The wide-ranging consultation includes the curiously phrased question of whether the reformed organisation should be a "thick" or a "thin" body. But with the stability of the domain name system at stake, the future of ICANN is a serious matter.
ICANN is an independent non-profit corporation based in the US which co-ordinates certain technical functions, for example, the assignment of IP addresses, on which the Domain Name System ("DNS") is based. It took over this function in 1998 from the US Government and prior to that the DNS was managed on an ad hoc basis by a network of researchers and technical organisations. In February of this year, an announcement was made by ICANN's President stating that the organisation in its present form was not working. That announcement called for "deep and meaningful" reform of the organisation, and initiated an international consultation process. What is at stake?
ICANN performs a unique and pivotal role in the management and stability of the Internet. Although its workings may seem remote from the day-to-day needs of most businesses, all who rely on the Internet have an interest in its successful operation. To be more precise, ICANN's stated mission is the "effective management and co-ordination of those few, higher -- level elements of the Internet's naming and address allocation systems that require or benefit from global management and co-ordination". ICANN's key technical functions include: managing the DNS root zone files (essentially, the master list of top level domain names (TLDs); recognising the Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs); allocating blocks of IPv4 and IPv6 (next generation) internet addresses; maintaining registries of protocol port and parameter numbers; selecting new generic TLDs and registry operators; and supervising administration of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, introduced in 1999 and very popular. Because of their importance, the control of these technical functions has wider public policy implications for issues like competition, privacy, security and consumer protection. It should also be stressed that these questions are not new, having been aired four years ago when ICANN was formed. The key questions
ICANN's February proposal flagged the areas for reform as being the structure, the funding (and staffing) of the organisation, and its mission. Following on from this, the questions raised in the current DTI consultation document include:
- should ICANN be a "thick" organisation, dealing with wider functions such as consumer protection, or a "thin" organisation, dealing only with a restricted number of technical functions?
- what changes should be made to the structure of ICANN?
- how should ICANN be funded in the future?
- how should public policy issues relating to the DNS -- like security, privacy and competition -- be addressed?
- what should national governments' involvement in the DNS be?
- what should be ICANN's functions in relation to ccTLDs?
- how should global TLDs be managed?
- how should the Root Server System (which underpins the DNS) be managed and funded?
- how should IP address allocation be handled?
- what enforcement powers (e.g. contractual and/or statutory) should ICANN have?
It is true that the consultation is directed mainly at those with direct involvement with ICANN, such as domain name registries and ISPs. However, some of these issues do have a more direct impact on ordinary businesses -- like domain name dispute resolution policies -- and the UK Government has therefore thrown the consultation open to the entire UK Internet community. Businesses and Internet users have until 14th June to submit their responses to the DTI. ICANN's Board will meet at the end of June to discuss the reform and is expected to implement any changes by the end of 2002. The information contained in this bulletin is intended as a general overview of the subjects featured and detailed specialist advice should always be taken before taking or refraining from taking any action.