Beckstrom: I came to change Icann

Icann is preparing for new generic top-level domain applications. Rod Beckstrom, the chief executive of Icann, talks to ZDNet UK about his work at the heart of the internet
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

Icann is gearing up for new generic top-level domains. Between January and April next year, governments and other organisations will be able to apply for internet extensions, for example .wales or .pacific, in place of the existing ones such as .com and .net.

Organisations that administer generic top-level domains (gTLDs) will effectively become registries, and control part of the internet infrastructure. New gTLDs will also allow Internationalised Domain Names (IDNs), letting organisations use non-Latin character sets in top-level domains.

These are some of the innovations overseen by Icann chief executive Rod Beckstrom, who will come to the end of his term in July 2012. He has also presided over historic changes to internet governance, including Icann distancing itself from direct US Department of Commerce control, and the signing of the DNSSec root. A number of executives have left office during Beckstrom's term, prompting some critics to question his management style.

Beckstrom, a technology entrepreneur, served as director of the US National Cybersecurity Center before joining Icann. He spoke to ZDNet UK in the week that Icann launched a gTLD applicant handbook.

Q: Some security companies, commenting on Internationalised Domain Names, have said that some characters can be used to spoof domain names, for example, using Cyrillic instead of Latin letters to try to fool people. What is Icann's take on international-character security?
A: At Icann, during gTLD applications, there is a string confusion test, policy and process. Cyrillic and Latin have some characters which look quite similar, but there is a set channel and policy to get around problems [including use of an algorithm to determine character set].

Some critics of gTLDs, notably advertisers, have said that no general studies have been conducted about the overall economic impact of gTLDs.
There have been a number of studies, but none are definitive. You can't come up with a precise forecast for innovation. When you draw up, new innovation tends to get a net benefit.

The Icann applications alone cost $185,000 (£120,000). Are costs a barrier to new gTLD entry for groups of small businesses and charities?
The established costs of a new gTLD are estimated to be several millions of dollars over a 10-year period, for approval and operations costs. Fees to Icann are below 25 percent of that. The fees are a small amount of the overall costs. Icann is non-profit, and these are costs we absorb during the process of the application.

We see applicants that like to have financial support, with joint applicants supporting a working group.

There have been some complaints about gTLDs, including a lack of open discussion. Can Icann processes be improved?
You can always improve the nature of open political processes. When some partners don't get what they want, they are going to say they were not listened to, and advocates will continue to advocate their point of view. One stakeholder group is not going to get what they want if that's unfair to other stakeholders. These different interest groups have different takes.

Have any stakeholders been particularly vocal about gTLDs?
Advertisers have been one of the groups that have objected to new gTLDs. In a recent letter to me, the Association of National Advertisers didn't refer to two previous programme points where they pretty much got what they are asking for, but they are a paid association and will continue to ask for more.

Other groups are still working to...

...pursue their interests. Governments are working to protect geographic names, but there are still some outliers. Years ago, one country wanted to reserve every place name [in the country] — it was a small country, but there were five million names. They wanted to reserve each pond, hill and dale, and put every place name on a protected list for governments. Obviously, that didn't happen.

Are there other outliers: for example, Palestine? The UN is due to vote on statehood for Palestine.
Palestine recently added an Arabic international domain name, with good co-operation between teams and working groups. In some ways Icann is like the Swift banking system – Icann works with 242 countries and territories, without favour.

Cyber-squatting seems to be a concern for gTLD applicants. Has Icann entertained the notion that gTLDs may fall into the wrong hands when they come up for renewal?
Well, you can never say 'never'. A set of protections have been developed for this programme which seek to obstruct cyber-squatting. There's a specific programme in the new gTLD strand. If a registry is actively participating in cyber-squatting, the gTLD can be taken away.

In addition, new gTLDs get protections at the second level. Trademark holders who place their mark in an Icann clearing house will be notified if any parties are seeking to register their mark in any new TLDs. New protections clearly exist for any existing TLDs.

Under your leadership, Icann has moved away from US Department of Commerce. You would also like Iana to follow suit. Has there been pushback from the US government over this?
It's pretty well a dialogue in progress.

It's really about creating global, brand-based management. We've been working with major Chinese entities, CNNIC and CONAC and the Internet Society China; and a major Russian entity, the RU Centre, and with substantial input of the views of the governments of India and Mexico.

This is historic in the evolution of Icann. It showed different views of how Icann can perform international work. I was extremely encouraged to see other major entities engaging in Icann.

Icann has been dramatically improved during my time here. I came to lift the organisation.

During your time at Icann, seven executives have left the organisation, and you have said you will not be reapplying for the role in 2012. Some media stories have focused on your management style: is it too abrasive?
The organisation has been dramatically improved during my time here. I came to lift the organisation. I was given clear guidance from the Icann board to evolve the management team to have the necessary experience of running an organisation which has a [projected] $97m (£63m) budget for the current year.

The evolution of the management team was absolutely deliberate. Sometimes skills you get in a $100m organisation are different from those in a $5m organisation. I have assembled an excellent management team.

And yet you're still leaving in July.
I only made a three-year commitment. I came here to be a change agent, and I feel I've made some positive changes.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.
Editorial standards