No, it’s just a confirmation of an old principle–the current deal struck between ICANN, which the U.S. government gave control over policies concerning the Domain Name System, and VeriSign, the private corporation that manages the insanely popular and critical .com domain.
Take the price of a domain name, for just one example of where the deal goes wrong. The .com domain name market is already weighed down with price-gouging (after all, how much incremental cost is involved in entering an item in a database?), but the new contract allows VeriSign to raise prices 7% per year for four years, just because–well, just because. Like Aristotle said, it’s in the nature of some things to fall and some to rise, and VeriSign decided it’s in the nature of domain name prices to rise. There are other shocking aspects to the agreement (browse the ICANNWatch web site, and let me know whether you know of any good document summarizing the controversy)–so shocking that many critics believe that ICANN’s boss, the U.S. Department of Commerce, will take the radical step of refusing to sign off on the deal ICANN made.
The classic situation of the regulated monopoly comes through in many aspects of this complicated situation. For instance, VeriSign has played an aggressive role, savvily using lawsuits to harry ICANN and wear down its resistance–a pattern followed by some other regulated monopolies. And ICANN will derive highly desired revenue from the high fees that VeriSign charges–a conflict of interest regulators often fall into.
It has always been a stated goal of ICANN to expand the space of top-level domains like .com so that there would be more alternatives and the importance of .com in the 1990s would go away. If that happened, VeriSign would not be able to even imagine proposing the deal they’ve just won. No doubt, there’s a cachet about .com that will take a long time to erase; this is beyond ICANN’s control. But they’ve certainly done nothing to help by keeping such an iron grip on the top-level domain space.
ICANN is enforcing a two-layer monopoly here: the appeal of the .com domain and the control VeriSign has over .com. Permanent, automatic renewal of VeriSign’a control is built into the current agreement.
ICANN has fallen into a pattern: by doing a poor job, they open up the domain name system to abuse by other actors with even more dubious motives. For instance, by dragging their heels on internationalization of domain names, ICANN left an opening big enough to fly an EP-3 through. So China is creating its own, separate domain name system, a move long feared by observers. Sure, China probably will exploit the system to censor content–but I wouldn’t presume to guess whether censorship is the reason for creating the new system or just a continuation of China’s ongoing censorship policies. My point is that ICANN handed them a reason to create their own system.
(Guide to snide references department: an EP-3 was the U.S. airplane involved in the collision with a Chinese jet in April 2001, a major international incident.)
The lapse on international domain names is ironic, considering ICANN makes a big show of caring about international issues and makes lots of superficial gestures in that area, such as appointing board members from around the world and holding its conferences in far-flung cities. But they aren’t making their case well; that’s why so many countries want to eliminate them of put their functions under U.N. control. ICANN managed to weather that storm, but the VeriSign deal may prove their Hurricane Katrina.