Top-level domain selections flawed, critics charge

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The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers came under attack during a congressional hearing Thursday for allegedly using an arbitrary, subjective and otherwise flawed process when it selected seven new top-level domains last November.

Members of the House telecommunications subcommittee asked tough questions about why ICANN failed to use objective and quantitative measurements when it selected seven new top-level domains from a field of 44 proposals. Republican and Democratic members recommended that ICANN develop a fairer and more open process before it selects additional top-level domains.

At the hearing's conclusion, it remained unclear whether the subcommittee would try to reverse ICANN's decision or require ICANN to justify or expand its selections before they are approved by the Department of Commerce. ICANN is a nonprofit organization that oversees the Internet's name and addressing system through a contract with the Commerce Department.

"Our goal here is to make sure that this is a fair and open process in every way, particularly for those that have qualified applications, so that they may, in fact, succeed," says Fred Upton (R-Mich.), chairman of the subcommittee. "I think there is room for improvement as this process continues."

ICANN's board of directors in November selected seven new top-level domains for the Internet: .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name and .pro. ICANN's stated goal was to select a limited number of new top-level domains to test the impact on the stability of the Internet of introducing new domains. The new domains were designed to generate competition for the popular .com domain and to make new and specialized domain names available to companies and individuals.

ICANN's board selected the new top-level domains during a 7-hour meeting that was broadcast live over the Internet. Altogether, ICANN received 44 valid proposals, each of which was accompanied by a $50,000 application fee. ICANN's staff spent six weeks evaluating the proposals before the board made its selections. ICANN's staff is currently in negotiations with the seven organizations that were chosen.

The House telecommunications subcommittee called today's hearing after several companies whose proposals were rejected complained that the selection process was flawed.

The witnesses at the hearing included representatives of two organizations -- dotTV of Los Angeles and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) of Geneva -- whose proposals were rejected. Two other witnesses were from register.com and NeuStar, whose proposals were accepted. Rounding out the witness list were ICANN Chairman and Internet inventor Vint Cerf, Internet law expert Michael Froomkin, Alan Davidson from the Center for Democracy and Technology, and Internet entrepreneur Leah Gallegos.

Several witnesses said ICANN eliminated proposals based on inaccurate information gathered by its staff, and that applicants were not given the opportunity to respond to this information.

"The IATA application drew support from organizations that represent over one million travel industry businesses. We fully satisfied all of ICANN's nine criteria... Then, the staff applied a new tenth criteria, which they called representativeness, and they erroneously stated that IATA didn't appropriately represent the travel industry," charged David Short, legal director of IATA. "IATA asks that we be given a clear shake, which ICANN refuses to do."

Most damning was the criticism of Gallegos, whose companyy AtlanticRoot Network operates an alternative domain name system and has registered .biz names for 5 years. "ICANN has usurped .biz and allowed a competitor to pay $50,000 to take over our business," she said, adding that her company's "entire business is domain name registrations."

As expected, register.com and NeuStar officials asserted that ICANN's process was fair. "ICANN's process was measured and responsible," said Ken Hansen, director of corporate development at NeuStar. He added that ICANN "made it clear that additional [top-level domains] would be considered in the future."

Froomkin and Davidson concurred that ICANN's board used an arbitrary and flawed process. Froomkin recommended that ICANN select all applicants for new top-level domains that are able to show technical competency. Davidson urged Congress and the Commerce Department not to reverse ICANN's decision but to push ICANN to reform its process before additional top-level domains are selected.

Cerf was on the hot seat during most of the hearing, answering questions about the criteria used to select winners and why more winners weren't chosen. He was also questioned about how ICANN arrived at the $50,000 fee and why applications proposing segregated content for children and adults were rejected.

"I accept the idea that we need to reexamine the procedures that we used," Cerf admitted. In response to another question, he said that ICANN "needs to find more objective ways of making these decisions."

One issue that was raised repeatedly is whether ICANN needs to meet the requirements of the Administrative Procedures Act, which oversees governmental bodies and ensures due process. Short and Gallegos said they would like ICANN to follow this act, but Froomkin and Davidson instead recommended that ICANN stick to technical issues and stay out of policymaking.

This story, "Top-level domain selections flawed, critics charge" was originally published by Network World.

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