April 19, 2014

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ICANN Cut Secret Domain Deal

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.

Comments

  1. James Grimmelmann says:

    As best I can tell, if ICANN were to disappear, there would be an unpleasant Hobbesian struggle among the various parties who have a stake in the naming system. Either a fragmentation of the DNS space into incompatible shards or its complete capture by a for-profit cartel seems quite plausible. ICANN, regocnizing that this is the alternative, realizes that it can get quite awful indeed before people would rather go with what’s behind door #2. Indeed, some might say that ICANN is probing the boundaries of what it can get away with.

    The contrast between ICANN’s domain-name shennanigans and the relative quiescence of its management of its IP-space management functions is striking.

  2. Mark Gritter says:

    It would not be the first time ICANN ignored its own rules, or operated in a non-open fashion. (Witness, for example, Karl Auerbach’s struggle to view ICANN’s financial records _as an ICANN director_.) So really this is just a “more of the same” story.

    In fact, I view the whole new-TLD process as meaningless anyway, since they’re neither needed nor particularly desired by most Internet users. Because I believe there aren’t any technical issues at stake, it’s not surprising that the process is arbitrary, political, and perhaps corrupt— what other criteria could there possibly be for such a pointless exercise?

    But I have to second James Grimmelmann’s point that DNS management was supposed to be only a part of ICANN’s mandate. My understanding is that they have basically let IP address management devolve to the regional registries. If ever there was a cause that deserved the application of some high-level back-room arm-twisting, it’s prying the old /8 allocations away from organizations that don’t need them.

  3. Bill Godfrey says:

    If ICANN were to spontaneously combust, I imagine the ISP industry would form something else to replace it.

    Either that or each ISP would administer thier own root server.

  4. Neo says:

    Unlike your post, which is just a “me too” post. :P