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ICANN grows up at last

New attitude and a budget to match

If you wondered what the price would be for a more professionally-run Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), you can see it now in black-and-white figures.

The Internet-overseeing organisation has released its proposed budget (available here (PDF)) for 2004-5 and it is almost double taht of last year. Administering the Internet next year will apparently cost $15,834,000 - up $7.56m on last year's budget of $8.27m - or a 91.4 per cent increase.

Considering that last year, we pointed out that ICANN's budget made it comparatively more expensive than every other similar organisation by around a third, this new double-budget appears to be unsupportable.

If that is what you think, you can email, and wait for them to appear on the ICANN comment board set up for Budget discussion. Better still, pay a visit to which has been set up by one registrar angry with changes who doesn't like the fact that there isn't a public comment board about the budget.

So far, most commentary on the ICANN budget has been fairly neutral. Yes, the organisation may have doubled in expense over the course of one year and provided little tangible benefits for this increase; but then it is under change and so maybe we shouldn't judge so harshly.

What has really prevented out-and-out fury, however, is the budget document. It is, simply, beautifully constructed. ICANN is under new management and there has been a sea-change in its mindset. Gone is the shameless arrogance and empire building of the previous incumbents. Under the new head, Paul Twomey, we have got away from petulant IT types and entered the realm of diplomats and government types.

Twomey is creating an institution. And he has three years to do it. If ICANN isn't solid and respected and entrenched by then, the whole organisation could be at risk. The budget document makes this clear to anyone who understands what is going on and it does so with refreshing clarity. The ICANN of old left a trail of vague legal-speak and a few bad-tempered comments before telling you how much it had decided to spend this year.

The new approach is forward-looking, positive, honest, coherent, clear. It's no wonder people like it. The problem is that it contains little real justification for the vast increase in resources it has decided to award itself.

Give with one hand...

ICANN has decided to hire those extra staff that it should have hired at least a year ago - including, crucially, an Ombudsman. It will have more staff to deal with complaints because ICANN wants to start handling this crucial area better. It will have more staff to deal with technical issues too. And it is looking at opening up new bureaux across the world so we are all involved more.

You read that and think: "Thank God - finally, ICANN is starting to behave less like an old-boys' club and more like a professional organisation." But best not question the extra $1.78m needed to do this - in personnel costs alone. That's an increase of 46 per cent.

The same is true across the board. Lots of changes that people have been clamouring after for years - but at what a cost. Along with government-style efficiency, you get government-style budgeting.

It is certainly difficult to avoid smirking at the assertion that the original departmental budgets were reduced by 25 per cent - when the overall budget has doubled. The budget makes no bones about where some of the money is going - to save ICANN's own neck. The communications budget has gone from nothing to $73,000. This will be spent on pushing ICANN, making the world love and understand the new ICANN. Another wonderful change - ICANN will start publishing a lot of its material in different languages, thereby making it a global, and not just a US organisation. Finally. But blimey, it's not coming cheap.

ICANN will also have three meetings this year instead of two. That may part explain why "Board meetings and other travel" has grown from an already-steep $1.34m to $2.38m. What ICANN can't say, but what everyone knows and why no one is saying it, is that a lot of this money will go in wining and dining the right people across the globe. Likewise the Nominating Committee - from $70,000 to $163,000. That's a lot of fancy lunches.

Capital expenditure has rocketed from $35,000 to $982,000. According to the budget notes, this is to replace laptops and introduce new technology into the ICANN set-up. But we rather suspect that "capital expenditure" can be legitimately used to cover a whole range of expenses beyond simple laptops.

And so it continues. The only area not to almost double every time is "administrative and systems" - which shows a level of intelligence that is both comforting and worrying. It would be pretty easy to piece together the expenses of this area and demonstrate that such an increase was not justifiable. Likewise, it is less easy to use money set aside for this for other uses.

The budget is upfront about how legal disputes - especially with VeriSign, although it is not named - have damaged it over the last year, both in terms of money and staff time and effort. Its solution is to take the cost of this as a given for next year and then budget for what else it wants done.

And then a vast increase in costs for professional and technical services, and technical infrastructure, is explained away as preparing ICANN to finally go independent from the US government - the only goal on which there is complete support across the world. But ICANN is supposed to have been preparing to do that since its inception. Just where is this money going? What exactly is it going to be spent on?

Hear no evil

What is so clever is that the budget tells everyone what they have desperately wanted to hear - we're making changes for the better and we need this money to do it - while at the same time making it clear to those with a less ideological bent that the money is there. Who exactly is going to complain?

Twomey knows how things work in the power-brokers' world and if you want to get governments and big companies onside, you need spending money. With the decision-makers onside, the threat against ICANN is lifted. With much-needed reform going on at the same time, the participants are also happy. ICANN comes out the other end solid and forever a part of the Internet infrastructure.

There are only two problems. One, the fact that the budget will never, ever go down again, after these years of self-preservation. Budgets for these sort of organisations never do. The Internet is going to become more expensive. The other problem is that ICANN has to get hold of this money now; and to do that it has to tap its existing sources of money.

Where the money comes from

So where is the extra $7.56m going to come from? Well, $2.6m will come from ICANN's new charging mechanism. ICANN will now charge a set fee when a domain is registered, transferred or renewed. It will be 25 cents each time.

This intelligent reform makes good sense: it is the Internet tax, and registrars really have little choice but to pay. At the same time however, a new "variable registrar support fee" will raise another $3.8m. This will be charged to registrars on a quarterly basis and will account for the costs ICANN has in supporting registrars.

This falls more heavily on small registrars. And this is where some revolt may occur. However, you keep the big boys happy and you argue your point coherently - so, frankly ,who cares if a few of the smaller registrars go under? The issue about the whole side to the Internet that is not obsessed with making money is neatly dealt with in a scheme that allows those that apply to two-thirds off their bill. ICANN gets to decide who gets this rebate of course, and you can bet that non-profit organisations and other such people will get it. Money-making companies will have to put up or shut up (in fact ICANN expects an extra $250,000 in "bad debts" - which will mean in effect folded companies).

ICANN has increased the annual fees that the companies running the global top-level domains has to pay it for the privilege of running the domain by a bit. And it expects to make $600,000 from the new sponsored domains that will be decided upon and go live next year.

It has also - cleverly - only looked for an extra $233,000 or so from the country-code top-level domains - on a total of $789,000 last year. Plus it will only charge 20 cents rather than 25 cents for these domains. It has made it quite clear that it expects to make more from ccTLDs over time but for the time being, this appears to be pretty reasonable.

The budget also makes clear that in the future it will seek more and different revenue streams. The details are left suggestively vague but governments and big companies (no doubt having enjoyed their lunches and got what they feel is real access to the heart of the Internet) look likely to make a bigger financial contribution over time.

In conclusion

So, all in all, an excellent budget. Very promising, very cleverly put together, and quite possible the saving of ICANN as an organisation. Using our previous method of measuring the true cost - the budget divided by the number of staff - it is clear that this is not a cheap option though.

The UK registrar Nominet (note the pound signs) came out as £80,000 per staff member. The ITU at £99,000. ICANN last year came out at £143,000. The new ICANN - even assuming that it increases it staff to the suggested new level of 59 - comes out at £150,600.

It is a fat budget but many will see it as a price worth paying. ®

Related links

ICANN's budget (PDF)
How much does it cost to oversee the Internet?

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