Questions have been raised about how ICANN accounts for the millions of dollars it receives in fees from .net domain name registrations.
The current .net registry agreement between ICANN and VeriSign was signed in June 2005. It’s currently up for renewal.
Both the 2005 and 2011 versions of the deal call for VeriSign to pay ICANN $0.75 for every .net registration, renewal and transfer.
Unlike .com and other TLDs, the .net contract specifies three special uses for these fees (with my emphasis):
ICANN intends to apply this fee to purposes including:
(a) a special restricted fund for developing country Internet communities to enable further participation in the ICANN mission by developing country stakeholders,
(b) a special restricted fund to enhance and facilitate the security and stability of the DNS, and
(c) general operating funds to support ICANN’s mission to ensure the stable and secure operation of the DNS.
However, almost six years after the agreement was executed, it seems that these two “special restricted funds” have never actually been created.
ICANN’s senior vice president of stakeholder relations Kurt Pritz said:
To set up distinctive organizations or accounting schemes to track this would have been expensive, complex and would have served no real value. Rather — it was intended that the ICANN budget always include spending on these important areas — which it clearly does.
He said that ICANN has spent money on, for example, its Fellowships Program, which pays to fly in delegates from developing nations to its thrice-yearly policy meetings.
He added that ICANN has also paid out for security-related projects such as “signing the root zone and implementing DNSSEC, participating in cross-industry security exercises, growing the SSR organization, conducting studies for new gTLDs”.
These initiatives combined tally up to an expenditure “in excess of the amounts received” from .net, he said.
It seems that while ICANN has in fact been spending plenty of cash on the projects called for by these “special restricted funds”, the money has not been accounted for in that way.
Interestingly, when the .net contract was signed in 2005, ICANN seemed to anticipate that the developing world fund would not be used to pay for internal ICANN activities.
ICANN’s 2005-2006 budget, which was approved a month after the .net deal, reads, with my emphasis:
A portion of the fees paid by the operator of the .NET registry will become part of a special restricted fund for developing country Internet communities to enable further participation in the ICANN mission by developing country stakeholders. These monies are intended to fund outside entities as opposed to ICANN staff efforts.
That budget allocated $1.1 million to this “Developing Country Internet Community Project”, but the line item had disappeared by time the following year’s budget was prepared.
Phil Corwin from the Internet Commerce Association estimates that the $0.75 fees added up to $6.8 million in 2010 alone, and he’s wondering how the money was spent.
“We believe that ICANN should disclose to the community through a transparent accounting exactly how these restricted funds have actually been utilized in the past several years,” Corwin wrote.
He points out that the contract seems to clearly separate the two special projects from “general operating funds”, which strongly suggests they would be accounted for separately.
Given that .net fees have been lumped in with general working capital for the last six years, it seems strange that the current proposed .net registry agreement still calls for the two special restricted funds.
The oddity has come to the attention of the ICA and others recently because the new proposed .net contract would allow VeriSign for the first time to offer differential pricing to registrars in the developing world.
The agreement allows VeriSign to “provide training, technical support, marketing or incentive programs based on the unique needs of registrars located in such geographies to such registrars”, and specifically waives pricing controls for such programs.
It seems probable that this amendment was made possible due to the .net contract’s existing references to developing world projects.
Corwin said ICA has nothing against such programs, but is wary that existing .net registrants may wind up subsidizing registrants in the developing world.