, pointing out that the root servers have operated without interruption for over 15 years.
"Like any part of a complex system, such as the Internet, the root name servers are subject to continual (and constantly changing) threats," ICANN added. "The continuing participation of the various organizations...is the best way to respond to these continuing threats."
It is unclear how much money is at stake or whether it would have a significant effect on ICANN's operation. The organization did not respond to e-mail questions about its finances.