Commerce Dept. Official Hits Domain-Name Plan

Published March 1, 2009

A plan to allow hundreds of domain name suffixes outside the familiar “.com” will not benefit consumers, the U.S. Commerce Department warns, but many Internet experts argue government intervention in the matter is unwarranted.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet’s key oversight body, had planned to start accepting bids for new Internet suffixes this year in what would be the first major overhaul of a decades-old addressing system.

Late last year, however, a top Commerce Department official, Meredith Baker, sent a letter to ICANN stating it wasn’t clear “whether the potential consumer benefits” of overhauling the domain-name system “outweigh the potential costs.”

Baker said ICANN needs to examine whether companies operating the new domain name registries would have too much market power, including the power to raise domain name prices, and whether there should be more competition in the renewal of domain names.

Beware Government Meddling

Tech experts expressed alarm at what they see as a federal government attempt to bully an independent organization that has a long record of competent Internet management.

“ICANN has been an independent organization, and it’s important that any government play a minimum role, if any, in deciding domain names,” said Ryan Radia, an information policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “If ICANN has a new technology, it should be free to implement any domain name systems without intervention from the Commerce Department.”

Due for Adjustments

Besides, Radia added, the Internet has grown so large it is probably due for some tweaking.

“The government has always tried to maximize control over the Internet, and the Internet has become a network. The domain system that was created when the Internet was invented may no longer make sense,” Radia said.

“Changes are going to happen, and there’s no reason why the Commerce Department’s objections should have the sway to [affect] such decisions—especially because there are so many nations in the world that have their own Internet policies,” Radia said.

Expanding Domain Choice

As of now, only 21 domain options are available. ICANN said its suggestion to allow firms to choose other suffixes—such as “.news” rather than the more common “.org,” “.com,” and “.net”—would promote business competition.

ICANN is under federal government contract until 2011, with a $25 million annual budget, and has said it would give preference to trademarked companies for the new suffixes.

“The Internet, like most things under the best governments, works because it is governed least,” said Joshua S. Treviño, president of consulting firm Treviño Strategies and Media. “If the consensus-driven governing bodies of the Internet—in this case, ICANN—see fit to do anything, it is inappropriate and unwise for a federal bureaucrat to interfere.

“Though the U.S. government formally has this power, it is unwise to exercise it—lest other nations decide to circumvent it with their own data infrastructures,” Treviño added.

Krystle Russin ([email protected]) writes from Texas.