But whatever a federal court in Los Angeles decides could have broad implications over whether financial or public interest ultimately drives decisions on how Internet users worldwide visit Web sites and send E-mail, legal experts say.
On Thursday, VeriSign Inc. sued the oversight body, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, saying ICANN's decisions have impeded efforts by VeriSign to offer new, moneymaking services.
The contract between VeriSign and ICANN is indeed vague, and both sides have strong arguments, said Jonathan Weinberg, a Wayne State University law professor who follows Internet policy.
A decision could set precedent over whether ICANN has legal authority to halt emerging Internet services that it considers "good for VeriSign and bad for the Internet as a whole," Weinberg said.
VeriSign, based in Mountain View, Calif., sought injunction relief and unspecified damages against ICANN, which the U.S. government designated in 1998 to handle domain names and other Internet addressing policies.
ICANN spokesman Kieran Baker said the organization had not yet seen the lawsuit and would have no comment.
VeriSign controls the computers that contain the master list of domain name suffixes, such as ".com" and ".fr." The company also runs directories for the two most popular suffixes, ".com" and ".net."
As a result, Internet computers intersect with VeriSign's millions of times daily to find out how to route E-mail and Web traffic.
Critics consider VeriSign a monopoly that tries to abuse its power by offering services favorable to its bottom line. Though VeriSign considers them innovations that benefit Internet users as well, ICANN has often responded by denying or delaying VeriSign's plans.
ICANN, meanwhile, has faced criticism that "it makes up its rules as it goes along," said Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami. He described ICANN as a regulatory body without established procedures regulators normally have.
A newly formed U.N. task force is studying replacements to ICANN.
In the lawsuit, VeriSign argues that ICANN has exceeded its authority by defining the company's efforts as "registry services," a term that by contract subjects the company to greater oversight. VeriSign also complains that ICANN takes too long to make decisions and is often inconsistent when it does.
"It's a culmination of our efforts over the last few years to gain a clear and consistent and fair process for the introduction of new services," said Tom Galvin, vice president of government relations for VeriSign.
Disputed services include Site Finder, which VeriSign launched last fall for guiding Internet users who mistype Web addresses.
Instead of an error message, Web surfers who enter addresses that don't exist get suggestions on where they might have wanted to go. VeriSign sometimes gets money for directing traffic to those sites.
Under pressure from ICANN, VeriSign later agreed to suspend the service following criticisms that the service damaged existing functions, like some spam filters and rival search services.
VeriSign also is awaiting approval on offering domain names using non-English characters and a waiting list in which individuals or businesses can grab domain names already in use as soon as their registrations expire.
Weinberg said ICANN can reasonably argue that its role as guardian of Internet stability trumps the profit-making desires of a private company. But to the extent ICANN's authority is formalized in contracts that aren't all that clear, he said, "this is not a lawsuit to laugh off."