There's a scene in the movie "The Paper" where Michael Keaton, playing an editor for a New York City tabloid, manages to stroll past a desk sergeant and into a police station without even identifying himself.
How did he do it? He walked briskly, offered a confident greeting and essentially got by with pretending he had the authority to be there.
It's the same trick that ICANN, the group that oversees the assignment of Web addresses, has been trying to pull for years. But the group has tread far more clumsily than Keaton ever did, and a new bid to create unsanctioned addresses could cause a stumble that prompts tough questions about ICANN's true authority.
The Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers is a nonprofit corporation created in October 1998 at the urging of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Officials there said this new group should assume control of the Web's top-level domains, including .com, .net, .org and any new dot-somethings it saw fit to create.
Such matters had been handled previously by volunteers and companies on contract with the federal government, which nurtured the networks that evolved into the Internet. But dedicated Net users were clamoring for a better system, particularly since just one company had the government's permission to sell addresses on the Web's fast-growing real estate market.
ICANN has addressed that shortcoming by licensing scores of new domain name registrars around the world. It also has taken steps to open up new Web addresses by choosing seven new top-level domains that will make their way into use later this year.
But the group's choices including .biz, .info, .aero, .coop, .name, .pro and .museum were pretty lame. Lamer still was its decision to keep the $50,000 submission fees paid by 33 would-be registrars whose proposed domains weren't approved.
Enter New.net, an Idealab spin-off that recently started selling its own top-level domains. You can register addresses in any of 20 domains, including cool-sounding choices like .shop, .family, .sport, .video, .travel and .tech. Name speculators have already snatched up many catchy combinations, including book.shop, dance.club and the inevitable sex.xxx. But plenty more are still available, and they're selling for a reasonable $25 a year.
Since ICANN controls the Net's domain name servers, Web users can't actually visit any of these new addresses unless they've downloaded a special browser plug-in from New.net. But the company has convinced Earthlink, Excite@Home and other large Internet service providers to make the new domains available to their users automatically. If New.net cuts enough of these deals, it can route around ICANN's supposed control of the domain-name business and make a fortune in the process.
Why doesn't ICANN stop them? It doesn't dare try. Because if the group ever tried to enforce its authority in court, a judge could easily conclude it doesn't have any.
No act of Congress created ICANN, and no court has ever recognized its right to award domain names or, more importantly, deny them. And even if a U.S. judge gives the group the benefit of the doubt, courts in other countries might well reject a group that claims dominion over an international network just because some American bureaucrats said so.
That's why the official line at ICANN is to ignore New.net and hope it just goes away. ICANN Chairman Vint Cerf, one of the bona fide inventors of today's Internet, has pooh-poohed the threat posed by New.net. Rather than challenging the company's authority, he said ICANN will publicize its shortcomings including potential problems with e-mail sent to those new domains.
But ICANN has problems of its own, including its failure to fully include representatives of the Internet-using public in its decision-making process. As a result, the industry-controlled group hasn't earned the trust that could dissuade challenges to its legitimacy like the one posed by New.net.
You can't blame ICANN or its volunteer board members for trying to fill a leadership void on the Net, particularly when the United States government asked them to do just that. But if you're going to make claims to authority you might not have, you've got to do a pretty good job of it.
And unlike Michael Keaton, ICANN is going to need more than a clipboard and a confident smile.
To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.
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