Stumbling in the wrong direction

ICANN needs to get back to its technical mission before it does real damage to the Internet

It wasn't that long ago - in the days before new gTLDs took up every waking moment of its life - that the most frequent concern expressed about ICANN was "mission creep".

ICANN was set up to administrate the Internet's naming and numbering system, but continually found itself unwillingly pulled into other issues from trademark protection to market regulation, to privacy and legal enforcement concerns.

As those issues came up for discussion, wise Internet old hands warned again and again in public forums across the globe that moving away from its "narrow technical remit" would spell disaster for ICANN.

But somewhere along the line that advice stopped being provided. Perhaps it was when the same technical stalwarts' knowledge and experience became a valuable commodity for companies wanting to run a new gTLD. Or when the chair of the Board saw he only had a few months left to approve the new gTLD program before his term was up.

With bitter irony, it may have been when former president Bill Clinton addressed ICANN's San Francisco meeting (in return for $250,000) and inspired many in the audience by pointing out that the most important thing when faced with difficult and fast-moving issues was to "stumble in the right direction".

Jack of all trades

Whatever happened, just a few years later ICANN has found itself developing and introducing the first-ever global database of trademarks, even though it has almost no experience or knowledge of trademarks, software development or global legal systems.

At the same time, the organization has written the rules for a new multi-billion-dollar market in which many of the world's largest companies will participate without so much as a single economist on staff.

ICANN has managed to turn itself a global Internet censor by badly handling a request from the Red Cross and Olympic Committee. With no experience or expertise in international politics, a series of missteps have seen the organization provide extraordinary protections to a long list of names under every new Internet extension.

Then there is the newly drawn contract that breaks European law by ignoring data privacy concerns. Piling one mistake onto another, the organization's quick-fix solution was to instantly grant a blanket exemption from its "global" policy for those physically located in certain countries of the world.

And then there was the time ICANN set itself up as a provider of international aid in the course of an evening, creating a $2 million fund for needy applicants and only then embarking on a search for someone who knew anything about how to run it. (It was saved by the fact that only three people applied for assistance, two of which didn’t meet the criteria.)

Technical limits

These novice moves in long-standing and complex worlds are exactly what the technical community spent the first ten years of ICANN's life warning against. But what even those advocates didn't account for was that rushing into unknown areas would cause the organization to lose track of its very reason for existing.

A new report published last week by Verisign warned ICANN may destabilize the Internet if it doesn't sort out a range of technical issues that effectively define what the organization's real role should be. The report doesn't have DNS experts seriously worried, but it does makes for disturbing reading.

The issues identified - from inadequate monitoring, to rushed software systems and unfinished specs, to missed deadlines - show that ICANN has fallen behind in key technical preparations. And it has done so despite the efforts and well-documented concerns of the Internet community. Technical considerations have started playing second fiddle to a pantomime of legal, political and business issues.

Incredibly, no one appears to have noticed. Or at least they had not chosen to speak up until ICANN crossed the line and tried to award itself absolute control over the domain name system through unilateral contract amendment rights.

Getting back to its roots

The good news is that despite such miserable forays into other worlds, ICANN is still well equipped to do its central job - overseeing the domain name system.

There is no greater gathering of knowledge and understanding about how humans and machines can connect on the global telecommunications network we call the Internet than at an ICANN meeting. Complex issues that take weeks to explain to others are instinctively understood by the vast majority of attendees, and despite the large quantities of hot air, once the ICANN community gets its teeth into a technical issue it has a pretty good record of finding workable solutions. Such solutions have enormous global value and will become increasingly valuable as the Internet become embedded in our global culture.

ICANN needs to get back to that technical inheritance rather than continue to kid itself that a PDP and a public comment period can solve the world's Internet ills. And the ICANN community needs to be honest with itself and admit that, yes, it really doesn't know that much about the world beyond IP addresses and name servers. Let other, better qualified groups decide those issues and then ICANN can figure out how to work creatively within the end results. Like engineers do every day of their lives.

Once the new gTLD approval process is off and running, ICANN will be presented with an opportunity to get back to its technical roots. It should grab it with both hands. And we should all hope that the decisions made while working outside a limited technical remit don't end up damaging the Internet too badly.