By Nao Matsukata – Special to CNN
Decisions made this week in the meeting rooms of a San Francisco hotel could dramatically change how the world experiences the internet.
Few of us realize that many important decisions about Web policy and governance are under the control of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a nonprofit located in California.
What gives this organization the right to determine so much about internet policy and regulation? Who is it accountable to, and who empowered it in the first place?
ICANN was created in 1998 by the Clinton administration to take the reins of internet regulation from the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Products Agency and Jon Postel, a professor who was single-handedly keeping track of all internet addresses from his office at the University of Southern California.
Today, for all practical purposes, ICANN serves as the governing agency of the Web. And if ICANN has its way this week, internet users will soon be navigating through a substantially more complex and treacherous internet.
In a dramatic change of internet policy, ICANN has proposed to approve and implement the rollout of more than 400 new top-level domains within the next few months. Top-level domains are what you see to the right of the dot, such as “com” or “org.”
Right now, there are 21 top-level domains. If ICANN’s new policy is implemented, we will see top-level domains such as .car, .newyorkcity, .hotels and hundreds more. Internet real estate will grow exponentially, creating a more complex experience for every user.
ICANN’s board justifies this decision by citing the need for greater competition in the domain-name marketplace. ICANN argues that expanding the top-level domain space will encourage greater innovation and choice on the internet.
Those in the business of making money by selling domain names agree, and, unfortunately, they have inserted themselves into ICANN’s policy-making process. For example, the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) in ICANN's multistakeholder operational model is responsible for introducing and developing the top-level domain policy at hand. The GNSO, however, is largely composed of the same registries and registrars that stand to gain financially by the proposed massive introduction of new top-level domains.
This new policy will have great social, economic and security costs. If these new top-level domains are introduced, opportunities for cybercrime and fraud would be increased substantially.
If you are a consumer attempting to set up a checking account online, and you have to decide which website to give your personal information to – citi.bank, bank.citi, citi.com, citi.bankaccount or even citichecking.bankaccount – how would you determine which are trusted sites providing accurate information? How would you determine which are fraudulent sites actively misinforming the public?
A massive introduction of top-level domains will overwhelm the existing framework for combating cybercrime, putting millions of internet users at unnecessary risk.
In addition, consumers will be forced to take extensive measures to protect themselves from fraud and other malicious activities on the internet. They may grow wary of conducting online transactions. And companies will have to pay more to protect their trademarks.
Perhaps most dangerously, our national security might be further compromised as a vastly expanded internet increases places for terrorists and criminals to hide in cyberspace.
At the time of ICANN’s conception in the late 1990s, few anticipated the economic value of domain names or imagined a company, like today’s ubiquitous GoDaddy, that would capitalize on that value.
ICANN’s original mission – as a domain name regulator with a policy-making process inclusive of all internet users – was well-intentioned, but it has been polluted by constituents primarily concerned with financial gain, leaving the rest of us bearing the cost.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of Nao Matsukata.