I have been determinedly trying not to write any news stories so I can get on with writing the Sex.com book but I got a phonecall very early this morning from the spokesman for ICANN explaining that late last night the Board had approved the new contract for the dotcom registry.
“Were there any changes made to it?” I asked.
“Ummm, no,” he replied.
So that's how I first heard of ICANN's impending death.
In fact, before I even go into the contract and what is means, I think it's worth pointing out that I also sent a series of emails to a number of ICANN Board members exactly a month ago. In each I explained that I was “putting the questions to you which, through past experience of these things, I will be asking anyway in a month's time”.
The basic email was the same each time:
The revised VeriSign contract still has alot of elements that large sections of the Internet community are unhappy with. What I predict will happen is that after the brief public comment period, ICANN staff will put forward the same agreement to a special meeting of the Board that will be held between now and the Wellington meeting, most likely early March.
At that meeting the Board will be told that:
- There have been not one but two public comment periods, demonstrating ICANN's transparency and bottom-up process
- That VeriSign has made it very clear that it will not move back any further
- That ICANN’s hands are tied because of the DoC’s role in negotiations, that the DoC believes VeriSign has offered a fair settlement
- That time is running out (time is always running out in these situations for one reason or other)
- That it may not be ideal but ICANN has to approve the deal because the VeriSign lawsuits make it impossible to breathe and because the MoU is coming up
You will then be asked to vote on the agreement.
My question is: Do you believe that such a momentous decision should be delayed for a few weeks so it can be properly and publicly thrashed out in Wellington?
If so, will you raise the issue at such a Board meeting, will you ask for it to be put on the public record, and will you vote against the agreement rather than just abstain in order to register your opposition?
And that is exactly what has happened. Nine for; five against; one abstention. The Board has held no less than four special meetings on the VeriSign contract, two in the past week. The decision has been pushed through to avoid the New Zealand public meeting, and the entire Internet community – which ICANN claims to serve in a “bottom-up decision-making process” – has been completely ignored because it is in ICANN's interests to approve the deal.
The deal condenses everything that is wrong with how the Internet is currently run in one tiny document. How vital decisions about the global Internet are made by one of three bodies – ICANN, VeriSign and the US Department of Commerce – and how their complicated and difficult relationships consistently produce decisions and agreement and settlements that are a million miles from what they should be, and could be if the globalness of the Internet was actually pulled in.
ICANN thinks it has got the best deal because ICANN continues to inhabit a tiny world of its own making where VeriSign and the DoC loom large and everyone else is a distraction. What ICANN really honestly hasn't realised is that its authority is hanging by a thread.
I knew that a special meeting of the Board would be called prior to Wellington, and I knew what would be said and what would happen, because that is the method by which ICANN always pushes through things that shouldn't be approved.The fact that there were several special meetings demonstrates at least that some Board members have started fighting against their expected rubber-stamp role.
But the fact remains that ICANN retains the same culture where ageing chairman Vint Cerf continues to push his personal and out-dated views and undermines anyone that argues with him, and CEO Paul Twomey continues to cut any secret deal he can that will give him control of a more powerful organisation.
Underneath them come all the people that are willing them to succeed so they can take over a government of the Internet in five years' time.
[You can find out what individual Board members felt about the deal in the statements made on the record and released two days later by ICANN.]
While all this empire building and secret deal making is going on, those involved have completely lost track of what they are actually deciding.
Should VeriSign be given permanent control of the dotcom registry? The answer is startlingly obvious: No, it shouldn't. It is in no-one's interests except VeriSign's.
Should VeriSign be allowed to raise prices? No, of course not. The prices of domains are going down. Why on earth is ICANN pulling itself into a contract that rips people off? How stupid does it have to be? Why not restructure the contract to let market forces decide? Then VeriSign can raise its prices anyway and we can stop pretending that the dotcom registry isn't a special case.
Should VeriSign be given rights over expiring domains? No, no way. And not because the idea of a registry owning expiring domains is a bad one. In fact, the current system – where a dozen companies constantly bombard name servers with renewal requests is absolutely ridiculous and cannot be allowed to continue. But should VeriSign be given it? No, because of SiteFinder. There is no reason why another company can't be given all rights to expiring domains, then that company can be set up in such a way that it is entirely equitable.
ICANN has simply signed off on VeriSign's top-three wishlist because it is absolutely desperate to stop VeriSign's lawsuits and because it thinks that if it can just get VeriSign to accept it as an authority, it is over the hill and safe.
The problem with getting used to cutting dodgy deals is that, after a while, the human being becomes incapable of recognising when they should just say No. The individual loses that vital bit of wider clarity which marks great men from powerful men.
I would argue, on a tangent, that that is exactly what happened in the UK when prime minister Tony Blair decided to go to war in Iraq with the United States. There is no doubt that Blair knew that the war was a fallacy but he went with it because he thought he was tight with enough powerful people that it would never unravel.
Having cut dozens of deals and come out the other end gleaming, he failed to recognise that this one was different. That no leader should ever cut a deal over a war.
ICANN may well have cut a similar deal with the new dotcom contract. This one was different. It was for the dotcom registry. ICANN has been through a hell of a lot in the past decade but just when it thinks it is the most powerful and stable it has ever been, the irony is that it has never been weaker.