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ICANN't take it anymore

Policy analyst Sonia Arrison warns of the implications of a dangerous drift in Internet governance.

Last week, VeriSign filed suit against the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers in federal court. This move could signify the beginning of a dangerous drift in Internet governance. VeriSign claims that ICANN overstepped its authority as a technical coordination body in an attempt to become the "de facto regulator" of the Internet. It's true the current structure has not worked out as planned and ICANN has unfortunately become something of a stumbling block on the road to progress. The organization is often mired in political debate and fails to act when needed.

One of the most startling revelations in the suit is that in some instances ICANN has taken more than two years to approve a service. While businesses such as VeriSign are trying to compete on "Internet time," ICANN's taking a long European-style lunch. Services that could enhance Net users' experience are stalled. These delays and lack of clear processes have serious consequences.

ICANN needs to follow through on the promises it makes.
While the Internet began as a nonprofit experiment, it has since become a multibillion-dollar economic engine for tens of thousands of businesses and individuals across the planet, a global cultural network and an international communications hub. Yet ICANN acts as if the Internet is simply a technology network, and exercises its authority in ways that stifle innovation. Just as important, ICANN needs to follow through on the promises it makes.

For example, ICANN's Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SECSAC) said last fall that VeriSign's Site Finder service was causing disruption to the Internet and promised to deliver a report in November. It's now March and there's been no report. This is a bad sign, as the stability of the system is undermined by unreliability.

At the heart of this matter is a contractual dispute between VeriSign and ICANN. But it is also much more. If ICANN is to remain a key technical co-coordinating body, it must be made more effective. If it isn't, things will change whether those involved like it or not.

Last December, at the United Nations-sponsored World Summit on the Information Society, representatives from more than 200 nations debated whether to cast ICANN aside and seize control of the domain name system and the larger Internet. A showdown was averted at the last minute when conference leaders decided to convene a panel of experts to study the issue and deliver draft recommendations in 2005.

That's only a year away, and if the VeriSign dispute offers more proof to the international community that ICANN needs major changes, you can bet bureaucrats at the UN will be pushing hard to take over.

Perhaps Senator Conrad Burns said it best with his comment that ICANN "could become the greatest advocate for advancement of Internet architecture, letting a thousand flowers of innovation bloom rather than constantly raking over the garden with heavy-handed hurdles that keep innovative new services from coming into the market."

Effective operation of the Internet and its integrated economy are at stake in this fight. To retain credibility, ICANN must improve its processes and deliver on its public proclamations. If it continues to stray from its simple mission, its future will be in doubt.

That is certainly not good for ICANN and spells danger for the Internet.