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section heading icon     history

This page looks at the history of ICANN, characterised by struggles between technicians, governments, business interests and advocacy groups.

It covers -


The internet originated as a mechanism for the exchange of information by US government agencies and research bodies - a private network rather than one open to the wider community and thus without extensive administrative requirements.

During the late 1970s it came to embrace a range of academic institutions, with growth being driven by adoption of standards such as the TCP/IP protocols and adoption in 1984 of the domain name system (DNS), discussed here. At that time responsibility for the dot-au TLD was delegated to Melbourne University's Robert Elz.

In 1991 the US government transferred responsibility for the non-military component of ARPANET to the National Science Foundation (NSF), a federal government agency. The NSF lifted restrictions on commercial use of the network. A year later growth took off (with the number of machines doubling each quarter rather than each year) following release of the MOSAIC browser that drew on work by Tim Berners-Lee and was commercialised by Netscape.

In dealing with that growth the NSF retained the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) - effectively Jon Postel - for management of the allocation of IP addresses. However, in line with government emphases on privatisation it contracted AT&T and Network Solutions (NSI) - subsequently absorbed by Verisign - to provide a single network information center (NIC). NSI became responsible, as an agent of the NSF and thus US government, for registration of names in the .com, .net, and .org gTLDs.

In Australia Elz had delegated some responsibility to Geoff Huston of Sydney University in 1990 and in 1996 delegated responsibility for the local com 2LD to a commercial unit of Melbourne University, subsequently privatised as Melbourne IT.

     IAHC proposal

Colonisation of the web by business, other organisations and individuals - many from outside the US - was reflected in concerns about the shape of rules for allocation of names on the net, resolution of disputes and broader issues about governance of what was increasingly a major part of the global information infrastructure.

Such concerns were reflected in the 1996 establishment of an International Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC) by the Internet Society (ISOC), Internet Architecture Board (IAB), Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and International Trademark Association (INTA). Detailed information about those bodies is found elsewhere on this site.

The IAHC charter concerned "specifying and implementing policies and procedures" regarding gTLDs. In 1997 the Committee released a report on a Generic Top Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding (gTLD-MOU).

The report proposed establishment of a global registry under the management of a consortium of international registrars, the Internet Council of Registrars (CORE), on a nonprofit basis. Dispute resolution would be provided by WIPO; support would be provided by the ITU. CORE (like WIPO and the ITU) would be based in Switzerland. It would be incorporated under Swiss rather than US law and not be chartered by the US Commerce Department.

That generated considerable concerns among the more chauvinistic members of the US congress and was exploited by IAHC critics such as eDNS, a coalition of enthusiasts for an "alternative root namespace" (some of whose activities included high-profile hacking of NSI).

Alternative root system advocates questioned the need for any coordination - particularly by a body that they did not control - and claimed that IAHC and IANA were somehow betraying the United States by surrendering control of the net to a Swiss conspiracy, to WIPO or even to the Libyan government.

Other bodies such as the Association for Interactive Media (AIM) condemned the IAHC for a "narrow, pre-commercial view" or for being overly commercial and serving the interests of corporate trademark owners rather than small business and US consumers.

Proponents claimed that it would depoliticise and internationalise administration of the net while reducing costs.

     the US White and Green Papers

US President Clinton had directed the Secretary of Commerce to "privatize, increase competition in, and promote international participation in the domain name system" as part of his administration's 1997 A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce (FGEC), discussed here.

In response Clinton's senior policy adviser Ira Magaziner coordinated a discussion paper (Green Paper) on A Proposal to Improve Technical Management of Names & Addresses that was released in January 1998.

Magaziner had worked in the Boston Consulting Group, was an author of the Clinton administration's controversial health administration policy and was instrumental in development of the FGEC. He was co-author with Robert Reich of Minding America's Business: The Decline and Rise of the American Economy (New York: Vintage 1982) and with Mark Patinkin of The Silent War: Inside the Global Business Battles Shaping America's Future (New York: Random 1989).

Responses to the Green Paper were mixed. Critics argued that the government was overly concerned to retain control of the net under the guise of ensuring "a reasonable and orderly transition" to a new nonprofit organization, notionally labelled NewCo or the new IANA. Others noted that the proposal fundamentally diminished the role of ISOC and that of WIPO.

In June 1998 the US National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) released a paper on Management of Internet Names & Addresses (aka the White Paper or Magaziner Report), a revision of the Green Paper that reflected public comment since release of the draft and represented an official statement of policy. The new document emphasised consensus, something that has been increasingly difficult to achieve because of conflicting interests and grandstanding.

Various advocacy groups responded to the White Paper, including the International Forum for the White Paper (IFWP) - "an ad hoc coalition of professional, trade and educational associations representing a diversity of Internet stakeholder groups" - and the Global Incorporation Alliance Workshop (GIAW). We have highlighted some of the current advocacy groups here.

Postel responded with a revised charter for IANA, which would be responsible for internet protocol addresses, domain names, and protocol parameters to "preserve the central coordinating functions of the global Internet for the public good."

The US concurrently requested WIPO to conduct a consultative study on domain name/trademark issues that would

1 develop recommendations for a uniform approach to resolving trademark/domain name disputes involving cyberpiracy ...
2 recommend a process for protecting famous trademarks in the generic top level domains
3 evaluate the effects ... of adding new gTLDs and related dispute resolution procedures on trademark and intellectual property holders.


At the beginning of October 1998 the NTIA announced that NewCo would be called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN). It would operate on the basis of agreements with the NTIA (those agreements expire in 2003), with oversight by the US congress.

