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Obama administration joins critics of U.S. nonprofit group that oversees Internet

By Ian Shapira
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 1, 2011; 10:04 AM

The California nonprofit organization that operates the Internet's levers has always been a target for such global heavies as Russia and China that prefer the United Nations to be in charge of the Web. But these days, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is fending off attacks from a seemingly unlikely source: the Obama administration.

Concerned about the growing movement to cede oversight to the U.N., the U.S. government, which helped create ICANN in 1998, has been reprimanding the nonprofit group to give foreign nations more say over the Web's operations.

The battle has come at a sensitive time for ICANN, which this month is meeting with foreign governments as it pulls off the biggest expansion ever of Web suffixes - including .gay, .muslim and .nazi. Also this fall, the nonprofit organization is seeking to hold on to its federal contract to oversee the Web's master database of addresses - a sweeping power that governments fear could be used to shut down foreign domains that the United States finds unsavory.

"There's a deeper question of how the world is reacting to a small company - even a nonprofit - completely in charge of a key part of the Internet. Is that acceptable? There's no 100 percent comfortable solution here," said Steve Crocker, ICANN's vice chairman, who lives in Bethesda and is the chief executive of Shinkuro, a technology company.

With some Middle East countries shutting down the Internet within their borders to curb uprisings, the question of who runs the Web is increasingly figuring into global foreign policy debates. Some fear that governments such as those of Libya or Iran could more easily crush rebellions if they gained more control over the Internet's inner workings.

ICANN quietly wields vast influence over the Web, a power unfamiliar to many Americans and elected officials. Based in an off-campus University of Southern California building, the company has more than 100 employees and is led by a chief executive and a board of directors comprised of private sector executives and technology experts. ICANN's core function: Decide which Web addresses get seen on the Internet.

In Washington, ICANN remains somewhat mysterious to elected officials, according to Nao Matsukata, a senior policy adviser to the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, a grass-roots organization in Washington. Matsukata's main problem, he said, is trying to explain what ICANN is to people on Capitol Hill. His group has met with more than 50 members of Congress.

"Sometimes, when we're in meetings on the Hill, they're just nodding their heads," said Matsukata, a former trade official in the George W. Bush administration. "Very few people understand where all these decisions are coming from and that this is something that impacts us every day of our lives. Someone is determining what is allowed, what is not allowed, and someone is profiting from these things."

The tiny nonprofit group can be especially provocative for a trade press that covers its every move, and for a rival U.N. agency, the International Telecommunications Union. When the ITU, a 145-year-old agency of nearly 200 nations and territories, held its annual meeting in October in Mexico, a Syrian emissary representing Arab states raged against ICANN as if it were an enemy nation.

"Do not surrender to the ICANN!" Nabil Kisrawi yelled during one of the conference's sessions, according to a story in the Register, an online publication on Internet governance. "There is even a representative of the ICANN in this room!" Kisrawi said. (Kisrawi recently died.)

Other nations have been mobilizing against ICANN. China, which monitors dissident activity on the Web, has been leading a campaign among dozens of developing nations to lobby the U.N. for oversight over ICANN, according to former and current ICANN officials. And a coalition of former Soviet states led by a Russian minister has been pushing the U.N. to obtain veto power over ICANN.

Some countries also worry that the new wave of Web suffixes might be too controversial and that others might require companies to spend vast sums to protect their online brands and trademarks. (Who gets .merck? The U.S. drug company? Or the German drug company with the same name?)

Chris Disspain, chairman of an ICANN internal group and an executive who oversees Australian domain names, said the prospect of governments running the Web would be calamitous. "China, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia and number of others have said in meetings they believe ICANN shouldn't be in existence, or be replaced by some U.N. body," he said. "Frankly, that would be a disaster."

Some countries fear that the United States has, at the very least, the appearance of too much power by owning the contract to run the master database of Web addresses.

"One concern is that if the U.S. decides Syria is behaving badly, then they could make all Web sites using Syria's country code domain - .sy - point to freedom of expression sites, for example," said Avri Doria, an ICANN group chairman. "Countries say, 'How can we subject ourselves to that?'"

Crocker, the ICANN board's vice chairman, said the chances of the United States tinkering with the master Web database are "nil." ICANN can only request changes in the master database; the U.S. government reviews those decisions, then the Dulles-based company VeriSign executes the change.

The Commerce Department, however, worries that other countries might soon lobby en masse for the U.N. to take over instead. Commerce officials prefer a nimble private-sector organization to run the Web's addressing system, but the government doesn't believe ICANN is listening enough to the international community.

Some ICANN officials worry that, if tensions continue with the Commerce Department, the nonprofit organization might lose its contract to run the Web's master database. That contract, which the Commerce Department last gave to ICANN in a no-bid process, comes up for renewal in the fall. Commerce officials have yet to decide whether they will ask for other organizations to compete for it.

In mid-February at a technology conference in Colorado, Lawrence Strickling, an assistant secretary in the Commerce Department, put ICANN on notice, declaring it "must act" by June on a set of accountability guidelines made by him and international leaders who will continue to "monitor" it. Strickling warned about the "forces at play" lobbying for the United Nations to run the Web.

Strickling said he met privately in December with ICANN board members in Colombia, where he urged ICANN to be more transparent and open to recommendations from foreign nations. "It's not out of hostility . . . but I am trying to nudge ICANN to be its best," Strickling said in an interview. "It's important that this model have buy-in from other governments in order to support the global growth of the Internet."

ICANN scored one minor victory in February. Its advisory body of foreign nations rejected the Obama administration's proposal that would have required ICANN to make it easier for nations to object to controversial new Web suffixes such as .gay or .xxx.

The United States proposed that any country within ICANN's advisory council should be able to recommend eliminating any new domain name. If no other country objected to that nation's veto recommendation, then ICANN's board would have to follow suit. ICANN, however, wants those challenges to go before three experts guiding the International Chamber of Commerce.

But ICANN's advisory body of foreign countries recently decided that any nation's objection will be considered as non-binding advice to ICANN's board.

Commerce Department officials worry that if foreign governments feel they have no role in the process, they will start ignoring ICANN, blocking Web sites and splitting up the Internet so that only certain domains can be accessed, depending on the country.

Critics of the Commerce Department say the agency is bending too much to other nations' preferences. "The U.S. government was pushing hard to give any country the power to object and have that right be decisive," said Milton Mueller, a Syracuse University professor who has chaired and participated in several groups that developed ICANN policies that would be overridden by the U.S. intervention. "We think they were playing a geopolitical game of placating governments."

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