Facing Top-Level Challenge

CEO defends ICANN's policy-making processes

For nearly three years, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers has attempted no small feat: to set policies and procedures governing how the Internet will grow. At no time has that role gained so much scrutiny as in the past year. Among its highest-profile decisions was the introduction in November of seven TLDs (top-level domains) to allow new generic addresses beyond .com, .net and .org. That decision, applauded by some, has also revived critics who continue to say ICANNs processes are too closed and dont represent the full breadth of Internet users.

Senior Writer Matt Hicks recently talked with ICANN President and CEO M. Stuart Lynn, who took the helm of the Marina del Rey, Calif., nonprofit corporation in March, about the future of domain names and of ICANNs role.

eWeek: ICANN approved seven new top-level domains last November. Already youre hearing calls for more domain names. How soon can companies expect ICANN to approve more domain names?

Lynn: Well, whats going on now is a compromise between those who want to see a lot of domain names in a hurry and those who feel weve got enough already. The board decided last November to launch these seven in order to evaluate a number of issues, ranging from answering technical questions like "Can the DNS [Domain Name System] handle more top-level domains without causing performance problems?" to a whole lot of business questions, including issues about what a domain really is. We do not know. ... So thats one of the things we want to try and find out.

eWeek: A lot of corporations are rushing now to protect their brands and their trademarks as these new domains become available. But few actually seem to have plans to use these new domains for anything other than a defense against competitors or cybersquatters. Was that really what ICANN had in mind when it started working on expanding the domains?

Lynn: First of all, you may just be hearing from those corporations doing that. ... But you have to understand that the initial period, for example, in .info is a sunrise period where theyre giving preference to those who have already established trademarks. Theres an initiation period, which is intended to allow those who already have trademarks and domain names to register first. So probably what youre hearing is by design, but I wouldnt draw a large inference from a small sample.

eWeek: How realistic do you think it is to expect that these two new domains [.biz and .info] will catch on like .com? Or do you think its going to take some time for that to occur?

Lynn: I think thats one of the things we want to find out. ... That will help surely answer the question about how the boards going to view the introduction of more TLDs.

eWeek: Im sure youre aware of the growing amount of alternative domain names being tried—companies like New.net, with .shop, and many others. How much of a threat are these, first of all to ICANNs authority, and also to the growth of the Web?

Lynn: Well, we dont think its a threat to ICANNs authority at all. ICANNs authority is well-rooted in the community and the way were established. Were here for the public interest—to support the public interest. What we do, including how we state the introduction of new TLDs, always has that public interest in mind and community in mind. We cant prevent anyone else from engaging in alternative roots for their own private gain. But we should understand that it is not something that is directed to the public interest.

eWeek: You just ended your meeting in Stockholm, where ICANN faced many calls for restructuring. Operators of country codes, for example, want more representation of general Internet users. How is ICANN going to try to address those criticisms? And how different do you think ICANNs structure and role will look in a year or so from what we see today?

Lynn: I dont want to speculate. One of the things were doing is waiting for the report from the study committee thats chaired by Carl Bildt, the former prime minister of Sweden, whose committee is due to make recommendations to the board in November, although well receive an interim report in September. I think thats going to certainly help shape the boards thinking on how the future structure of ICANN should evolve. But it would be very premature to speculate right now.

eWeek: Particularly with the country codes, theres a number of ways in which different domains are administered. Dispute resolution rules differ, as do rules about what qualifies you to get a URL in the first place. Are there any movements to standardize all that, and what is ICANNs role in doing so?

Lynn: First of all, I think its important to understand that our relation to the country-code registrars is different than our relation to what I used to call the generic top-level domain names. The country-code registrars are associated with countries and are bound by laws of those countries, and its a different kind of relationship. On the other hand, they [are] a very important constituency in the ICANN community, and we have growing relationships with them. They are part of the overall root, but we do have a different relationship. So its no surprise that they dont all follow the same pattern, although many of them do get together in subsets. ... to try to establish a set of best practices for their particular groupings. But I dont think youre going to see a one size fits all for the [country-code] TLDs.