The Madeleine Brand Show for June 13, 2012

What's behind ICANN's expansion of the Internet?

ICANN

Josie Huang/KPCC

An ICANN employee carries a sign that's been taken down from a meeting room. The agency is moving to a new office in Playa Vista.

ICANN

Josie Huang/KPCC

Kurt Pritz is ICANN's senior vice president overseeing the massive expansion of Internet addresses.

ICANN

Josie Huang/KPCC

Michelle Jourdan gives reporter Josie Huang a tour of ICANN's office in Marina Del Rey, Calif.


The Internet is poised to get bigger. The organization in charge of managing the Internet plans to increase the number of web domain suffixes, such as .com or .org, to possibly include things like .shop or .pizza. Businesses are planning to spend billions of dollars buying up the new domain names. KPCC’s Josie Huang visited the head office of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, based here in Southern California.


So what does the organization that manages the Internet look like? Is there a giant room filled with banks of computers? Are there automated pod bay doors for security?
 
Not quite.
 
ICANN spokeswoman Michele Jourdan leads me through a 70s-era building in Marina Del Rey.

“Over here, we have copiers and fax machines. This is one of our conference rooms,” she says.

ICANN occupies two floors of office space.The décor is beige, unassuming.

“That’s the coffee machine,” she says, as it loudly self-starts. “Sorry, it’s cleaning.”
 
Turns out ICANN is more like “The Office” than it is“The Matrix.”
 
Despite it’s low-key, low-tech surroundings, there’s a lot of power wielded within these walls. The federal government created ICANN as a nonprofit in 1998 to maintain stability and order on the Internet. ICANN does this in large part by authorizing which web suffixes are allowed. They range from the familiar — like .com and .net — to the obscure — like .cat.

No, not as in felines. But as in Catalan, the language of Spain’s Catalan region.
 
ICANN has allowed for 22 web suffixes known as generic top-level domains — .com, .edu — and hundreds more are on the horizon. The

Kurt Pritz, the senior vice president at ICANN, is overseeing this expansion. “If you look, I think every English word is registered in .com,” he says.
 
Everything from adoption.com to zookeeper.com, meaning you have to look for a domain with another suffix if you want a website with either of those words, maybe a .info (egads!) Pritz says businesses should be allowed to be more creative with their websites and market themselves better.

“Even though there is additional space left in top-level domains, we want to sort of let 1,000 flowers bloom,” says Pritz.

ICANN’s staff has grown along with the Internet. Most of their 160 employees work out of headquarters in Marina Del Rey. That's where some key computer scientists were based at the time ICANN was founded.

For years, other countries have complained the organization is too U.S.-centric. They say the Internet has no borders and should be regulated by a more international organization. ICANN has responded by pointing out it has offices in Brussels and Sydney. The agency’s messaging stresses globalism.
 
ICANN is also facing criticism here at home. Regulators like the FTC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce say the expansion of domain names will jeopardize trademarks. Josh Bourne is with the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, which represents 20 companies, including Wells Fargo, Eli Lilly company and Marriott.
 
Bourne says his clients are already struggling with cybersquatters. They’re people who set up websites using a company’s name so they can make money off of it. Bourne says with the arrival of more domain names, some companies may have to spend more than a $1 million a year registering websites they’ll never use, just to ward off cybersquatters.
 
“That’s a very large investment when you cascade it out across the business,” says Bourne.
 
ICANN has also been accused of creating a bonanza for the domain name industry. That would be the companies who own the rights to something like a dot-com, and the middlemen like GoDaddy.com who sell the names to you and me.   

Andrew Alleman, editor at Domain Name Wire says that the upcoming domain name expansion is a "very risky move on the part of ICANN because there are so many competing interests."

ICANN spokeswoman acknowledges: “There’s a lot of people who don’t like us for whatever reason."

She says ICANN is doing its best juggling all the competing interests, but it’s hard enough getting a handful of people to reach consensus.

“So trying with thousands of voices it can get pretty contentious sometimes," she says.

As if revamping the World Wide Web weren’t enough work, ICANN’s about to move to new office space in nearby Playa Vista. No word on whether the new digs come with automated pod bay doors.


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