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Vint Cerf’s Keynote at Domain Roundtable

I had the pleasure of eating breakfast with Vint Cerf, chairman of ICANN’s board and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, prior to his keynote address this morning. It was great to discuss some of the issues domainers are facing with regards to registrar practices, expiring domains, etc. directly with Cerf.

Cerf’s keynote kept the crowd engaged. I’ve summarized the topics he covered:

New TLDs - Some people have misunderstood Cerf’s position with regards to adding new domains. He said he is not opposed to adding new TLDs. What he advocates, however, is having a solid rationale for adding new TLDs. Cerf believes the processes and outcomes of the first two rounds of TLD adds were not satisfactory. He hopes for the process to be revised by the end of the year.

International Domain Names – First, Cerf noted that IDNs are important for the large portion of the world that doesn’t use roman characters. But he noted that there are some technical and security challenges to overcome. IDNs present an opportunity for phishing attacks that lead unsuspecting users to a domain name that appears to be a reputable company’s site, but the domain name actually includes characters improperly displayed by the user’s browser. Cerf discussed problems with browser plug-ins that enable IDNs. These can give the impression of TLDs that don’t exist, creating confusion. He also pointed out that browsing the web isn’t the only thing to consider when planning for IDNs. Software applications and e-mail systems need to be compatible.

Registrar Compliance – Cerf admitted that ICANN hasn’t been able to monitor compliance of registrar activities effectively. ICANN is trying to hire more people to monitor compliance. But Cerf said the other key issue is that ICANN needs more tools to enforce the policies. Right now it has one option for disciplining registrars—to disaccredit them. He would like more options, such as fines or steps of discipline. There’s an impediment to implementing such a structure – the very group that would give ICANN more disciplinary power consists of people that might be disciplined by the rules. This means we are unlikely to see changes soon.

At breakfast I mentioned GoDaddy’s practice of preventing transfers of domains for 60 days when you change anything about the registrant’s information in Whois. Cerf was appalled at the practice.

Public Policy – referring to a push by countries to stake a bigger role in managing the internet, Cerf pointed out that ICANN is not in charge of the internet. It’s only an oversight group for certain functions. He does not believe the role of ICANN should be transferred to ITU.

Domainers – Referring to those in the crowd that invest in domain names, Cerf discussed how current domain policy is geared toward the naive public, not active domainers. The policies are developed to protect the average Joe that registers a domain. Cerf suggested that perhaps domainers should get involved in the policy making process.

He wants to see more education about the lifecycle of domain names. The average Joe should understand that domain names don’t expire and simply go to a “domain name heaven”. There are consequences to letting a domain go even if you aren’t using it anymore. The average Joe needs to understand this.

Direct Navigation – he saved an issue near and dear to the audiences’ hearts for the end. He discussed the notion of direct navigation (people typing in domains) as opposed to using search engines to find what they want on the web. As search continues to improve, Cerf said he suspects the percentage of web traffic that comes from direct navigation will fall. However, he said that the overall level of direct navigation might increase as the number of internet users increases.

Q&A – Cerf saved time at the end of his speech to answer a few questions from the audience. Cerf is hearing impaired, so he walked into the audience to answer questions (so he could read the questioner’s lips).

In response to a question about the .com contract with Verisign, Cerf reminded the audience that the decision about the contract was made in the context of litigation between Verisign and ICANN. Cerf believes that taking the issue further in litigation would not have led to a better contract than what was approved.

After Q&A, Name Intelligence VP Jothan Frakes made a joke about Al Gore “inventing the internet”. Cerf grabbed the mic and jokingly said “everywhere I go there is some asshole” who makes fun of Gore’s statement. Cerf then gave praise to Gore’s efforts to create the commercial web and explained that Gore never made the statement that he “invented the internet”.

Later, Frakes stood at the podium and said, “I’m still so honored to have been called an asshole by Vint Cerf.”

By Andrew Allemann, Domain Name Blogger

Filed Under


Karl Auerbach  –  Apr 23, 2006 3:42 AM

Let me respond to three of the points cited in the main article.

