Who Will Win the Domain Name Game?

Starting Monday, more than 75,000 Internet users from around the world will log on to vote for five at-large members who will become the first Internet users to take seats on the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

ICANN is the organization responsible for overseeing the domain name system that brings some semblance of order and sanity to the Web. It has the authority to settle squatting and naming disputes and, perhaps most importantly, to establish and assign new top-level domain (TLD) names.

To say the election has been a lightning rod for controversy is to put it mildly. Message boards and e-mail chains are aflame with complaints. But that’s no surprise. ICANN has been a popular target of criticism since the Clinton administration gave it control over Internet domains in 1998. The organization has been blasted for siding with big business on domain disputes and decried as a puppet of corporations and special interests.

Start of Something?

Whether the upcoming election of board members will change any of that is open for debate. One thing is certain, though: The nonprofit agency’s control over the Web and e-commerce has become a hot-button issue in the online world.

Chances are good that the ICANN that emerges when the voting closes on October 10th — or even after a promised review of the election process later this fall — will be largely unchanged. Nevertheless, the scrutiny provoked by the election controversy has dragged the organization out of its comfortable lair and into the limelight, where it is likely to stay for good.

Domain Game

In July, ICANN announced it would move ahead with a plan to formally create several new top level domains. Aiming to ease “congestion” on the Web, the agency invited proposals on how to institute and distribute the new names. Possible URL extensions pitched so far include “.banc,” “.museum,” and “.sex.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the domain debate, the upcoming ICANN vote probably won’t cause any immediate, significant changes for e-commerce, since the election will determine just five of the board’s 24 seats.

Whether those five members will represent the interests of individuals is questionable, since half of those running for election were nominated by current board members. ICANN will still be steered by representatives of corporations and such special interest groups as the American IP Association.

Who Benefits?

Critics of ICANN are legion, judging from the message boards that light up each time someone in the group sneezes. Their biggest worry is that the new TLDs will be safely escorted into the open arms of waiting corporations, and ordinary Internet users won’t get a shot at obtaining one of the potentially lucrative new addresses.

In fact, it is ICANN’s handling of domain disputes that most often draws flak. Rarely do individuals win the domain game, opponents say, even when there are no clear trademark infringement issues involved.

Leah Gallegos, of TLDlobby.com, said that domain names have “a tremendous effect on e-commerce.” She said that businesses must feel confident that the Web site names they buy or register will be theirs for good.

“If a business cannot register a domain name and feel reasonably secure in retaining it, how can it then promote the resulting Web site and feel secure in that effort?” Gallegos asked. She pointed to the shutting down of some porn sites and portals as evidence that ICANN patrols the international waters on behalf of corporations.

Voters Get a Voice

It is highly doubtful that ICANN wants to make it harder for the likes of eBay, Amazon and Yahoo! to win domain disputes or gain control of the new TLDs, if they want them. So what about the election? Does ICANN truly want individuals represented on the board? Not likely. And this is what irks critics the most.

They point to a series of facts and missteps as proof. For instance, ICANN set out on the election path thinking it would attract about 5,000 additional members. Instead, its registration servers were flooded. The system handled more than 150,000 inquiries that resulted in 76,000 new registered members. But no one knows how many more potential members were unable to get through.

Despite the registration glitches and other early problems, even critics admit that ICANN has done a better job recently of promoting the elections and helping voters get to know the candidates. A Web site has been established that provides background statements explaining where candidates stand on the issues along with a forum for questions-and-answers.

People like Gallegos and Curtis Sahakian (who has been among the most outspoken detractors of the ICANN election) remain hopeful that the vote will be a first step in the right direction. ICANN has already pledged to review “what went wrong” in the process and do a better job in the future. That commitment encourages the hope that some day, more Internet users will be involved in making decisions about how the Web is divvied up.

Openness and Trust

And that pathway would also benefit the giant e-commerce concerns ICANN seems to favor. As ICANN Chairwoman Esther Dyson has pointed out, the agency is not a governmental body for the Internet, but it’s the closest thing there is.

ICANN will gain a measure of trust from Web users and small business people who are affected by its decisions when it shows that it has become a more open, representative group.

The upcoming election nudges the organization in the right direction. Members will be elected from under-represented regions like Asia and Africa, which may constitute a big enough gain to make the experiment worthwhile.

But this is only the beginning. If ICANN learns from this first, tentative step how to make future elections more open and how to encourage continued growth and diversity in its ranks, everyone connected to the Internet will benefit.

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