net.wars: Your domain name dollars at work

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 July 2004

As recently as six years ago, the business of handing out domain names and assigning IP addresses ultimately rested on the desk of one man: the late Jon Postel. His replacement, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has a budget of $15.8 million for the coming year (doubled from 2003), and is proposing to increase its current 30 staff by 50 percent. What do they all do all day?

Wendy M Grossman

But asking that question wasn't why law professor Michael Froomkin and I decided in a moment of madness to drop by ICANN's offices in a spare hour last week when we happened to be in the neighbourhood.

(We found out pretty promptly what one of those 30 people does: she answers endless phone calls asking about domain name problems. "That's something you need to take up with your registrar," she said to someone else on the phone after phoning Michael's name through to Jeffrey@_@. "Do you need me to tell you how to find out who that is?" After some back and forth, she carefully spelled out I-N-T-E-R-N-I-C and the call ended). She also spends a lot of time answering calls about spam. Like everyone else.

Another staffer thought she remembered Froomkin's name, but none of her guesses as to where from were correct. In fact, Froomkin runs the ICANN Watch site. In fact (again!) Froomkin has been ICANN's most persistent critic almost since its founding, and its new general counsel, John O. Jeffrey, has exchanged email with him and diligently read all of Froomkin's output on the subject as preparation for his new job. He is pleasant and welcoming, and spends more than an hour talking to us informally. It's a kinder, gentler ICANN these days; they even gave us cups of tea. It probably can afford to be: even long-term opponents are accepting that it's won its way through. It still has to satisfy certain requirements of the US Department of Commerce before it's let completely loose.

Last weekend was one of ICANN's board meetings, held in Kuala Lumpur; this was the meeting that approved its new, improved, larger budget. There remains, as noted on ICANNWatch, the detail of working out who exactly is going to pay for it all. When the budget was first unveiled in May, ICANN's plan was to raise at least some of it by substantially increasing the fees for registrars from about $5,000 to $24,000. Smaller registrars joined in protest, saying that while this additional cost is negligible to the biggest registrars, smaller ones would be driven out of business. The revised budget adopted last weekend more clearly states that it will forgive the increase for some smaller registrars. However they do it, ultimately the people paying for all this are all of us: domain name owners.

The standard complaint about ICANN over the six years of its existence has been its lack of accountability. Its habit of holding its periodic meetings in exotic locations all over the world has a down side, namely that no one can afford to attend multiple meetings without corporate funding. ICANN generally, therefore, make the decisions it wants with little in the way of face-to-face debate to impede it.

The real question is how much it all matters. ICANN derives its power from its control over the way domain names are handed out. Because it negotiates and manages the contracts under which organisations from Verisign to Alice's Registry sell domain names. If it wanted, say, to begin imposing content restrictions as a condition of being allowed to register a domain name, theoretically it could. There are few groups who could stage a truly effective protest. Other than the Department of Commerce, the only other balance would be the operators of the root servers, the baker's dozen authoritative computers that tell everyone else where to route traffic for a given domain. But these are not a single organisation; the servers are run by different operators unlikely to agree on such things.

What we don't know, given the youth of the technology, is how ultimately important the domain name system is going to be. Certainly, Paul Mockapetris, who invented the damn thing, believes it could become more and more important; he thinks it is the logical bridge between complex, currently non-interoperable numbering schemes such as the coming RFID codes and IP numbers. On the Internet itself, domain names make the critical difference in the Web and email to make them usable for a mass audience, but many other services, such as instant messaging, chat, and peer-to-peer networking do not use it at all. But the Web and email are engines of commerce precisely because the domain name system offers a way of tying real-world identity and familiar names "things businesses care about" to their Internet presence. And that in turn has created a $15.8 million central point of failure.

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