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Letter from Rome

I am at the ICANN meeting in Rome. The big story here is that ICANN is under attack for not sticking to its narrow mission—technical coordination of the DNS and IP numbering system. People here are referring obliquely to the VeriSign lawsuit as “recent events” (as in “in light of recent events”). This euphemism reminds me of words used to reference the US Civil War (“the late unpleasantness”).

The lawsuit will force a fundamental reexamination of ICANN’s role in the world. It will, I hope, provide some needed clarity for the businesses that are involved in the domain name system. ICANN will survive this unpleasantness—in fact, it is likely that ICANN will come out the better for it.

By acting as if it is indeed a regulator of the internet, ICANN has made itself into a rather large target. So attacks are coming from several quarters—it’s not just VeriSign, it’s the UN and WSIS who are gunning for ICANN. In fact, there are direct links between the VeriSign suit and the WSIS/UN initiative.

Here’s the connection: by forcing registries to sign elaborately detailed contracts as a condition of entering the root, by acting as if its role in approving new registry services includes the right to tweak the implementation of those services, and by generally claiming to represent the global internet community, ICANN has made itself look like a useful lever for control. There aren’t very many levers when it comes to the internet—there are very few chokepoints online. So when governments are frustrated by spam and security problems, they look at ICANN and say it must be doing a bad job. Governments also notice the control that the US Department of Commerce continues to have over ICANN and are troubled.

If ICANN stuck to its knitting and focused on its coordination role, it would present a smaller target to the litigating, globetrotting community. ICANN should be boring. ICANN isn’t purely technical (just notice who goes to these meetings, and read the UDRP), but it should act like a standards body—opening new TLDs, accrediting registries, and providing a forum for discussion of multilingual issues. If it did this, no civil servant would want to be involved, and governments could more readily defer to its actions.

There are spam, security, spyware, and content problems online. Connectivity is also a problem. But these are not problems ICANN is equipped to solve. I am optimistic for ICANN’s future, as long as it sticks to its job.

By Susan Crawford, Professor, Cardozo Law School in New York City

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ICANN Lackey  –  Mar 5, 2004 10:46 AM

Dear Susan,

As Bruce Tonkin observed this morning, the ICANN meetings have evolved towards “public speaking” opportunities for special interests.

You clearly are a “poster child” for this. You have acknowledged here at ICANN that you represent Snapnames on the WLS issue.  It is also public information that you are former outside counsel for Verisign.

You would be more credible if you disclosed the extent to which you are receiving fees from parties that have vested interests in the subjects you are discussing.

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