THE VIEW FROM INSIDE
Is ICANN really the Net bad guy? Probably not
Walter R. Houser
Now that the euphoria over the new year has died down and everyone is used to writing or
typing double zeros in date fields, those of us involved in Internet matters are finding that we're back to addressing the same issues.
Well here I am, starting my first column of the year by disagreeing with my colleague on this page, Stephen M. Ryan. In his column 'Internet privatization opens a can of worms' [GCN, Nov. 8, 1999, Page 21]
, he raised questions about the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers. I read it while attending a November meeting in Washington of the Internet Engineering Task Force.The way things stand
Here is how I see recent Net developments. One common view is that the federal government'through contractor Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va.'has been running the Domain Name System. But before ICANN, the first real master was the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, funded by the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation.
Under the leadership of the late Jon Postel, IANA followed the lead of IETF and the rest of the Net community.
The government was not shy about making its druthers known. If those druthers made good engineering sense to IETF, the task force heeded them. When they didn't, it ignored the government input.
Should, as was argued years ago, the IP stack have been the Open Systems Interconnection model because OSI was the official federal networking policy in the 1980s? IETF politely'and sometimes not so politely'entertained the government members' OSI proposals. After much debate, IETF ultimately created its own solution, IP Next Generation.
After this exercise, no one could seriously believe that the government was calling the shots. By the time the OSI controversy began, private-sector engineers and academics were running IETF.
To many, ICANN seems a creature of the Clinton administration's Commerce Department. In reality, ICANN is the collaborative creation of IANA, the Internet Society and a consortium of companies concerned about Network Solutions monopolizing control of domain names. The administration merely channeled these groups' concerns into an alternative to the Network Solutions system.
True, ICANN is a California company, and it is therefore a newcomer and not part of the traditional cadre of groups that constituted the Net community'at least not as many of us have understood it.
To support its $5.9 million annual budget, ICANN proposed a fee of $1 for each .com and .net domain name. Many, including some members of Congress, saw this fee as a tax that would fall disproportionately on U.S. businesses.
But the fee is just that, a charge for service from a company and not a tax levied illegally. I also think $1 is quite a bargain because the creation and continued existence of ICANN has obliged Network Solutions to drop its registration rate from $35 per domain name to $6. What can be fairer than a per-capita fee?
Meanwhile, ICANN officials are considering dropping their fee to 25 cents. Anyone could afford a domain name at that rate.
Of those on Capitol Hill who objected to the ICANN proposal as unconstitutional, I would ask, does Network Solutions have a constitutional right to its monopoly?
Ryan also noted that 'a federal court recently affirmed Congress' authority over the Internet, finding that without congressional authority, the executive branch'and, by implication, ICANN'could not impose a tax on Internet users.' Although taxes require congressional authorization, I do not understand how that applies to a company charging a fee for a service.
Many netizens have denounced ICANN's closed-door meetings. But ICANN is not a government agency. Besides, even government officials legitimately meet in private sometimes. In ICANN's case, sunshine rules don't apply, nor should they. ICANN has opponents who would seize every chance to stymie the organization.
ICANN has been further criticized for seeming not to act in the best interests of U.S. businesses on the Internet. But it's not clear that the Net belongs to the United States.
ICANN is challenging Network Solutions' monopoly so that everyone else can benefit.Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His personal Web home page is at www.cpcug.org/user/houser.