What's in a name? On the Internet, the answer is still: everything. But sorting out those names, and deciding how they are allocated, is proving a tough subject.
Most international organisations have problems these days. Whether it's the IMF looking desperately for a leader or the WTO facing demonstrations at its meeting in Seattle last year, all face a simple problem: how do you create a system that is efficient enough to work globally but democratic enough to appear legitimate to those it affects?
The Internet, still in its infancy, is already facing the same difficulty, and the answers aren't coming any more easily.
The problems came to a head earlier this month at the Cairo meeting of Icann, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It is the non-profit corporation formed to take over responsibility for the Internet Protocol (IP) address space allocation, protocol parameter assignment, domain name system management and root server system management functions run by the US government. In other words, it is the governing body for the Internet.
But governing the governing body is tricky. Unlike most such organisations, Icann is not an "international" body, made up of member-state governments. Its members will be anybody who has an e-mail and a physical address and it is run by a board, with 19 members drawn from around the world. One of these is the organisation's president and CEO. Nine are nominated by three supporting technical organisations that administer IP addresses and domain names. There are also nine at-large members who are supposed to represent the broader membership - and that is the issue which the organisation grappled with in Cairo.
The initial idea was that members would vote for an 18-person council, which would then elect the nine board members. That proposal came under heavy fire, notably in a study by the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause, two US organisations. "Icann cannot claim that its proposed election system, as it now stands, will confer legitimacy on it, without much more work to address and resolve the myriad serious issues that have been raised," it said.
In the event, Icann changed its mind. Instead, five of the new members will be chosen by direct ballot of Icann members in each of its geographical regions, while four of the current members will stay on.
It is a somewhat unwieldy system, intended to legitimise Icann both by geographical and democratic means. But it raises wider questions about whether this is really any way to run something like the Internet.
Icann's chairwoman, Esther Dyson, has been critical of the need for geographical representation, arguing that competence is more important. She has also argued for more women to be appointed to the board: "Let's not think that if we achieve geographic diversity, we are finished with diversity."
Names, which are at the heart of Icann's operations, need attention. The other main item considered in Cairo was the introduction of new domain names, now that most of the obvious ones, with suffixes such as .gov, .com and .org, have gone. Icann is considering the introduction of new suffixes, such as .info and .shop, to free up some more space.
Until last year, Network Solutions Inc was the only registrar of Internet addresses under contract to the US government, but now there are around 100 operating under Icann's aegis. The market for buying and securing domain names is increasingly hot property. Network Solutions has now been bought by Verisign, the security software company, which is intent on snapping up the market. NSI, in turn, has entered a partnership with Andersen Legal, the global legal services network associated with Andersen Worldwide, to secure and protect online identities around the world, as the combat between cybersquatters and corporations becomes a global one.
Icann will decide on new top level domains when it meets in Yokohama, Japan in July. It is also taking recommendations on ways to protect famous trademarks. Companies are concerned that if new domains emerge, their names will be bought up by others, leading to legal struggles. Who gets the right to words such as "united", for instance - or even "independent"? It is a contentious issue. Individuals fear that large corporations are taking over the Internet. Countries fear losing all control over their own national domains.
But technology is already emerging which effectively supersedes the cumbersome business of www.something.com. Microsoft, for instance, last week bought a 20 per cent stake in RealNames, which has created a keyword address system that lets users search directly for a company or service. AOL already uses a similar system, and the Microsoft move puts the two on a collision course - again.
Icann is, in short, dealing with some of the most important substantive issues that will decide the future of the World Wide Web, and the balance between private and public power. Until it manages to resolve the broader question of who runs the show, it will find it hard to make rapid decisions.
But if it simply leaves power in the hands of the few, there will be many people who will regard its decisions as illegitimate.
The market, represented by RealNames and Microsoft, is subject to no such demands and is moving on apace. As ever with the Internet, the power of capitalism and technology seems stronger than any attempt to harness it in the name of public interest.
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