LONDON (Reuters) - The organization that oversees the Internet's vast domain-name system is looking to face down grass-roots protesters at its annual meeting in Bucharest this week as it tries to gain greater government-level acceptance.
Starting on Wednesday in the Romanian capital, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will chart its future, one that could see individual Net users getting squeezed out in favor of politicians and businessmen.
The focus on ICANN, which decides how domain names such as www.reuters.com get doled out to individuals and businesses, has grown immensely in the past two years as the global Internet population has grown to more than 425 million by some estimates.
A controversial proposal floated by ICANN Chief Executive Stuart Lynn is due for a vote on Thursday that could end the appointment of representatives of technical and citizens groups to the ICANN board and limit board members to representatives of business and government.
Lynn has said the inclusion of politicians could give the body more authority with national governments and improve its ability to raise funds.
A separate, equally controversial, motion would impose a direct 25-cent tax on all new domain-name registrations to fund the organization.
Caught in a tug-of-war
Grass-roots activists argue that limiting the role of private users will tilt an already lopsided balance of power that favors Western government and business interests.
"I don't think governments are needed (in the ICANN process), nor at this time are they organized in a manner that would make their representation easy," said Michael Froomkin, an outspoken ICANN critic and professor at the University of Miami School of Law.
"The officials who turn up to ICANN meetings are the ones who heard about the Internet first, not necessarily the people who make, or should make, Internet policy."
Politicians, particularly in Europe and South Africa, are clamoring for more control of the body, suggesting they would be more fit to assign domain names to individuals and businesses just as they did with telephone numbers in days gone by.
Another source of pressure on ICANN is the U.S. Congress. U.S. lawmakers, led by Senator Conrad Burns, have promised heightened oversight of the organization before it decides on whether to give ICANN full control of the Internet's domain-name system.
EU weighs in
One of ICANN's most vocal critics, the European Union, insists ICANN must remain a technical, standards-setting body and keep out of public policy issues regarding the Internet.
"Governments are responsible for public policy, not ICANN," the EU Telecommunications Council said in a recent white paper.
EU officials also said they would prefer that the U.S. Department of Commerce, the government body that spawned ICANN in 1998, relinquish control of the root-server system, a master control database of Internet sites that ensures Internet traffic gets to its intended destination.
The fear is that in the wrong hands the enormous database could be mined to determine all comings and goings on the Internet.
Although there is no evidence that this has happened, the issue has attracted added attention in recent months as law enforcement officials seek to shore up defenses against feared acts of cyber-terrorism.
In need of dot-org-anisation
The wrangling over who will run ICANN is impeding progress with other vital ongoing issues needed to make the Internet a truly global medium, critics say.
For years, ICANN has been grappling with how to institute official standards for non-Arabic numbers and non-Latin letters to enable them to be accessed by any type of browser. The failure to resolve the matter has drawn further complaints that ICANN's cumbersome bureaucracy penalizes its under-served, non-Western constituents.
"I really think it's time to broaden the input of different stakeholders. It's time to include other, non-Western parts of the world in the process," said Maurice Wessling, director of Dutch cyber advocacy group Bits of Freedom.
Also on the agenda this week is a competitive run-off for the right to manage the global dot-org domains for non-commercial organizations.
Eleven companies, all from the U.S. and Europe, are vying for the lucrative business, which currently involves oversight of a database for more than 2.5 million organizations.
"It is a profitable business," said Stuart Marsden, technical director of Unity Registry, a Zurich-based bidder.
The European applicants are confident that ICANN, wishing to suppress earlier criticisms that it is too U.S.-centric, will be more likely to award a non-U.S. business the contract.
Andrew Tsai, chief executive officer of London-based Global Name Registry, said the company would play up its international roots as well as its track record in administering the dot-name global domain.
"There is a shift at ICANN toward true global representation. That's a huge advantage for us," Tsai said.
ICANN is expected to award the contract at the end of August, officials said.