The expectation was that the new body would ensure competition in the delivery of domain registration services, introduce new gTLDs and act in an "open, transparent and bottom-up" fashion.

ICANN was subsequently established as a corporation under US law. Its interim board of directors was appointed, rather than elected, given the emphasis on continuity and stability.

The structure of the organisation - criticised as giving particular stakeholders too much or too little influence - is described on the following page. In summary, it was intended to be broadly representative, embracing governments (which have taken an increasing interest in 'their' part of the net), the DNS industry (registrars and registry operators), trademark and other business interests, network administrators and internet users.

Milton Mueller's Ruling the Root (Cambridge: MIT Press 2002) lamented that the net's "role as a site of radical business and technology innovation, and its status as a revolutionary force that disrupts existing social and regulatory regimes, is coming to an end", with one reviewer similarly complaining that governance of the net has

evolved from the enlightened despotism of a technological elite into a tool of special interests intent on protecting and expanding the control of intellectual property online.

ICANN initially concentrated on increasing competion, moving to accredit new registrars and establish a global Shared Registry Service. In April 1999 it announced the selection of 34 competitors for NSI in registration of domain names.

Testing of those competitors - the first past the post was - proceeded despite problems with NSI, which complained in testimony to Congress that ICANN was out to destroy its business. Introduction of competition is attributed to a halving of dot-com registration prices.

ICANN's first annual general meeting was held in Los Angeles during November 1999 and centred on ratification of a proposed agreement between ICANN and Network Solutions.


The ICANN model of a nonprofit nongovernment and broadly representative entity was adopted in many national regimes with for example establishment of Nominet in the UK and CIRA in Canada.

Moves during 1997 to establish an Australian Domain Name Administration (ADNA) were unsuccessful and a dot-AU Working Group under Commonwealth auspices made little progress. The National Office for the Information Economy (NOIE) - a counterpart of the NTIA - agreed in 1998 to facilitate creation of an internet self-regulatory regime for the dot-au gTLD, with transfer of authority from Robert Elz to a new entity.

That facilitation resulted in establishment during 1999 of au Administration Ltd (auDA), described in detail in a separate profile on this site.


ICANN did not establish WIPO as the sole source of domain name dispute resolution services. However, in 1999 the WIPO report proposed a uniform dispute resolution policy (UDRP) for all registrars in the .com, .net and .org TLDs. The UDRP - and subsequent reports by WIPO - is considered later in this profile.

That recommendation was adopted following recommendation by the DNSO (described on the following page), with WIPO itself and the US National Arbitration Forum (NAF) being approved as the first dispute-resolution service providers under the UDRP. In 2000 eResolution and CPR were approved as UDRP arbitrators; eResolution later withdrew and was replaced in 2002 by the Hong Kong-based Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre.

In conjunction with establishment of the UDRP an Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) came into effect in the US in 1999 and, as we've suggested later in this profile, had a significant effect in reducing speculation in gTLD domain names.


In 2000 ICANN sought to membership from the community through an ICANN At-Large organisation, envisaged as equivalent to the 'Supporting Organisations' that represent particular interests and contribute directors to the Board.

The initiative was widely, although often unfairly, criticised and as we have noted here regional recruitment for At-Large was uneven, with significantly greater per capita participation in Japan and Germany than in the US. It resulted in the election of a number of 'user' representatives.

A succession of working parties and studies, under ICANN auspices or otherwise, grappled with principles and specific mechanisms for 'democratic representation' in ICANN (direct elections, indirect representation through At-Large, reliance on government representatives?).

Should 'users' have a small presence on the Board or comprise most of the Directors? Did ICANN's technical function (and significant impact) militate against decisionmaking by representatives who might be passionate but non-expert or view the organisation as a tool for wider social changes (deconstructing capitalism, reducing North-South inequities)? Registrars complained that they provided 47% of ICANN's budget in 2002 but had only one seat on the Board and so should get extra votes if space was made additional user representatives. Some governments suggested that user representation was best handled by them.

So far there has been little resolution. As the following pages comment, while it is common to see criticisms that ICANN is "broken", few alternatives have gained major support or addressed all criticisms of the current organisation. Wolfgang Kleinwaechter's 2001 paper (PDF) Global Governance in the Information Age argues that

the emergence of new global governance mechanisms like the "Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers" (ICANN) ... can be seen as "pilot projects" to explore the feasibility of new policy mechanisms which go beyond the traditional governmental top-down system.

He goes on to comment that ICANN has

introduced new principles in global policy-making like bottom-up coordination, rough consensus, openness and transparency ... with the ongoing globalization and informatisation of law and policy-making, new governance structures will appear which go beyond a system based on the territorial and personal sovereignty of the nation state.

Such issues are explored in Multi-Stakeholder Governance and the Internet Governance Forum (Wembley: Terminus 2008) by Jeremy Malcolm.

     the new gTLDs

In November 2000 the ICANN board of directors approved the introduction of seven new TLDs: .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro. Four years later the organisation was moving toward introduction of further TLDs.

In practice the effectiveness of those space is unclear. The viability of the commercial spaces has been uncertain and uptake of the non-commercial TLDs appears to have been disappointing. Arguably development of the new spaces reflected pressure from commercial registrars and an attempt by ICANN to demonstrate that it was responsive to calls for diversity in domain spaces, albeit by responding to lobbying by sectoral interests.

Australian domain administrator auDA has taken a more cautious approach in spawning new 2LDs within the dot-au space, for example considering and rejecting - through a public consultation process - proposals for 'proprietorial' 2LDs, despite intensive lobbying by the Roman Catholic church and other interests.

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