The U.S. government is ceding more of its control over the Internet to the loosely defined collection of governments, corporations, academics, civil agencies, small businesses and private citizens represented by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
At a House hearing Wednesday by witnesses from business and advocacy groups, however, the California nonprofit was accused of all sorts of bad behavior, from giving preferential treatment to foreign governments to lacking in overall transparency.
"Is the process working?" said witness Paul Misener, a vice president at Amazon.com, Inc. "From Amazon's perspective, no. It's not." Amazon famously went up against the governments of Brazil and Peru in 2013 over whether the ".amazon" domain should refer to the South American river, responsible for huge tourism revenues for the two countries, or to its own brand.
ICANN will be responsible for assigning the names and numbers used in Internet protocols all over the world at some point, although the exact date of the transition is still under discussion. It currently does the assigning on contract for the Department of Commerce. It inherited many policy-making duties for the Internet from the Department of Defense.
The problem for many U.S. businesses is ICANN's management of the intellectual property rights associated with their domain names.
According to witness Jonathan Zuck, president of the App Association, "a resolution was passed in secret" that allowed ICANN's CEO to partner with the government of Brazil to form their own private governance standards.
With new top-level domains being added all the time, including controversial ones like ".sucks" and ".porn," the chances for intellectual property disputes are growing.
"Will the availability of these new top-level domains serve the public?" asked Steve Metalitz, a lawyer for the Coalition for Online Accountability. "Or will it simply enrich speculators?"
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said that the proliferation of domain names presents opportunities for "legalized extortion."
Such opportunities reportedly led pop star Taylor Swift to buy up "taylorswift.porn" before speculators could get there first.
Notably, representatives from ICANN were not asked to speak at the hearing of the Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet.
In attendance, however, was Allen R. Grogan, chief contract compliance officer at ICANN, who expressed some surprise at not being invited to speak.
"We're a bottom-up multi-stakeholder policy organization," he added. "We don't really have executive management." ICANN does have a Govermental Advisory Committee, however, with a chairman and other officers. This body was ultimately responsible for awarding the ".amazon" domain to Brazil and Peru instead of the company.
"We had consensus from the GAC," Grogan said. "So we moved forward."