CAIRO (03/11/2000) - The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers took an important step toward broad-based legitimacy today, as it approved the start of an at-large membership election. The election would involve almost a third of ICANN's first 18-member permanent board.
The ICANN board unanimously voted to allow qualified people who sign up for membership on ICANN's site to elect five at-large directors before ICANN's November annual meeting in Los Angeles. Members must be at least 16 years of age, and must furnish both e-mail and postal addresses. About 6,000 people have signed up for membership since ICANN opened the process on Feb. 23. Most of the applicants have been young North American men.
The at-large membership issue goes to the heart of ICANN's mission, which is to serve as a public nonprofit entity administering the Internet's technical functions. ICANN needs the support and participation of the Internet public to both legitimize its actions and fend off attempts to expand its narrow technical mission into areas like privacy and trademark law. At last November's annual meeting, the Markle Foundation granted ICANN $200,000 to help fund the at-large membership process.
The foundation also commissioned a study of the process by the Center for Democracy and Technology, Common Cause and others. ICANN came to Cairo with a plan to stagger the at-large elections, by inserting an at-large council to act as an electoral college for at-large board member elections. The CDT-Common Cause study urged ICANN to hold direct elections instead, and to do so only after clearly restating its narrow technical mission.
ICANN has commissioned a second study of the election process, and has scheduled it to take place at the same time as the initial at-large elections.
A board resolution calls for a nominating committee to propose at-large candidates, along with petitions submitted by the public. It also calls on four of the nine original board members to stay on past the expiration of their terms on Sept. 30. None of the nine - including the interim chairwoman, Esther Dyson -- showed great enthusiasm to stay on. Spokesmen from CDT, Common Cause and the Markle Foundation hailed the vote as an important step. Among the questions yet to be answered is how ICANN will allow direct elections while protecting itself from legal liability under California law. Some observers say that California statutes allow nonprofit organization members - defined generally as people who have the power to elect board members - to sue the organization over disagreements on policies or procedures.
Joe Sims, an attorney who advises ICANN, says the California statutes can be read differently. Sims concedes, however, that "case law is pretty thin," and that "you can't guarantee that a judge won't do something strange." ICANN's counsel, Louis Touton, pledged to craft rules for "tailored membership" of a form that would protect ICANN from confrontations with millions of people who might otherwise take legal action against it. A proposal to create new generic top-level domains, such as .store and .inc, appears to be gathering steam.
ICANN's Domain Name Supporting Organization is expected to forward a proposal to the ICANN board within the next couple of months. Trademark-holder advocates continue to oppose the creation of new gTLDs without improved domain name dispute resolution policies and a more comprehensive WHOIS database of registry information.
The Governmental Advisory Committee, a secret group of national governments that have been accorded country-code top-level domains such as .uk and .fr, submitted a proposal that would give governments a greater say in assigning the administration of ccTLDs. The ICANN board voted to keep moving on both domain fronts during the months before its next meeting, which is scheduled for July in Yokohama, Japan. The board is hoping to decide the mechanics of new domain name creation at that meeting.