The people who built the Internet envisioned a model of open access and an essential tool for democracy. These days, however, access to a spot on the Internet is strangled by the shortage of domain names--the Amazon in Amazon.com, for instance. That shortage was the impetus for developing new words to supplement dot-com, dot-org and the few other "top-level domains" that now exist. But instead of restoring the original democratic vision, the distribution of these Internet suffixes threatens to be a feast for billionaire buddies, with no seat at the table for the public.
The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, based in Marina Del Rey, is an international standards board that the Commerce Department delegated in 1998 to oversee the Internet's worldwide naming and addressing systems. Ideally it would operate like the Federal Communications Commission, which is required to make rules based on clear principles announced and debated in public for months. But nearly the opposite is so.
At a Senate hearing Wednesday, and at a House hearing last week, dissidents from inside the Internet naming corporation, or ICANN, joined business leaders in decrying the "arbitrary and capricious" way in which ICANN last fall approved seven new suffixes.
As anyone who has tried to register an English-language word as a domain name over the past year knows, very few are not taken and many are held hostage by Internet land grabbers demanding high prices for them. The new suffixes would free up millions of slots.
The Commerce Department has to approve any issuance of new suffixes. Commerce Secretary Don Evans should hold up approval until the process for awarding suffixes is brought fully into the public eye.
The process began last August when ICANN announced that it was accepting applications for top-level domains. Applicants had to pay a $50,000 nonrefundable fee, arguably an illegal barrier to entry under federal law. Applicants were not given any clear timetable or criteria for awarding the immensely valuable suffixes, whose "owners" can charge applicants for individual domain names.
ICANN posted a staff report in November, sketching a rationale for recommending seven new suffixes from 47 applications. The winners were dot-pro, for doctors, lawyers and the like; dot-biz for businesses; dot-info for general use, an alternative to dot-com; dot-name for personal Web sites; dot-aero for air transport companies; dot-museum, and dot-coop for cooperatives such as credit unions. The posting was made only one day before a hearing at which applicants, including those seeking the eventually rejected dot-kids, dot-union and dot-health, were given only three minutes each to speak.
The staff report failed to list the meetings and correspondence on which ICANN directors based their decisions. Worst of all, the reasons the staff report gave for the selections were glib at best. For example, ICANN said it denied dot-union because the international unions making the application were "not democratic." But the coveted dot-info went to Afilias, a group of the for-profit companies that dole out domain names and finance a large portion of ICANN's budget.
The Internet is the basis for the world's entire digital economy, to say nothing of its role in civic and intellectual life. If ICANN is to continue its role as the Internet's most influential authority, it will have to act in fair, democratic and publicly accountable ways that accord with the medium's original vision.