First. ICANN’s chairman says that his position has been misunderstood and that his position is that ICANN should have “a solid rationale for adding new TLDs.”

Why in the world should ICANN have the authority to substitute its own judgment of what is proper for the internet in lieu of those who want to use the internet and innovate upon what has been done so far?

Indeed, who has given ICANN the legal authority to inject its judgment to control who may and who may not attempt to enjoy the rewards of being a participant in the domain name marketplace?

If we were to apply the position of ICANN’s chairman to the timeframe of the 1970’s it is questionable whether the internet would have ever occurred.  The 1970’s were a period in which the incumbent telecos could have said, exactly as ICANN’s chairman now says, that packet switching should be deferred until it can demonstrate a solid rational why it should be permitted to be deployed.

ICANN role is supposed to be merely that of limited technical coordination of a very small number of items.  Yet that is a job that ICANN does not do.

Instead, according to ICANN’s chairman, ICANN sits in judgment of the business plans of every entrepreneur who wants to try his or her hand, at the risk of his or her own time, money, and reputation, in the domain name business.  If that’s not the heavy hand of excessive regulation and imposition of arbitrary choices about business and social policy then there is nothing worthy of that description.

Second - There is that odd comment about “the average Joe”.

We should not forget that ICANN has denied the average Joe any role, except that of distant observer, in the making of ICANN policy.  ICANN’s crocodile tears for the average Joe are a sham.

Second, when, and by whose authority, has ICANN become a consumer protection body?

And if ICANN is such a body, how come it rejects and prevents the participation of the consumers it purports to protect?

And third, ICANN’s chairman doesn’t want the ITU to take over ICANN’s job.  That’s fine.  I would therefore presume that ICANN’s chairman would have no objection to the ITU or other body from doing those jobs that ICANN does not do.

Considering that ICANN has decided to define its job as regarding only the business and economic aspects of DNS and doing nothing related to actual technical coordination of DNS (such as establishing operational requirements for root server operaters or requiring TLD operators to refrain from data mining or discriminatory levels of service) it is quite clear that there is a vacuum that ICANN does not fill and does not intend to fill.  Certain then ICANN, if we are to believe ICANN’s chairmen, would not object should the ITU or some other body step forward and offer to perform those jobs of real technical coordination and oversight that ICANN has chosen to exclude from its job description.

DomainNameWire  –  Apr 23, 2006 6:19 AM

With regards to adding new TLDs, are you suggesting that anyone that meets minimum requirements should be able to start a new TLD?  Please clarify.

Not related to your comment, I’d like to stress that Vint Cerf’s comments about “some asshole” were said in a joking manner—it’s hard to completely express that in writing :)

Karl Auerbach  –  Apr 23, 2006 7:15 AM

You ask: With regards to adding new TLDs, are you suggesting that anyone that meets minimum requirements should be able to start a new TLD?

Yes indeed.  I have felt that way for years and years - A half dozen years ago I proposed a policy.  See “Domain Name Policy - Top Level Domain Policy”

The only questions that ICANN should ask an applicant is whether the applicant will abide by published and broadly accepted internet technical standards and technical practices.  ICANN should not inquire into the applicant’s business plan, business practices or policies, or require applicants to agree to contractual terms unrelated to the applicant’s promise to abide by those technical standards and practices.

Nor should ICANN charge the outrageous application fees.  I figure a fee of $250 dollars ought to cover ICANN’s actual costs of asking the appropriate questions and, if adequately answered (a simple “yes” is sufficient), for the actual cost of updating the root zone file.

(ICANN could charge a service fee for NS updates to the root zone file - $200 for each update should cover that.)

