PARIS — A boardroom dispute over ethics has broken out at the organization that maintains the Internet address system, after its most important supporter, the U.S. government, reproached the group for governance standards said to fall short of “requirements requested by the global community.”
The U.S. Commerce Department said this month that it had received no suitable bids for a contract to manage key functions like the allocation of computers’ IP, or Internet protocol, addresses — the labels that identify individual devices. That responsibility has been held since 1998 by the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, or Icann.
The department temporarily extended Icann’s contract for six months but warned the organization that it needed to tighten its rules against conflicts of interest or risk losing a key role.
After the department’s announcement, the soon-to-depart chief executive of Icann, Rod Beckstrom, went on the offensive, taking an unusual public swipe at his own organization’s 21-member board.
“I believe it is time to further tighten up the rules that have allowed perceived conflicts to exist within our board,” Mr. Beckstrom said in a speech during an Icann meeting in San José, Costa Rica, last week. “This is necessary, not just to be responsive to the growing chorus of criticism about Icann’s ethics environment, but to ensure that absolute dedication to the public good supersedes all other priorities.”
Icann has come under heightened scrutiny over the past year because of an initiative to increase vastly the number and variety of available Internet addresses.
Under the plan, which Icann is putting into effect, hundreds of new “top-level domains” — the letters like “com” that follow the “dot” in Internet addresses — are set to be created.
Some business groups say the expansion of domains will cause an increase in trademark violations and cybersquatting, while some governments have raised objections to Icann’s move to create address suffixes like .xxx, for pornography.
The initiative has been cheered, however, by companies that register and maintain Internet addresses. A number of current and former members of the Icann board have close ties to such registrars or to concerns involved in other areas that stand to benefit from the expansion, like trademark law.
“Icann must place commercial and financial interests in their appropriate context,” said Mr. Beckstrom, who is scheduled to step down from his post in July. “How can it do this if all top leadership is from the very domain-name industry it is supposed to coordinate independently?
“A more subtle but related risk is the tangle of conflicting agendas within the board that would make it more difficult for any C.E.O. to meet the requirements of this deeply rewarding and sometimes frustrating job.”
Icann directors were taken aback by Mr. Beckstrom’s comments. Stephen Crocker, chairman of the board, said the chief executive had merely been expressing his “personal views.”
“The board has been spending a lot of time on ensuring that we are as clean and straightforward as we can be,” Mr. Crocker said. A review of conflict-of-interest policies is under way, he said, and directors already abide by strict guidelines, including a requirement that they file annual statements on potential conflicts.
The dispute comes at a sensitive time for Icann, which has yet to name a successor to Mr. Beckstrom.
Growing Internet powers like China and Russia chafe at the instrumental role that the United States plays in maintaining the Internet.
The governments of those countries are said to be lobbying to gain greater influence over the Internet at the international level, by bringing more functions under the auspices of the United Nations.
The matter could come to a head as early as November, at a meeting in Dubai of the International Telecommunications Union, a U.N. body.
This campaign has raised alarms among supporters of an open Internet, who fear that transferring authority to international bodies could politicize governance and lead to restrictions on the flow of information.
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, said recently that giving the U.N. such oversight would be a “disaster.”
“Be very, very careful about moves which seem logical but have the effect of balkanizing the Internet,” Mr. Schmidt said at a mobile phone industry conference in Barcelona. “If the current governance is working pretty well — and I think it is — I wouldn’t move it, or if I did, I would do it very, very carefully.”
Yet the U.S. government is also dissatisfied with some aspects of Icann’s oversight of the domain name system. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an arm of the U.S. Commerce Department, said it had canceled a request for proposals to run the so-called Internet Assigned Numbers Authority because none of the bids it had received met its requirements.
These criteria, the administration said, included “the need for structural separation of policy making from implementation, a robust companywide conflict of interest policy, provisions reflecting heightened respect for local country laws and a series of consultation and reporting requirements to increase transparency and accountability to the international community.”
Mr. Crocker said he was confident that Icann would retain the contract. “I don’t think there’s any real danger here,” he said.
Analysts say it is not clear who else might bid for the contract, given Icann’s lengthy tenure. The Commerce Department has yet to debrief Icann, and neither it nor Mr. Beckstrom cited specific ethical concerns.
Eyebrows were raised last year when Peter Dengate Thrush, the former chairman of the Icann board and a champion of the domain name expansion, joined a company that invests in domain names only weeks after leaving Icann.
The company, Top Level Domain Holdings, did not return calls. Mr. Dengate Thrush told The Times of London last year that he had not spoken with the company until after he had stepped down from the Icann board.
Meanwhile, a March 29 deadline to apply for the new top-level domains is drawing near. Analysts expect Icann to grant hundreds of new suffixes, creating nearly limitless opportunities for new Internet addresses.
With such a far-reaching change under way, even some critics of Icann say they are worried about the uncertainties prompted by the Commerce Department’s decision.
What businesses and other potential applicants want is clarity about how the Internet will be governed in the future, they said.
“Is the Commerce Department going to revise its request for proposals, or is Icann going to revise its bid?” said Josh Bourne, president of the Committee Against Domain Name Abuse, a Washington-based group that lobbied against the expansion of the domain name system. “Who’s going to give? I hope this doesn’t turn into the Internet’s biggest game of chicken.”
Source. NY Times