The last week of September, the White House held a meeting with Internet domain registrars to talk about the problem of illegal online drug sales. There’s loads of money at stake on all sides of the equation: The UN said in 2005 that 90 percent of drug sales online are without prescriptions. But what interests us here is the reaction of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers -- ICANN , an organization with, to put it mildly, an identity crisis -- to the rogue pharmacy problem.
ICANN’s job description, in a nutshell, is technical coordination of the Internet naming system. But, of course, it’s more than that, with its policymaking dominated by financial interests, such as registrars, domainers, and others. It says right in ICANN’s mission language: “ICANN doesn’t control content on the Internet. It cannot stop spam and it doesn't deal with access to the Internet. But through its coordination role of the Internet's naming system, it does have an important impact on the expansion and evolution of the Internet.”
The part about spam is a lot of crapola. Make no mistake, I’m not advocating that ICANN get directly involved in stopping spam, because of the free speech implications. But I am amused, appalled, and, unfortunately, not surprised that ICANN declined an invitation to the White House confab on the illegal online drug trade.
ICANN’s still-relatively-new vice president of government affairs for the Americas, Jamie Hedlund, said, to paraphrase, that the meeting was “outside ICANN’s scope” -- code language employed by those inside the organization that means, basically, something we don’t want or are afraid to deal with. And to make matters more confusing, those who fear institutional inhibitions of Internet freedom often get pretty passionate talking about limiting ICANN’s “scope.” In my opinion, they often play inadvertently into the hands of the money crowd.
The limited range of ICANN’s “scope” here is nothing but a smokescreen. ICANN’s absence from the White House is just another example of the organization running to hide behind the nearest opaque object when questions come up about how it fails to enforce its own legal contract with registrars, called, mundanely enough, the Registrar Accreditation Agreement. Language in that agreement allows ICANN to delete domains with false WHOIS records, after an investigation and notification.
Now, how many illegal pharmacy domains, or fake Louis Vuitton handbag or Breitling watch domains for that matter, have true and accurate WHOIS data?
One registrar, OnlineNIC, has been associated with online pharmacies. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) won a $33 million judgment against OnlineNIC about two years ago for cybersquatting; and on the same day, it was sued by Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq: YHOO) for similar alleged misbehavior. ICANN has been notified repeatedly through official and unofficial channels of consumer and business complaints about OnlineNIC, yet it still granted it an accreditation in 2009.
That’s an affront to the 890-odd registrars that do comply with the rules. Ignoring complaints from consumers and businesses inside and outside the ICANN process is an affront to the much-ballyhooed “bottom-up consensus process” ICANN claims to engage for policymaking. And for ICANN to baldly abdicate responsibility for domain abuse, claiming it’s outside the organization’s scope, is an insult to anyone who’s ever accurately filled out a WHOIS record.
True, the ICANN contract compliance department is in disarray, and its senior director departed rather abruptly and quietly over the summer, his tenure barely lasting two years.
But that doesn’t explain the seriousness of what’s happening here. Since I’m actually part of that ICANN process, I can almost guarantee some sort of high-level conversation happened somewhere that the public’s not being told about that produced that asinine declaration. If and when I hear what it is, I’ll tell you.
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[Editor’s note: Beau Brendler finishes a three-year term as an elected member of the At-Large Advisory Committee to ICANN in December 2010, after which he becomes chairman of the North American Regional Organization of the At-Large. The At-Large is intended to represent the interests of “consumers,” or “end-users” of the Internet within ICANN. Both are volunteer positions, though ICANN pays travel expenses three times a year to its meetings.]
— Beau Brendler is a journalist, technologist, and consumer activist with a 20-year career in major media and public service.