Who runs the Internet? Theres no simple answer to that question. The Web is a collective enterprise, but several players have key roles. One of those players is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which is responsible for IP address space allocation and other important technical ground rules by which the Nets participants must abide.
While fortunes are being won and lost in the playground for which ICANN serves as monitor, ICANN is seen by some as an irrelevant and meddling bystander. Consequently, the organization is the target of multiple lawsuits and must spend scarce resources defending its actions in court. Thats unfortunate because anything that is as significant in our lives as the Net cries out for a rule-making body that enjoys the wholehearted support of the majority of Net constituents.
Foremost among the current legal actions is that filed by VeriSign earlier this year after ICANN directed it to cease its SiteFinder Service. Launched last year, SiteFinder was an ad-bearing, partner-referring site to which users were redirected after entering mistyped or unregistered domain names. VeriSign, however, provides the Domain Name System technology thats basic to Web addresses, and twisting the technology to direct users to a site it runs for commercial gain is not the kind of impartial stewardship the Net needs. ICANN found as much, and we agree. Although VeriSign complied with ICANNs directive that SiteFinder cease operating, VeriSign is challenging ICANNs authority in the courts.
Are some of ICANNs woes brought on by its own actions—or inactions? Probably. ICANNs advisory committee report on SiteFinder took nine months to publish, which, critics have rightly noted, is too long. The report includes recommendations for greater responsiveness, concluding, for example, that ICANN should create a formal process for evaluating new registry services before they debut. This will give proponents of new services a procedural channel to follow rather than introducing a service first and then awaiting ICANNs judgment.
The legal tangle shows, however, that ICANN—like the Net itself—is at a crossroads. As constituted now, ICANN is too ineffective and disrespected to fulfill its charter. Needed is a well-funded, swift-acting, authoritative technical and procedural authority for the Net. ICANN can and should make the quantum leap to fill this role. Failing that, ICANN eventually will need to be replaced by a more effective organization.
The alternative would not be a well-maintained information highway governed by rules of the road but a chaotic collection of competing World Wide Webs with little interoperability. It would be a very different, much more problematic Net than we have now. VeriSign and fellow travelers should be careful what they wish for.
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