* US government gives ICANN only temporary contract
* Conflict of interest concerns around new domain programme
* Brands rush to apply for own Web domains
By Georgina Prodhan
LONDON, March 23 A controversial attempt to
expand Internet addresses far beyond the likes of .com, .org or
.net has provoked a rare threat from the U.S. government to
withdraw a key licence from the body that runs the Internet's
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers
(ICANN) depends on its U.S. government contract to coordinate
the unique addresses that tell computers where to find each
other, without which the global Internet could not function.
But this month the government warned that the non-profit
body's rules against conflicts of interest were not strong
enough and only temporarily extended ICANN's contract - which it
has held since its formation in 1998 - instead of renewing it as
many in the industry had expected.
A failure to secure the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
(IANA) contract would severely damage ICANN's ability to
implement its address expansion programme, the most radical move
in the organisation's history.
The conflict of interest concerns arise from the fact that
some past and present board members stand to benefit financially
from the liberalisation of Web addresses through ties to
organisations that make money from registering new domain names
or consulting on the expansion.
Currently, organisations are restricted to a couple of dozen
so-called top-level domains, such as .com, .org or .net, or
country code domains such as .co.uk.
ICANN wants to enable brands, cities or firms seeking to
build new Internet businesses to apply to own and run their own
domains, for example .apple, .nyc or .gay, giving them more
control over their Web presence and a greater choice of names.
"Not to award ICANN the IANA contract would be to completely
knock it off its foundations," said Philip Corwin, who is legal
counsel for the Internet Commerce Association, an organisation
for domain name investors and developers.
"ICANN needs that contract to have the authority they need
to really make this programme work."
The contract has been renewed until September.
A whole industry has already sprung up to take advantage of
ICANN's initiative. One of those is Top Level Domain Holdings
, a London-listed firm set up to acquire and operate the
new domains, whose chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, was chairman
of ICANN when it approved the change.
TLDH has already put in 40 applications and intends to
submit more for domains including .miami and .music.
Many critics are sceptical as to whether ICANN will achieve
its stated aim of boosting competition and innovation, pointing
to previous experiments with the likes of .aero, .travel and
.museum, which have gone largely unused.
But convinced or not, hundreds of consumer brands feel
forced to apply for their own domains - a costly and complex
process that comes with obligations to actively operate the
domain - fearing they will lose out to rivals if they do not.
A three-month window will close on April 12, likely for
years and possibly for ever.
A recent survey by Internet registry services company
Afilias, which is applying for about 150 new domains on behalf
of clients and already provides key infrastructure for .org,
.info and .mobi, found considerable uncertainty about the
Of 200 major consumer brands it surveyed in the United
States and Britain, 53 percent were either not aware that they
could participate in the process at all or did not know that the
application window was open and when it would close.
Of those who were aware, however, 54 percent of brands were
in the process of applying, and only 6 percent said they
definitely would not.
"There's a buzz about this now," said non-executive Afilias
director Jonathan Robinson.
Others with less of a stake in the process call such
behaviour outright defensive.
"Of the people that I'm talking to, the vast majority of
those that are moving ahead to apply don't have a concrete
business initiative in mind for how they will use the registry,"
said Jeff Ernst of technology analysis firm Forrester.
"They're fearful of another organisation getting their
string, or they're fearful that another competitor will buy its
own and get first-mover advantage in doing something strategic."
Stuart Durham, European sales director of consultancy
Melbourne IT, which is preparing about 100 applications for
customers, says interest is rapidly increasing as the end of the
Joshua S. Bourne, a managing partner and co-founder of
FairWinds Partners, a consultancy that works with brands on
their Internet strategy, said some of the world's biggest brands
were refusing to apply.
"I think we're going to be very surprised on May 1st when
some of the world's biggest brands aren't included," he said.
"They want to make a statement because they don't agree with the
whole ICANN process, but in the end I think they'll regret it."
Rod Beckstrom, ICANN's outgoing chief executive, told
Reuters this week the expansion was going smoothly. "We're
holding the course. There's not a single complaint about
anything to do with the administration of the programme."
But at a major ICANN meeting earlier this month he warned it
was time for the organisation to tighten up its rules.
"ICANN must be able to act for the public good while placing
commercial and financial interests in their appropriate context.
How can it do this if all top leadership is from the very domain
name industry it is supposed to coordinate independently?"
"Preserving ICANN's ability to act independently, in the
public interest, is paramount to the future of the Internet and
this institution," he said.