US lawmakers question ICANN gTLD plan

A committee chairman pushes ICANN to resolve complaints with its gTLD plan

Several U.S. lawmakers urged the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to back off on a plan to offer an unlimited number of new generic top-level domains until concerns about trademark protections and other issues can be addressed.

Members of a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Wednesday questioned ICANN Chief Operating Officer Doug Brent about why the organization continues to move forward with its plan to sell new generic top-level domains, or gTLDs. Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, complained that ICANN hasn't been able to resolve complaints about its plan to sell new gTLDs to compete with ".com," ".org," and other current TLDs.

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"This is a hearing we shouldn't have had to call," Conyers said. "If the parties had come together, I doubt if we'd be here this morning. You guys made us come here today."

The board at ICANN, the nonprofit organization created in 1998 to oversee the Internet's domain name system, voted in June 2008 to move toward unlimited gTLDs, in addition to the 21 gTLDs available now, including ".com," ".biz," and ".info." Under the ICANN plan, anyone could apply for a new gTLD -- some suggested have been ".food," ".basketball," and ".eco" -- at a cost of about $100,000.

Asked by lawmakers how soon ICANN planned to offer new gTLDs, Brent said he wasn't sure. ICANN had originally planned to offer them this year, but the latest estimate is February, and Brent said he expects that deadline to slip as ICANN works with critics to resolve issues.

Critics of the TLD expansion, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell, have complained that a huge expansion of gTLDs would force trademark owners to buy multiple domains on each new gTLD, potentially costing them and their customers billions of dollars. This week, the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse (CADNA), an organization with 19 large-business members, called on the U.S. government to conduct a "full-scale" audit of ICANN.

"ICANN has not properly vetted this decision in an objective fashion," CADNA said. "This rollout expands the size of the Internet exponentially without first performing a sound cost/benefit and security and risk analysis to determine both desirability among and risk to Internet users."

At the Wednesday hearing, Conyers seemed to connect the gTLD disagreements with the end of an oversight agreement ICANN has with the U.S. Department of Commerce. ICANN's long-standing formal relationship with the U.S. government ends Sept. 30. "If you don't meet the 30th deadline, you're going to all be sorry that you didn't make it," Conyers said.

A spokesman for Conyers wasn't immediately available to clarify his comment.

ICANN's Brent defended the organization's decision to move forward with new gTLDs. Internet users, including the U.S. government, have long called for new TLDs, he said. In addition, the expansion of TLDs would allow Internet users who don't use the Roman alphabet to have domain names in their native languages, he noted.

Winners of new gTLDs will have to abide by a lengthy set of rules, he said. "ICANN did not casually think this plan up," Brent added. "This will not be an unbridled expansion. It is the work of many hands from a bottom-up process."

Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, questioned whether ICANN had enough resources to enforce strong trademark protections and other rules in the new gTLDs. He asked if ICANN saw that there were still "a lot of things that need to be worked out here."

"We might question 'a lot,' but I think, absolutely we have more work to do," Brent answered.

Despite the continued concerns, Paul Stahura, CEO and president of domain-name registrar eNom, said the ICANN plan will lead to more competition among domain-name registries. "There is high consumer demand for many new gTLDs," he said. "There currently is little or no competition to satisfy this demand, and ... we shouldn't prohibit competition because of trademark concerns. Instead, we should address these concerns."

But Steve DelBianco, executive director of e-commerce trade group NetChoice, suggested the new gTLDs are little more than an effort to create new labels, when ICANN has more important issues to work on.

"Every day our industry and my members create new applications, Web sites and services," he said. "Labels are just one of the ways people find these new services. The label is not the creation, it's just something we stick on it."

One proposed gTLD is ".food," he said. "Dot-food won't create a single new restaurant," DelBianco said. "It won't create a new Web page, it won't create new restaurant reviews or online reservation sites."


Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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