ICANN Finds Friends at Congressional Hearing

As House Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee members skeptically questioned the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers’ (ICANN) approach to privatizing domain name registration Thursday, nearly all of the panelists invited to comment said they back ICANN’s activities.

Network Solutions Inc., which has criticized ICANN’s proposal to charge registrars like NSI a $1 fee for domain name registrations, was alone among the group’s private sector critics. However, it has been joined by several members of Congress in recent days, including House Commerce Committee Chairman Thomas Bliley (R-Virginia.). NSI has also complained ICANN’s proceedings are too secretive, and over the past several months, negotiations between NSI and ICANN to open registration to other groups have been tense.

On the issue of opening registration to competition, NSI has been roundly criticized by other members of the Clinton Administration, the Internet community and consumer groups. At Thursday’s hearing, the criticism continued as the organizations lined up in support of ICANN.

ICANN has made “considerable progress” in its mission to privatize domain name registration, Commerce Department General Counsel Andrew Pincus told the subcommittee. “The Shared Registration System has been created, new registrars have been accredited under guidelines established by ICANN, Network Solutions, Inc. has licensed the SRS to those registrars on an interim basis and testing of the SRS has begun,” he noted.

Chiding NSI for not fulfilling its “obligation to recognize ICANN,” Pincus said “The transition of DNS management to the private sector can succeed only if all participants in the domain name system – including NSI – subject themselves to rules emerging from the consensus based, bottom-up process” that put ICANN in motion.

ICANN’s Friends

Register.com Inc. CEO Richard Forman, whose company was the first beneficiary of open competition in domain name registration, urged Congress to continue supporting ICANN. “If the Department of Commerce’s deregulation efforts are impeded, consumers and Internet growth will suffer. ICANN has been relatively successful in the short time it has been in existence,” Forman said. “While perhaps not providing perfect solutions, ICANN did indeed reflect workable compromises acceptable to a large majority of interested parties representing individuals, corporations, industry trade groups and not-for-profit organizations.”

The Information Technology Association of America is among those supporters, President Harris Miller added. “The future of the Internet is at stake,” Miller said. “Reverting back to a government-run monopoly would inevitably lead to government interference and regulation, and that is not a viable option,” he said. “Unfortunately, those who are working against ICANN may be undermining the future of this global medium.”

Ralph Nader’s Consumer Project on Technology took turns criticizing both NSI and ICANN. NSI’s assertion of “ownership or control over the .com, .net, .org or .edu top level domains” is inappropriate, the group said. “The prices for domain registration are excessive. We are alarmed that NSI is making claims that it ‘owns’ certain databases that are essential for the operation of the network. We are concerned that NSI is using the profits from its currentmonopoly to lobby the government to extend its monopoly.”

ICANN, however, can also improve, CPT President Jamie Love said. He questioned whether ICANN will ever have any “meaningful consumer representation” and worried aloud whether ICANN will become an instrument for corporations with the funding to manipulate a non-government body.

Postponed Fee

Meanwhile, in a prepared statement, Bliley repeated his chief concern about ICANN’s approach to its government mandate. Sticking in Bliley’s craw is the proposed imposition of a $1 fee “for each name, as millions of names come online,” he said. “I believe this is an unauthorized tax on the American people.”

“I fully support the goals of the Administration’s White Paper, which calls for the privatization of the domain name system,” Bliley said. “However, my support for this process does not mean that I or this Committee will turn a blind eye when confronted with troubling developments during this transition. The Internet is too important to this nation, and the world at large, for this Committee to stay on the sidelines.”

Under pressure from Bliley and others on Capitol Hill, ICANN agreed early this week to defer implementing the proposed fee until at least Oct. 1. While the move may help the group politically, it will do nothing for its current funding problems, which ICANN Interim Chairman Esther Dyson said remains critical. In a letter to the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Dyson said, “If the United States Government is serious about the progress that ICANN has made and its desire to see this process mature, short-term funding must be made available quickly. We urge you to do everything possible to help solve this problem.”

What’s In A Name?

Though she delivered the expected defense of ICANN’s activities, Dyson also made waves by criticizing the oversight subcommittee for what she viewed as a negative approach to the hearing. The hearing’s title appeared to bely the subcommittee’s and Bliley’s attitude toward Dyson’s organization: “Domain Name Registration: Is ICANN Out of Control?”

That title, Dyson said, “conveys an erroneous impression about what ICANN is and what it is doing. Even more seriously, the title of the hearing tends to distract attention from the truly fundamental issue before this Subcommittee: How will the Internet’s plumbing be managed?”

Firing back at both Congress and NSI for dragging their heels in the privatization process, Dyson questioned whether domain registration should be handled by “the world’s governments and bureaucrats, by a private company pursuing its own private economic interests, or by the global Internet community as a whole?” ICANN, she argued, is the best representation of option three, “a consensus-based private-sector vehicle through which the Internet community – engineers and entrepreneurs, businesses and academics, non-profits and individuals alike – will coordinate Internet names and numbers.”

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