January 16, 2001, 9:38 AM — THE FIRST TRULY GLOBAL online election is taking place this week for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet's governing body. The decisions made by ICANN will ultimately affect every Windows and Internet user for years to come.
Internet policy management was transferred in 1998 from universities to ICANN by the U.S. Department of Commerce. The Commerce Department owns the Internet's central or "root" server, which determines which other servers around the world are recognized.
ICANN officials say their organization has no official power. But they know this is nonsense. The Commerce Department's contract with ICANN gives that organization the power to make policy regarding the root server. In turn, ICANN accredits registrars only after they sign legal contracts binding them to obey future ICANN rulings. When you register a domain name, you agree to abide by ICANN, too. (You may not have read that part before you clicked OK.)
Years ago, nations created the Law of the Sea to govern valuable ocean resources. Similarly, ICANN is now creating a "Law of the Internet" via its contracts.
As a result, the Internet is acquiring the legal status of a sovereign nation with its own laws and customs. Unfortunately, the Internet is a new nation that lacks a Bill of Rights.
More than three-fourths of ICANN's directors have ties to firms with financial interests affected by Internet policies. This doesn't make them evil people, but it does mean they rarely vote against their wallets.
Limited expansion: The most important task given to ICANN was to expand the Net beyond today's inadequate TLDs (top-level domains), such as .com, .net, and. org. Rapid growth has created a need for unlimited new domains, such as united.airlines, united.vanlines, united.grocers, and so on.
But ICANN has dragged its feet. Some interest groups, heavily over-represented on the board, profit from the current artificial scarcity of domain names. ICANN plans to allow a mere handful of new TLDs.
Reverse hijacking: ICANN has created a domain-name dispute policy that elevates trademark rights far above the time-honored rights of fair use and parody. Most such disputes are now ruled on by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO).
WIPO is nominally a U.N. agency. But, unlike other U.N. organs, it isn't funded primarily by nation-states. Instead, 85 percent of WIPO's revenue comes from corporations that pay for a global trademark and patent protection system it runs.
In what has become known as "reverse hijacking," WIPO arbitrators have shut down the sites of legitimate companies and nonprofit groups that committed no crime but offending well-heeled plaintiffs.