Commentary

The Internet Star Chamber

By Lucas Mast
December 5, 2000
Vice President Gore may claim to have invented the Internet, but no matter who becomes the next president, no politician will govern it. That task falls to an obscure board of directors in Marina del Ray, Calif., called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). And just like a Palm Beach County election official, ICANN has little regard for democratic principles or standard rules of order.

ICANN, which held its annual meeting last week, is largely unknown outside of academic and political circles. But the group wields considerable power. At its recent meeting, ICANN voted on the addition of new top-level domain names (TLDs) to the familiar ones like .com, .org and .edu. After receiving 47 proposals from groups interested in obtaining and managing new TLDs, such as .kids, .biz and .tel — along with a $50,000 non-refundable entry fee per application — ICANN selected only seven new TLDs.

Of those, few seemed to have much usefulness in alleviating the congestion and scarcity of domain names on the Internet. For example, while .pro (for professionals), .name (individual names), and .biz (businesses) seem to have utility, .coop (cooperatives) and .museum are key examples of additions that will do little to help.

The problem with ICANN is that it operates as a virtual Star Chamber, holding closed-door meetings, disguising taxes as “fees,” trampling free speech in the name of trademark protection, and generally acting as a lackey for the federal government and a few select corporations.

Four current ICANN board members had to recuse themselves from voting on the TLD issue because they either represent parties who have submitted bids for new domain names or were technical advisors to companies submitting proposals. So while they did not vote on the issues, they were present in the discussion leading up to the vote. Karl Auerbach, winner of the North American at-large board seat, has said, “The directors have inside knowledge about the criteria that will be applied and the biases of those who will be doing the evaluation.” He thinks ICANN’s power over domain names should be “tossed in the trash bin entirely.”

ICANN was created in 1998 by the Department of Commerce, which still maintains final authority over major ICANN decisions, in an effort to gain control over web-address policy. The original interim board of nine people selected by government officials and the late Internet pioneer Jon Postel is giving way to a board more representative of those with a stake in the future of the Internet. ICANN even had worldwide elections that resulted in some interesting non-corporate individuals being added to the board at last week’s meeting, such as Andy Mueller-Maguhn, a self-proclaimed anarchist hacker.

But such voices were not welcome at the ICANN meeting. That’s because the board made the controversial decision to extend the terms of several departing members, which ensured a more corporate, old guard, protectionist mentality. Indeed, the board refused to seat newly elected members until the end of last week’s meeting, thereby excluding them from voting on the important policy items. In short, Internet users were in the minority as ICANN made decisions that will reshape the Internet as we know it.

Most people care little about the technical aspects of the Internet. So long as they can buy a book online, e-mail their friends, and download music (all with a modicum of privacy), they will ignore the actions of bodies such as ICANN. But the landscape of the Internet is changing, and quasi-governmental groups are playing an outsized role in an area of the economy once thought of as a model of free-wheeling capitalism. In a .com world, there’s little use for a .gov mentality.

Lucas Mast is a researcher in information studies at the Cato Institute.