Trouble Ahead for New ICANN Chair

In the last week, many kind-hearted Americans were feeling sorry for the Florida secretary of state, the lady who approved the Palm Beach “butterfly ballot,” or the judges who woke up to find the U.S. presidency in their laps. (I am not so kind-hearted; I was feeling sorry for myself.)

Well it’s time to ditch that crew like the cast of a canceled sitcom. Let’s talk about someone with real problems worth feeling real sorry for — Vinton Cerf.

Cerf, sometimes called the “Father of the Internet” for his early work on TCP/IP, may want to drop the whole thing at an orphanage soon. (I just don’t want to see the Internet lying on my front door with a note stuck to its carrier.) This is because Cerf is the new chair of ICANN, replacing Esther Dyson.

Before Esther left (she was replaced by ICANN critic Karl Auerbach, one of five elected members), she chaired the meeting that created seven new top-level domains (TLDs) to go alongside .com, .net, and .org. These are .biz (for businesses), .info (for information), .name (for personal sites), .pro (for professionals), .aero (for air transport), .museum (for museums), and .coop (for cooperative businesses such as credit unions). The new TLDs should be in operation by spring.

In theory, only the .info TLD is open to anyone; the others are restricted to specific applicants. But that was true (in theory) for the older domains, and companies now routinely grab their names in all TLDs to protect copyright (or prevent others from getting it).

Some of the minutes of the ICANN meeting are posted on the Harvard Law web site, and they are revealing.

Cerf wants assurances that any new registry be “viable,” that it be an operating business not wholly dependent on registrations for its business model. “Failure of either registrar or registry would put at risk the whole TLD,” he is quoted as saying.

This would seem to put Cerf squarely on the side of big businesses (he does work for MCI WorldCom), but hold on a moment. The minutes show him as instrumental in quashing an attempt by Afilias, a new registry in which Network Solutions holds a stake, to take over .web, part of a “fringe” system of web addressing run by Image Online Design in California. Afilias had asked for .web; it wound up with .info.

I “continue to be concerned about assigning .web to Afilias,” Cerf is quoted as saying. I “[w]ould be more comfortable if we assigned them a different string and reserved .web.” After some disagreement, Cerf’s idea carried.

There is trouble ahead as well as behind. Will the new registrars enforce the “restrictions” on who can register these new TLDs? What will ICANN do if they don’t? And what of Auerbach’s point that, technically, the Internet’s address space can be open to anyone, not just to big outfits supported by Network Solutions?

Don’t expect Cerf’s attempts at Solomon-like compromise to win him any friends. As radio show host Jim Hightower has observed, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

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