ICANN is attempting to be a gatekeeper that controls who may and who may not enter the domain name marketplace - the more blunt term for this is “restraint of trade”.  Now, whether ICANN’s restraint of trade is legal in some or all jurisdictions (or not) is a question I’m not answering here.  However, things that restrain trade are generally disfavored in free markets and are usually allowed to exist only when there is some clear and compelling reason.  Were ICANN to be making its choices on the basis of some objective technical criteria then ICANN’s role in restraining trade might be accepted as being rational and good.  But ICANN has instead made its decisions on the basis of subjective and non-technical criteria and thus ICANN’s position as overlord of the DNS marketplace is on a weak foundation.

Now there is the question of what to do if everybody and his brother were to come along and apply.  We know that even though from a technical point of view the DNS root can hold tens of millions of names without problem that such numbers raise the risk of administrative and human failures, not to mention the increase in time needed to disseminate root zone file images.  So we’d probably want to cap the number of top level domains at some rather smaller number.

And since that smaller number, whether it be ten million or ten thousand, is smaller than the number of people who might want a TLD, we need to adopt a fair allocation scheme.  And troublesome as they may be, it seems from considerable discussion, that the best method is probably some sort of auction coupled to a lottery - many slots would go via auction, the remainder by lottery.  By the way, notice that I used the word “slot” rather than “name” - it seems to me that the selection process should be blind to the character sequence being proposed and that the way to do this is to consider “slots” (right to operate a TLD) rather than “names”.

Jothan Frakes  –  Apr 25, 2006 7:14 PM

I digress a bit from Karl’s comments on TLDs to mention that Vint’s participation in this event was something that I received a great amount of gratitude for in the hallways during the show, and in emails from participants as followup afterwards.

Understanding the point of view from either side of discussions often lends itself to better direction in the marketplace, and Vint’s participation at the Domain Roundtable allowed many in the audience to hear about some of the ‘why’ and backstory of the evolutions of the whole process that we now have for things like new TLDs and root changes.

I am of the opinion that there is no perfect approach, or rather perfection in some blanket solution, but that we are making some progress in growing the namespace. 

Technologists, entrepreneurs, IP/policy advocates, governments, security experts, and general internet users all have opinions on the direction that things migrate, and there are places where these opinions collide.  This makes for a challenging exercise to get progress, but there is progress.  It is by no means perfect, but the processes are certainly further along than they were 6-7 years ago.

I hope that attendees came away from the keynote with an appreciation of the challenges that are in play towards making progress, and that Vint brings some reason and wisdom into the process.

On a separate note, my comment to Vint about sharing the ‘Father of the Internet’ title with Al Gore prompted a great backstory from Vint’s personal recollection on the evolution of the interconnection of the supercomputing centers to become the internet, and about Al Gore’s new movie on realities of Global Warming’s impact.

As for the ‘Asshole’ comment, everyone present saw that Vint made that reference playfully, and there was no harm taken from my side on it at all.  It was memorable, and we’ll ask him back for future Domain Roundtable conferences.

Norbert Mayer-Wittmann  –  May 3, 2006 9:14 AM

I would like to add my concern over the so-called “search vs. domain-name-guessing” controversy. As I mentioned in response to Mr. Cerf’s argument (which has also been explicated in his previous interview of March this year here on CircleID), it is actually impossible not to select a domain before performing a search. Turning on a computer selects a machine-readable domain (and filters out paper documents that have been discarded to be picked up by the trash collector). Going online / using the Internet also selects a domain. Google.COM, Yahoo.COM and MSN.COM are all domains. So are hotels.COM and/or hotels.NET and/or hotels.US and/or hotels.DE and/or hotels.TV (and so on).

Whether the domain selection is being guessed or willfully chosen—or whether there are manipulative attempts to influence the choice via some “outside force” may be rather difficult to assess.

I hope and expect that those who are working in educational fields to increase online literacy (and/or reduce the so-called “digital divide”) will be able to teach future generations of users to become experts at maximizing the potential of the Internet via an enlightened approach to selecting domains wisely.

I also hope that Mr. Cerf will clarify what he refers to as “search”—and I expect he will agree that that choice of domain is not only the starting point but also quite probably one of the most crucial elements in the search process.

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