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ICANN plays the name game with domain names

The group that manages the Internet's domain-name system is facing a real test of confidence.

The Commerce Department is weighing whether to renew the contract under which the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers performs technical functions that help make the Web run smoothly. This contract, under which ICANN runs the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, expires at the end of March. The contract covers such tasks as doling out the pool of Internet protocol numbers connecting computers to the Web. But on a more basic level, the IANA contract is the only concrete leverage the U.S. government still has over ICANN, which it picked in 1998 to take over management of the Internet's domain-name system.

"It is the one clear area that the Department of Commerce, without question, has authority in regard to ICANN," said Dan Jaffe, executive vice president of government relations for the Association of National Advertisers.

ICANN has come under fire in recent months from Jaffe's group and others for a program launched in January to introduce an unlimited number of Internet addresses. ICANN began accepting applications for new addresses, also known as generic top-level domain names. The sky is the theoretical limit, as long as an applicant has the financial and technical means to successfully operate the new dot-whatever. The plan will expand the current .com, .org, and .gov system to .photos, for instance, or .movies.

Business associations, led by trademark holders--as well as international groups, nonprofits, and some members of Congress--are worried that the program could force trademark holders to spend big money to defensively register names for strategic and competitive reasons. The Federal Trade Commission warned that the program could be a disaster for businesses and consumers. ICANN ignored calls to delay the rollout so that it could address some of these concerns; the group said earlier this month that, so far, it had received applications from 100 groups.

Despite this, most ICANN-watchers say they expect that Commerce will once again give ICANN the IANA contract, given that few, if any, other organizations would be in a position to take on the no-pay job.

"I can predict ICANN will get the contract," said Josh Bourne, president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse.

Bourne and others say that the bigger question is how long any ICANN contract will last and what requirements Commerce will impose. ICANN has been pushing for a longer contract, but many groups have urged the department to impose a short-term renewal to allow for closer monitoring as ICANN implements the new domain program and other policies.

"It's too important for the Department of Commerce not to keep a tight grip," Jaffe said. "Long-term, open periods where ICANN can go forward without any likelihood of a review [are] inappropriate."

Neither ICANN nor Commerce's National Telecommunications and Information Administration would comment on the contract. NTIA would not even say how many groups have applied for the IANA contract. In documents calling for interested parties to bid, NTIA said that it anticipated the contract would run from April 1 through March 31, 2015.

Stakeholders say they hope Commerce will use the contract renewal to influence ICANN's new domain policy, require the organization to be more transparent, and implement stronger conflict-of-interest rules. And while government officials originally envisioned eventually spinning ICANN off on its own, the IANA contract may signal that the United States is unlikely to sever its ties to ICANN any time soon.

"The latest IANA contract makes it clear that it is going in the opposite direction," said Milton Mueller, an information-studies professor at Syracuse University and a longtime ICANN-watcher.

Yet Commerce will likely make it easier to transfer the IANA functions to another entity in the future.

"Commerce will probably keep the IANA contract with ICANN, but new contract provisions make it easier to move this contract if Commerce thinks ICANN isn't living up to its broader obligations," said NetChoice Executive Director Steve DelBianco, who is also vice president of policy for the group that represents businesses within ICANN.

Although the IANA contract provides U.S. officials with a chance to exert influence over ICANN, Washington is wary about looking as if it is telling ICANN what to do. Many other countries have long been uncomfortable with the U.S. government's influence over ICANN, and some have called for ICANN's responsibilities to be transferred to a more formal, international body.

Such a move is unlikely at this point, but last fall India offered a proposal that calls on the United Nations to create a new group to "oversee the bodies responsible for technical and operation functioning of the Internet, including global-standards-setting."

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