October 9, 2005

Clueless Editorial

I just saw a pointer to an editorial in The Economist.

I am getting very tired of editorials by people who, to be blunt, have no clue.

The Economist editorial accepts the very tired, and very wrong, urban legend that "ICANN's work is .. technical".

In truth, ICANN does practically nothing of a technical nature.

ICANN never took up its role of oversight of IP addresses and has let that job fall to the regional IP address registries (RIRs.)

ICANN does nothing with the technology of the domain name system.  ICANN neither defines nor applies any technical standards to the operation of DNS at any level.

That tiny bit of ICANN that is, in fact, of a technical nature is largely a secretarial job, called "the IANA function", performed on behalf of the IETF.  Every other body that creates internet standards (such as the IEEE, ITU, and W3C) operates (and pays for) its own number-keeping secretariat.  There is no reason why ICANN should be providing that same kind of service to the IETF and passing the costs onto the backs of domain name customers, particularly given ICANN's ejection of those customers from any role in ICANN's process of making decisions.

The preponderance of ICANN's work is decidedly non-technical.  ICANN's dominant work is that of being a place in which domain name businesses and the intellectual property industry gather to establish domain name product specifications, set domain name prices, and to decide who may and who may not enter the domain name marketplace.  In other words, ICANN is simply a guild of domain name businesses.  A more modern phrase is that ICANN is a combination of business interests that act in concert to restrain, shape, and limit the trade of domain names.

The Economist editors ought to recognize a combination in restraint of trade when they see one.  But for some reason they are blinded by the glamour of purported, but actually absent, technology.

In June of 2002 I testified before a sub-committee of the US Senate on matters concerning ICANN.  In part of that testimony I addressed the question of what might happen should ICANN simply cease to exist.  My conclusion was that "Were ICANN to vanish the Internet would continue to run.  Few would notice the absence."

Here is the main body of what I said:

What Would Happen To The Internet If ICANN Were To Vanish?

Much of the debate over ICANN is colored by the fear of what might occur were there to be no ICANN.

ICANN does not have its hands on any of the technical knobs or levers that control the Internet.  Those are firmly in the hands of ISPs, Network Solutions/Verisign, and those who operate the root DNS servers.

Were ICANN to vanish the Internet would continue to run.  Few would notice the absence.

Were there no ICANN the DNS registration businesses would continue to accept money and register names.  With the passage of time the already low standards of this business might erode further.

The UDRP (Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy) system runs largely by itself. The Federal ACPA (Anti Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act) would remain in place.

ICANN has already established a glacial pace for the introduction of new top-level domains.  ICANN's absence will not cause perceptible additional delay in the creation of new top-level domains.

ICANN has already abrogated the making of IP address allocation policy to the regional IP address registries; those registries will continue to do what they have always done with or without ICANN.

ICANN has no agreements with the root server operators; the root servers will continue to be operated as an ad hoc confederation, as has been the case for many years.

The only function that would be immediately affected would be the IANA function.  IANA is an important clerical job, particularly with regard to the country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs.) IANA is not a big job, nor does it have real-time impact on the Internet.  (In fact there is a credible body of evidence to suggest that ICANN delays certain clerical tasks on behalf of ccTLDs for months on end in an effort to coerce ccTLDs to sign contracts with ICANN.)

There are those who will try to divert outside reforms of ICANN by asserting that touching ICANN will cause the Internet to collapse or otherwise be damaged.  The truth is quite the reverse - ICANN's ties to the technical and operational stability of the Internet are tenuous at best.  A full inquiry into ICANN, a full reform of ICANN, or a complete rebid of the agreements under which ICANN operates would not damage the Internet.

Posted by karl at October 9, 2005 10:47 AM