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ICANN's $12M travel budget: Goodwill move or influence buying?

Is the group responsible for managing domain names buying influence?

July 13, 2009 06:06 AM ET

Computerworld - The group responsible for managing the Web's domain name system, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has grown in the 11 years since its inception to become a powerful organization with a nearly $55 million budget built on the domain registration fees it receives.

And it now spends 22% of that budget on travel and meetings in far-flung locales that would likely make a globetrotter's must-see list.

ICANN, formed in 1998 after the U.S. decided to privatize domain name management, holds three international meetings annually and has met in a variety of places over the years. Those locales include Cairo, Paris, Dubai, New Delhi, San Juan, Lisbon, Sao Paulo, Marrakech, Cape Town, Kuala Lumpur, Rome, Carthage, Montreal, Rio de Janeiro, Amsterdam, Shanghai, Bucharest -- and its home city of Marina Del Ray, Calif.

Management of the domain name system brings ICANN much clout and controversy. Its decisions, such as expanding generic top-level domains (gTLD), can create opportunities for firms that sell and market those domains -- and can disappoint advocates who want domains that ICANN rejects.

ICANN, incorporated as a nonprofit in California, has a global reach, which is why it meets in various places worldwide in a bid to foster broad-based participation in its decisions.

Travel can be either a hardship or perk, depending on perspective, but many of the locations ICANN chooses can be expensive to reach and pricey places to stay -- especially as the number of people for whom it is picking up the tab increases.

At its most recent conference in Sydney, Australia, ICANN, which has approximately 100 staff members, paid the travel costs of 233 people. More specifically, it paid to bring 81 staffers on the trip, as well as 20 board members and more than two dozen contractors to help with the session. ICANN also paid the travel costs of another 103 people from the various constituency organizations, as part of its efforts to insure grass-roots, consensus-building legitimacy.

About 1,200 people have attended the group's recent conferences, and those who play the most active role in ICANN's decisions are those who show up for the meetings. That raises this question: If ICANN pays for your travel to attend a weeklong meeting to an interesting location, are you more likely to be sympathetic to recommendations put forward by its staff?

It's not a new question for ICANN. In a letter last year to the organization, the constituency that represents domain registries warned that directly reimbursing individuals for travel expenses could be seen as subsidizing special interests. It said: "There is the possibility that the independence of individuals could be compromised because they are dependent on ICANN for funding." Instead, it urged more investment in remote-participation tools. That "should be [a] higher priority than reimbursing travel expenses," the group said.

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