Internet governance issues usually attract the attention of a relatively small number of net users. However, concerns associated with the current system have begun to grow, writes internet law professor Michael Geist.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), the US-based body charged with managing the net's domain name system, just wrapped up a week-long meeting in Wellington, New Zealand on Friday, and it now finds itself the target of criticism from some its closest allies.
Net governance was discussed at the UN internet summit last year
Icann, which then-US President Bill Clinton established in the late 1990s, initially viewed itself as a technical body mandated with ensuring that the net functioned in a stable and secure manner.
While stability and security remain an important objective, today no one seriously questions the fact that internet governance extends far beyond technical concerns.
The introduction of new top-level domains is a major issue for domain name registrars, who rightly note that Icann exerts strong regulatory control over the size and scope of the domain name marketplace.
It has moved frustratingly slowly in establishing new domain name extensions, with only handful, such as .biz or .info, appearing on the market in recent years.
Governments have also taken an increasing interest in Icann, focusing primarily on their own national country-code top-level domains such as .uk for the United Kingdom.
The power of Icann, and by extension the US government, to influence these domains has raised serious questions about the intersection between the internet and national sovereignty as governments maintain that they should be final arbiters over their country-code domains.
Many governments have also wondered why Icann has been so slow to establish multi-lingual domains that would allow their citizens to register domain names in their native language. While the issue has been a priority for many developing countries, Icann has not moved at net speeds on the issue.
Other Icann policies have attracted the interest of a diverse group of communities. The privacy community has worked with Icann for years without success to establish an appropriate "whois" policy, which addresses the conditions under which the personal information of someone registering a domain name is publicly disclosed.
The free speech community has actively called on Icann to examine its policy for resolving domain name disputes, expressing disappointment that the current policy has been used to shut down legitimate criticism websites.
Despite the mounting frustration with Icann, until recently it could count on support from the US government and the administrators for several leading country-code domains.
At last year's World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia, Icann overcame opposition from Europe and the developing world to retain responsibility over the domain name system. Over the past month, however, even Icann's most ardent supporters have begun to express doubts about the organization's lack of transparency and accountability.
Pressure on Icann
Last week, US Congressman Rick Boucher called for a Congressional investigation into Icann and its recent decision to settle litigation with Verisign, which manages the lucrative .com registry.
The settlement, which awards Verisign near permanent control over the .com domain, has faced sharp criticism from across the internet governance community.
In Canada, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority, Cira, recently published an open letter to Icann calling on it to implement greater accountability, transparency, and fair processes.
Countries like China want a greater say over how the net is run
Backing up its words with actions, Cira said that until Icann addressed these concerns, it would suspend payment of thousands of dollars in contributions and cease consideration of a new contractual agreement with the organisation. Moreover, Cira added that it would no longer host or sponsor any Icann-related events.
The net supervisory body has also come under fire from the Public Interest Registry, PIR, which manages the .org domain.
Last week it called on Icann to address concerns over the thriving business of grabbing domain names that have not been re-registered.
PIR noted that many registrants are unaware that their domain names are valuable and that allowing them to lapse may lead to their misuse.
It pointed specifically to one instance where a domain name associated with a rape crisis centre was not re-registered and soon after pointed to a pornographic website.
Internet governance policies strike at the core of free speech, privacy, and a competitive marketplace.
Icann's seeming inability to address these issues in an accountable, transparent, and timely manner has alienated some of its strongest supporters, opening the door to the prospect for major changes to the global internet governance landscape.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He is a member of Cira board of directors and of Public Interest Registry's global advisory council.