If the Internet was the postal system, the only job of Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) would be to give each letter an address, the group's head insisted Monday.
All the same, ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey realizes as much as anyone that the nonprofit group is being tugged to make decisions on issues as far-ranging as content and delivery.
VeriSign's recent lawsuit against the organization, accusing it of trying to regulate the company's controversial Wait Listing Service (WLS) for expired domain names, is just the latest example. VeriSign accused ICANN of overstepping its bounds as the Internet's technical coordinating body and delaying the implementation of its service amid protests that WLS is unfair to consumers by convincing them to back-order domain names they may never be able to register.
Under the group's charter, ICANN is only responsible for Internet Protocol (IP) address allocation, protocol identifier assignment, the domain name system and root server management.
"What we do is narrow, and we don't need an added role," Twomey said. The organization decided to allow VeriSign's WLS service to go ahead for a one-year trial period, with some stipulations last weekend.
Although the board approved of the service in principle, Twomey said he had not heard from VeriSign whether it would drop its lawsuit against ICANN. He was also unsure if the organization would accept the $100,000 registrar Go Daddy Software pledged to help fund ICANN's defense in the case.
"Quite a number of people said they'd contribute and we wouldn't say no since we are publically funded, but there's no way we'd take money if it was tied to conditions," he said.
Twomey claims that "these issues are more than ICANN issues" and are a product of the contractual nature of its relationships with Internet registries.
"We have agreements with registries that they openly volunteer to enter and these disagreements are a product of these contracts," he said. "But what we are in charge of is actually very narrow."
Future Internet ops 'international'
If ICANN's function is narrow, it stands in contrast to Twomey's vision of what his organization and the Internet can actually do.
The Australian native, who has held ICANN's top post for just under a year, sees the Net as a powerful mechanism for delivering, and exposing people to, different "voices" around the world. That is why ICANN's current focus is on making the operation of the Internet an international affair.
ICANN this weekend formed the Country Code Name Supporting Organization, which will act as a global policy arm of ICANN.
Twomey hopes that efforts to further internationalize ICANN will quell arguments that the body has been in the pocket of powerful stakeholders. If ICANN has had more activity in certain regions it is because the growth and demand for the Internet in those areas has called for it, he said.
But demand is rising, and ICANN is moving to meet it. Work on internationalized domain names is being undertaken in regions like South East Asia, he said, while Africa is showing interest in expanding its infrastructure and the Pacific Islands are looking into how they can profit from the trend of outsourcing.
Absolute power corrupts
"The environment is changing rapidly," Twomey said, "and our job is to balance the network. We don't want to give too much power to anyone – the governments, or the registries, or the ISPs (Internet service providers) – or the network won't grow."
Twomey insists on a bottom-up organization where stakeholders can influence the Net's growth according to factors such as need, language and culture. However, ICANN still faces pressure to act as a regulator, possibly because people do not know where else to turn when confronting new, Internet-related issues. Other resources do exist, however, Twomey says. The UN has discussed Internet governance, for example, and agencies like Interpol could deal with issues such as online pedophilia, he said.
While Twomey is committed to keeping ICANN on the technical rails on which it was meant to run, he does admit that the organization's mission and role is constantly in flux because of technology's quick-changing nature.
"Look what ICANN did just five years ago – it was like it was just after the age of Augustus it was so long ago," he said. "We're not fighting those fights anymore. We have new fights."