ICANN comes under fire at Senate hearing

A Bush administration official said today that reform efforts by the organization charged with managing the Web’s Domain Name System, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Name and Numbers (ICANN), has shown “great promise,” but she warned that the private group’s future is far from assured.

The “next couple of months will be crucial” for ICANN, said Nancy J. Victory, an assistant secretary for communications and information at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Victory testified today before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space.

ICANN was created by the U.S. to oversee the Domain Name System and operates under an agreement with the Commerce Department. That agreement is set to expire Sept. 30. The Bush administration hasn’t decided whether to extend the agreement, modify it or let it expire, said Victory, who outlined a series of steps that Marina Del Rey, Calif.-based ICANN must take to improve its operation.

Victory delivered her assessment before a panel that was largely critical of the organization, which was created to introduce competition to the Domain Name System as well as ensure its stability and security.

“Serious structural reform must be entertained,” said Sen. Conrad Burns, (R-Mont.), who said ICANN had morphed from a group charged with deciding purely technical issues “into a policy-making body, however, with none of the due process requirements placed on agencies given policy-making power.”

The committee chairman, Sen. Ron Wyden, (D-Ore.), told ICANN officials, “I just want to convey the depth of frustration out there in the Internet community. E People don’t feel they are being listened to.”

Adding more ammunition to the criticism, the U.S. General Accounting Office, in a report released today, said ICANN has made progress in increasing competition in the domain name space, but not in improving security.

The congressional watchdog agency faulted ICANN for being behind in developing operational and security requirements for all the entities that run the Domain Name System.

“Is everything perfect? Of course not,” said Stuart Lynn, ICANN’s president. But Lynn defended his group’s effort at reforming itself and said venturing into policy areas wasn’t something easily avoided. For instance, in creating top-level domains, ICANN must consider what name and under what conditions they are created, he said.

ICANN, for instance, faced intense criticism over its process for picking seven new top-level domains two years ago, a process that resulted in the rejection of many top-level domains proposed by companies and organizations and that immediately created an army of critics. Its election process for selecting board members has also been a sticking point.

“Bias and favoritism are woven deeply into ICANN’s form,” said ICANN board member Karl Auerbach at the hearing. “ICANN resists public accountability.” He urged the Commerce Department to exercise “real oversight.”

Among the steps the Bush administration wants ICANN to take, said Victory, are reforms ensuring accountability, giving all Internet stakeholders a fair hearing, developing an effective advisory role for governments and ensuring that it has the money and staff to carry out its mission.