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On New Domains and ICANN Accountability, More Questions than Answers

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) went before a Congressional panel today to defend its plan to create an unlimited number of new Internet domains (like .web, .food, etc.)   I was a witness at the hearing, which made one thing clear: the “consensus” on new Internet domains is not as strong as ICANN would have us think.

Today’s hearing before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts and Competition broke along familiar lines.  ICANN and Internet registrar eNOM – two entities that stand to reap significant revenues from the introduction of new domains –  defended the plan, arguing that it would spur innovation and growth. Meanwhile, Richard Heath from the International Trademark Association and I reiterated serious concerns about cybersquatting and fraud that ICANN hasn’t yet addressed.

But while the themes of today’s hearing were familiar, the setting was historic, since today is the last time that ICANN will come before Congress under its 10-year agreement (known as the JPA) whereby the US Government transitions DNS management to ICANN. 

It is unclear at this point what will replace the JPA when it expires at the end of this month. What was clear from today’s hearing is that the accountability provided by the JPA remains every bit as relevant and important as it was more than a decade ago.

The controversy over ICANN’s current drive to create new domains offers a microcosm of the larger issues of accountability and institutional confidence facing the organization.   Just as ICANN is about to launch hundreds of new domains, there is plenty of disagreement  about whether the need justifies the potential costs.

Rather than resolve these questions – and perhaps conduct a study into the real demand for new domains – ICANN has plowed ahead with a plan that will invoke the biggest change to the Domain Name System since its inception.  If the new domain plan goes awry, companies and consumers around the world will wonder what ICANN was thinking.

What really frustrates me is that ICANN could have simplified this new domain plan by just taking it in steps. While the demand for new Latin-character domains like .eco, .food and .shop is purely speculative, there is one area where the demand is unquestionable – non-Latin domains.

More than half of the people on earth use non-Latin character sets, and cannot enter or read domain names or email addresses entirely in their own language and characters.   ICANN is planning to introduce non-Latin character domains along with new Latin-character domains, but it should have used the international domain rollout as a proof of concept.  Moreover, it would have sent a signal to non-Latin users that ICANN was committed to serving the global community.

When I made this point before today’s panel, it got a lot more traction than it does at ICANN meetings, where any effort to moderate a plan already in motion are viewed as obstructionist and irrelevant.

I was reminded today of the light-touch guidance that our Commerce Department has given ICANN over the last decade. Pundits tell us that people elsewhere in the world bristle at the US Government relationship with ICANN, but that bit of received wisdom may not be supported by the facts.

Zahid Jamil, a lawyer for the IT industry in Pakistan and an elected officer in the ICANN community, sees the ICANN-US relationship in a different light. "We in the developing world feel that the continued involvement of the US Government will ensure transparency, openness and guarantee freedoms users currently enjoy.  This Democratizing tool that has resulted in exponential change in global societal, economic and political spheres will, if captured by the UN or other inter governmental entities, turn back 20 years of progress in these areas."

That’s a message that ICANN and the rest of the world needs to hear –  before next Wednesday, when ICANN walks away from the JPA.

Steve DelBianco