I have been writing about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, since its birth in 1998 (see the ICANN entry on Wikipedia for a good summary of how that came about, and the evolution of the organisation since then.) That move was contentious at the time, since it saw the running of the Internet's basic infrastructure taken out of the hands of the geeks, personified by Jon Postel, and put in the hands of the business world. As a fully intended side-effect of that move, it also placed the system fully under the control of the US, rather than allowing a more distributed, global approach to evolve.
From its earliest days, ICANN has been beset by problems and controversy. For example, one of ICANN's directors, Karl Auerbach, had to sue the organisation in order to obtain access to its corporate records. Lack of transparency has been a recurring criticism throughout ICANN's life, despite some half-hearted efforts to address this.
ICANN hasn't really achieved much in its years of existence, and that's turned out to be a good thing, since it has had relatively little negative impact on the free evolution of the Internet. But a year ago it voted to expand the current 22 generic top-level domains (TLDs) to allow practically any word to be used. The problems of doing so are obvious: abusive registration of similar domains in unusual TLDs is likely to increase the scope for user confusion – and hence phishing and spam, both of which are bad enough.
So why has ICANN embarked on this headlong rush to allow huge numbers of new names? The fact that successful applicants will be required to pay $185,000 for each domain probably has something to do with. Also relevant may be the revelation that some members of the ICANN board have links with domain name registries. A few months ago, no less a person than the outgoing ICANN CEO himself spoke out against these kinds of conflicts of interest, which shows the seriousness of the problem.
If the prospect of opening up TLDs in this way was bad enough, the reality is proving even worse. As this analysis of the hundreds of names that were applied for shows, Google in particular wants to take control of many key words:
But as the company had suggested last month, it was pretty active, going after some clearly Google related names, including .google, .goog, .gmail, .android, .gbiz and .goo. But it also has a few more broadly worded ones, including .ads (which no one else sought), .car (for their autonomous vehicles?), .dad (just in time for father's day?), .mom, .dog, .family, .fyi, .plus, .tour, .prod, .here, .prof, .phd, meme., .lol, .day, .love (which has a lot of competition), .rsvp, .mba, .vip, .web, .eat, .soy and (believe it or not) .and. There are some strange ones too, like .zip, .boo (did Google scare you?) and .foo. They also want .page (is Larry getting his own TLD?).
One of Google's main competitors for key words is Amazon:
Amazon and Google actually come up against each other an awful lot, including for .buy, .shop, .store, .free, .game, .play, .movie, .show, .mail, .map, .spot, .talk, .wow, .you and .cloud — all of which have a bunch of other suitors as well. They also go head to head (with no other competitors) for .drive. They just missed each other in going after children. Google wants .kid, while Amazon wants .kids.
Why does this matter? Well, assuming some or most of these names go through, they essentially give companies like Google and Amazon control over key ideas online. Not in the sense that they will be able to stop people using the words, but from the power they will exert over some of the most obvious use of them as signposts.
This concentration of power has been brought about by the move away from the national TLDs to global ones based on common words and ideas. That then makes the Internet much more likely to be policed for alleged infringements of trademarks and copyright – something that ICANN has already showed itself quite happy to facilitate. That could be very problematic for open source projects, who may find themselves removed from the Internet entirely because a company somewhere has alleged some kind of infringement, quite possibly inadvertent.
ICANN's reputation has hardly improved in recent months. First there was a security breach that revealed details about applicants for the new domain names to other companies that were applying. Then it finally dawned on ICANN that the insane gold-rush for new generic TLDs that it had instituted could bring the Internet to its knees:
ICANN plans for rigorous evaluation of multiple criteria of all New gTLD applications received, a number which currently exceeds 1900. Because ICANN also is committed to measured delegation rates to monitor any impact on root zone operations, it designed the New gTLD Program so that approximately 500 applications will be evaluated at a time. This often is referred to as "batching."
And so it came up with a breathtaking plan:
Each applicant will be notified to register into an online system and directed to select a target date and time.
Applicants will return to the online system on that day and try to hit "Generate" as close to their target time as possible. It's kind of like a game of digital archery. First you set the target and then you try to hit it with as much accuracy as you can.
Yes, ICANN decided to turn the process of destroying the Internet as we know it into a game.
Except, of course, this bad idea didn't work either:
Operation of the digital archery portion of the New Generic Top-level Domain Program has been suspended.
The primary reason is that applicants have reported that the timestamp system returns unexpected results depending on circumstances. Independent analysis also confirmed the variances, some as a result of network latency, others as a result of how the timestamp system responds under differing circumstances.
The evaluation process will continue to be executed as designed. Independent firms are already performing test evaluations to promote consistent application of evaluation criteria. The time it takes to delegate TLDs will depend on the number and timing of batches.
The suspension provides time to investigate technical concerns. ICANN's staff and Board will continue to listen to community comment about digital archery and batching.
It also provides time for other organisations, like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), an arm of the United Nations, to point to ICANN's blunders, and suggest that the task of running the Internet should be taken away from it:
The rationale for the move by the ITU seems to be that because the Internet is a global entity, it should be managed according to global standards. At the moment, control over the fundamental levers and gears that underlie the Internet — including the domain-name system — lies with ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which is a private, U.S.-based nonprofit organization. The secretary-general of the ITU, Hamadoun Toure, told Vanity Fair that "When an invention becomes used by billions across the world, it no longer remains the sole property of one nation, however powerful that nation might be."
Although ICANN says it operates on a multistakeholder model that involves groups like the Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium, there has been a lot of criticism of the organization over the years, from allegations of conflicts of interest to moves such as the recent expansion of the top-level domain system — an expansion that could lead to hundreds of new domains such as .lol and .youtube. Some believe this was an unnecessary landgrab by domain registrars and could actually make the Internet more confusing rather than less.
To be clear, the ITU taking over the Internet would be a complete disaster, and it's not anything I would ever advocate. But the fact that the ITU can even think about doing so is made hugely easier by ICANN's dreadful record. Had it run the global name system in a halfway efficient manner, it would be much easier to defend it. On the basis of the appalling job it's done so far, it certainly should be deprived of its current functions.
However, the solution is not to give them to a faceless international body like the ITU where they will become prey to naked political ambitions (not least from countries like China, India and Russia.) The only sensible thing to do would be to set up an independent, technical board that ran the Internet for the benefit not of companies looking to exploit its possibilities, or of countries looking to use it as an instrument of control, but of the Internet itself. That is, its decisions would be based on technical criteria designed to make the whole thing run and evolve as smoothly as possible, for the benefit of all constituencies, undistracted by other agendas that damage the underlying infrastructure, as ICANN's current moves threaten to do.
That might seem hopelessly idealistic, and may be it is. But it's worth pushing as a third way in the current situation, which is fast coming down to an impossible choice between seeing the Net destroyed by ICANN's ham-fisted commercialisation or by ITU's all-too efficient politicisation.