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US opposition to ICANN's domain names policy could lead to a fractured Internet

Recently retired ICANN chief warns that US groups opposing its new domain names policy could fuel criticism that the Internet is run by the US.
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

Peter Dengate-Thrush, the recent chairman of ICANN, the Internet regulatory body, warned that opposition to ICANN's new top level domain names (TLDs) could encourage some countries to split from the Internet.

In an interview, he said opposition by the US Association of National Advertisers (ANA), which represents large US corporations, threatens the independence of the global Internet.

If the ANA and its US allies succeed in blocking ICANN, the Internet will be seen as controlled by powerful US interests.

Mr Dengate-Thrush worked 12 years at ICANN, seven years as Chairman before retiring in June.

Beginning next year, companies will be able to create new top level domain names using almost any word as a top level domain name (TLD) instead of generic TLDs .com, org, etc. Canon, for example, could create and buy the exclusive rights to .Canon. Or a city could create its own TLD, such as .SanJose.

The ANA says that the flood of TLDs would bring "confusion into the marketplace and increasing the likelihood of cybersquatting and other malicious conduct, the ICANN top-level domain program diminishes the power of trademarks to serve as strong, accurate and reliable symbols of source and quality in the marketplace."

ICANN denies the ANA charges and says that the TLD naming policy took more than ten years, and included input from more than 85 countries, and thousands of organizations. And that the ANA did not voice its opposition at any time during the lengthy consultation period.

"If the ANA succeeds against ICANN, it will strengthen the view that the US controls the Internet," said Mr Dengate-Thrush.

He said that since ICANN was formed in the late 1990s, it had several times prevented the Internet from fracturing because of concerns over US control. This was done by gradually removing US government jurisdiction over key control points of the Internet.

There is one remaining issue: the US Department of Commerce controls the root zone file, a tiny (200 KB) but essential file that determines the hierarchy of the entire address system of the Internet.

The Department of Commerce oversight is just to make sure that ICANN policies are being followed by the root zone file but even that small level of US government involvement has been a major issue among countries worried about US influence over an increasingly critical part of their communications and commercial infrastructure.

If the powerful ANA and its US allies prevail against the new ICANN policy domain name policy, the perception that the Internet is controlled by the US could lead to the formation of many Internet-like networks.

If each country has its own version of ICANN, with different policies and regulations, it could lead to a slowdown in innovation, and in the expansion of important digital services to billions of people.

Here are additional notes from my interview with Peter Dengate-Thrush.

- The ANA had plenty of time to voice any concerns during the multi-year process of defining the new policy.

- We've worked hard to make ICANN become an international organization rather than be seen as a US organization. If ANA succeeds it will make it seem as if ICANN is controlled by US special interests. We have worked hard to make ICANN into an international organization that has nothing to do with the US or any other country. We managed to remove US government oversight in key areas.

- We've worked hard at ICANN to ensure that we have a single global Internet. There were many times when the Internet could have fractured into several distinct Internets, which would have been very bad news for the development of the Internet. We prevented that from happening by showing that ICANN is not controlled by the US and serves everyone.

- We have essentially been creating the operating system for the Internet.

- Internet users will benefit greatly from the new naming policy because it gives them easier navigation and safety in that they will be better able to trust the domain names they see.

- Some of the members of the ANA group opposing ICANN are companies that have expressed strong interest in buying TLDs around their brands. It's puzzling.

- Google and other search engines sent representatives but they did not try to influence the new policy.

- I asked how will navigation of dotcom names be improved when Google has huge influence on where its users go, such as through its "Instant" search suggestions, and through a single type-in box in its Chrome browser that doubles as a search box and address. Plus, Google rankings are based on how long a site has been active. He said it might take a short while for the new domains to build in search rankings but that the names would help search engines better determine the authenticity of sites. There will be less cyber squatting not more.

- The new domains will be liberating for many Internet users in many countries because it will allow for non-western alphabets, and for regional domain names.

- There will be a cap of 1,000 new TLDs per year. Each applicant will go through a rigorous approval process by ICANN.

- Not all the new TLDs will succeed. Some will fail.

- The new naming policy will create new jobs in consulting and other services areas.

- The extra cost of registering domain names by major brands will be very small.

- Small businesses will be able to buy names such as .plumber.SanFrancisco, which will help in marketing.

- The new policy is essential if the Internet is to reach billions of new users. It took a long time to reach 1 billion users because the Internet is based on decisions made in the mid-1980s, it wasn't designed to scale to billions of users. The introduction of the new TLD policy plus the adoption of IPv6, will accelerate the time needed to add the next 1 billion users.

- One of the remaining challenges for ICANN is to remove US Department of Commerce control over the root zone file, a small but critical file that determines the entire address system of the Internet. The US oversight is simply to make sure that the file conforms to ICANN policy but many countries want to remove that connection because it looks as if the Internet is controlled by the US.

- Did he take the job at TLDHL to take advantage of the new ICANN policy? No, he left at the scheduled end of his term as chairman.

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