Policy experts critical of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, known as ICANN, believe the body is an unaccountable global regulatory regime that is using its power to control the Web. Supporters argue that ICANN -- which was created by the United States government -- is a new entity still feeling its way toward the best methods for fulfilling its mission, in a universe where no other organizations serve the same function.
"With respect to the current ICANN, there are major legitimacy problems," Milton Mueller, an associate professor of information studies at Syracuse University, said at the forum, "Who Rules the Root? ICANN, Domain Names, and the Battle over Internet Governance," which was sponsored by the libertarian Cato Institute.
"Even the strongest defender of ICANN, I think, wouldn't say they don't have a legitimacy problem," he said.
Critics like Mueller contend that through its policies on the creation and application of top-level domain names -- domain suffix registrations such as .com, .edu, .org, .net and other designations -- ICANN has created an artificial scarcity of domain names that has at times led these names to become outrageously overvalued commodities that fetched exorbitant sums on the open market. Critics also believe that corporate interests have hijacked ICANN and can now manipulate the delegation of domain names in ways that allow them to effectively control the use and regulation of the Web, to the detriment of less powerful groups such as universities and other non-profit institutions.
This view stands in stark contrast to that of ICANN's supporters, who argue that it is a young organization that still needs time to figure out how to best address the complicated task before it, and that no better system yet exists for controlling the ever-widening Internet.
Formed in 1998, the quasi-independent, non-profit ICANN was the result of a government-led attempt to address the need to transform the Internet from a small, subsidized, non-commercial system into an immense commercial one. The corporation represents a coalition of Internet business, technical, academic and user interests. Its design and rules for functioning came about following negotiations between the various interest groups and the governments of participating nations.
ICANN has a long-term contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce (which is up for review in September), to manage Internet Web site name practices for the formerly government-controlled system. The contact's mandate includes oversight of domain name systems; allocation of address space to Internet provider, or IP, services; assignment of specifications for domain name standards; and management of domain name elements of the so-called "Internet backbone," the "root" servers that underlie the system.
ICANN is funded by fees from the multitude of companies, or registrars, that sell domain names directly to users throughout the global Internet system, who use them for their Web addresses.
Ira C. Magaziner, president of SJS Inc. -- a strategic consulting firm in Rhode Island -- said the debate is integral to the future of international commerce and communication. Magaziner is a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and also chaired the Clinton administration's working group on electronic commerce and oversaw the White House's work in establishing ICANN.
"The issue of governance in this new global economy, and how you deal with international coordinations of governments on a series of issues ... will be a set of issues that will only grow in importance over time," said Magaziner, who spoke publicly about the subject for the first time since leaving his administration post. "One of the things that was uppermost in our minds as we began to see this unfold was to be able to ensure the stability of the Internet and to be able to ensure the growth of the Internet globally."
In his new book, "Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace," Mueller argues that ICANN is biased toward corporate interests because they receive more voting rights than the other participating interest groups by virtue of their commercial activities on the Internet. Universities and other non-profits are crammed into a single non-commercial domain interest group, he says.
In addition, the original ICANN management team picked the ICANN board, which is the opposite of standard practice at non-profits, he says. Under its charter, he says, the ICANN board has reversed the original rule that they must be replaced with an elected board within one year of ICANN's establishment. He noted that there are still board members who have been with ICANN since its inception.
Harold Feld, associate director of the Media Access Project, also said there are significant problems with ICANN. He said the ambiguities within domain registration system and its legal structure, as well as the lack of any real outside control over ICANN, make it ripe for a challenge that it is not up to meeting.
"The political incentive right now is to maintain these ambiguities," he said. "(But) eventually ... we will really be tested."
Michael M. Roberts, the former president and chief executive officer of ICANN, who is currently with The Darwin Group, said that making ICANN work comes hinges on reality deals made between the various constituency interests involved in the organization.
Roberts compared this process of overseeing Internet domain names -- which he characterized as "political" -- to the work done by Congress, which results in compromises that cannot please all interests. In addition, he said that the design flaws of ICANN, such as its incomplete bylaws, resulted from Congress's own process of compromise and create problems for the group.
Nevertheless, he said this lack of consistent rules gives ICANN a needed flexibility, especially in addressing security needs that have arisen following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Magaziner pointed out that there are significant problem with ICANN's performance, but also noted that the group has had some success, despite the fact that the system was never meant to perform perfectly.
"Our goal was to try and evolve to a system that would as much as possible be one that could obtain global legitimacy, but would also be flexible and able to adapt quickly," said Magaziner. "What we always anticipated was to try and get something that was workable, that would pass legal muster and could get a large portion of stakeholder support."
Some of the significant successes, he said, are that the ability of individuals to use the Internet was not affected by the Internet's transition to a larger commercially supportable backbone, and that prices for registry and domain names have come down significantly. He also cited the fact that ICANN has survived for four years without incurring any crippling legal actions.
Nevertheless, he noted that ICANN's public credibility is hurt by the lack of transparency in its processes, its inability to adopt a democratically elected board, and the fact that it did not hold open meetings from the beginning.
But according to Feld -- who has worked as a representative for the non-commercial sector of ICANN's oversight groups -- the real problems are larger than those visible on the surface. He says that although ICANN has worked fairly well so far, it is unprepared to address a real crisis.
For example, Feld said ICANN does not have the expertise to deal with major problems it may face, such as the first time a powerful corporation or nation decides not to abide by the domain root system the group has established. He said ICANN is made up of techies and lawyers with no experience in policy matters, and characterized its operations as "amateur hour in the policy corral."
In addition, he says that the Commerce Department -- keen on showing that ICANN is independent and not government-controlled -- has provided no real guidance for the group.
"This, I think, is a fun and exciting train wreck in the making," said Feld.
Mueller says that although ICANN is said to be making some attempt at reform, the Department of Commerce ultimately needs to open the bidding process for a legitimate contract for a program to control the domain name system.
"When ICANN was created, it was basically given to a single faction of competing groups and this faction has sought to maintain its own control over an extended period of time," he said.
"We are making a mistake by allowing a discredited group that has reneged on certain promised simply to realign ICANN's structure on its own."