According to Michael Froomkin at ICANNWatch, evidence has come to light that ICANN secretly cut a deal with IATA, an airline industry association, to create a new “.travel” domain and give control of it to a front organization controlled by IATA. If true, this is a serious breach of ICANN’s own rules and undermines ICANN’s legitimacy. As Michael says, this is a story that deserves more attention that it is likely to get.
ICANN, depending on whom you ask, is either a technical coordination agency for Internet naming, or the closest thing we have to a government for the Net. One of ICANN’s jobs is to decide whether and how to create new Top-Level Domains (TLDs). TLDs, such as “.com”, “.edu”, and “.uk” are the roots of the Internet’s name space. Whether ICANN is a standards body or a government, it is supposed to follow certain principles of fairness and transparency, as set down in its own bylaws. Apparently it has broken those rules in this case, and has done so in order to grant an unfair advantage in the TLD award process to a particular group.
In a normal organization, revelations like this might cause the members to revolt and elect new leadership. But ICANN doesn’t seem to have membership in the normal sense of the term, and it doesn’t seem to have a legitimate democratic process for picking its leaders. What we’ll get instead, if we get anything, is grumbling, and determination to keep ICANN from expanding its power further.
Revelations like this have to undermine ICANN’s already fragile legitimacy. People will ask why ICANN is in charge; and there’s not really a good answer. We can recount the history of how ICANN got its current position; but it’s hard to justify ICANN’s power as anything other than an accident of that history. My sense is that ICANN keeps its power mostly because nobody knows what would replace ICANN if it were deposed. That’s no way to run an Internet.
UPDATE (April 6): Edward Hasbrouck, who appears to deserve credit for uncovering much of this story, offers more details and background.