ICANN chairman sees little value in delaying new domain-name program

With a week to go before his group rolls out a program that could dramatically increase the number of Internet addresses available to the public, the chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers says he sees no reason to delay despite growing calls to slow down the process.

"What value would a delay (serve)?" ICANN Chairman Stephen Crocker asked National Journal in an interview on Tuesday. He added that critics have yet to identify a "specific loose end where time was needed to work out the details."

The program will allow for the introduction of almost any new Internet address, also known as a generic top-level domain name, as long as the applicant has the financial and technical means to successfully operate it. This includes ponying up $185,000 for the application fee alone. ICANN will formally begin accepting applications for the new gTLD names on Jan. 12. Almost any word would qualify, offering the potential to extend the familiar dot-com, dot-net field of 22 choices -- .xxx is the latest -- to include dot-anything.

But in the weeks leading up to the launch, a growing chorus of critics led by the Association of National Advertisers has been trying to delay things. Two hearings have been held in Congress and key lawmakers have urged the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which has some oversight over ICANN, to pressure the group to slow things down. Commerce chose ICANN in 1998 to manage the Internet's domain-name system.

Major U.S. companies, nonprofits, and some international organizations worry that the introduction of hundreds or even thousands of new domain names could cost them millions by forcing them to defensively register their brands. They also say it could increase Internet fraud and create confusion for consumers, concerns echoed by the Federal Trade Commission.

They worry about sites designed to confuse consumers or piggyback established brands. Such sites already exist: CNNN.com attracts Web users who misspell CNN.

Josh Bourne, president of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, has estimated that business owners could spend an average of $500,000 on new defensive registrations. Groups have asked ICANN to help them defend trademarks. For instance, the International Olympic Committee hopes ICANN will preemptively bar use of .olympic and .olympiad.

Crocker, a pioneer in the development of the Internet, said no one on the board has proposed delaying the program and said he believes ICANN has appropriate safeguards in place to address concerns raised by trademark holders and others. He said many critics would not be satisfied with just a delay and instead are aiming to derail the program or change it dramatically. "We did listen," he said. "What they didn't like is that they didn't get their way."

The board is set to hold a telephone briefing on Thursday with ICANN's staff to go over last-minute details before the program's launch next week. Crocker, however, said it is not a formal board meeting, and he does not expect delays.

Crocker argued that ICANN needs to show that its multistakeholder decision-making process works and can't be influenced by political forces. "If we slowed things down ...because of criticism and it doesn't stand up to scrutiny, then we have positioned ourselves as being driven by politics and, more particularly, politics principally in the U.S.," Crocker said. "That has bad consequences in terms of providing evenhanded oversight of the system."

Dan Jaffe of the Association of National Advertisers said his group and others want to see ICANN succeed. But he said ICANN has not followed its bottom-up decision-making process in developing the domain-name program and risks undermining its credibility if it plows ahead. "I really think ICANN is running a major risk," he said.

Jaffe said he hopes NTIA will step in and encourage ICANN to delay the program. But he and others may be disappointed with NTIA's latest response on the issue.

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling encouraged ICANN in a letter late Tuesday to address some of the concerns that have been raised about the new gTLD program but stopped short of calling for a delay in its launch. Strickling urged ICANN to take steps to minimize the need for companies to defensively apply for new domain names, to implement recommendations made by law enforcement, and to bolster consumer protections, as well as to enhance efforts to educate the public about the program.

"In meetings we have held with industry over the past weeks, we have learned that there is tremendous concern about the specifics of the program that may lead to a number of unintended and unforeseen consequences and could jeopardize its success," Strickling wrote.