YOKOHAMA, JAPAN (07/17/2000) - Setting up a unique exercise in international cyber-democracy, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) on Sunday put the finishing touches on rules allowing for the direct election of five members to its board of directors by tens of thousands of Internet users around the world.
At the same time, ICANN set up a major show-down next year over the very existence of board members selected by the entire Internet community. Detailing a broad, six-month review to be conducted after the election, ICANN said it might reduce or eliminate seats on its board representing the Internet community "at large" depending on the results of the study.
The group, designated by the Clinton administration in 1998 to oversee the Internet's name and address system, is run by a 19-member board consisting of the chief executive officer, nine people selected by groups with close ties to the domain name system and nine people who were selected to represent the interests of the Internet community at large. The make-up represented a compromise approved by the U.S. government to ensure sufficient public input in the group's decisions.
However, many involved in ICANN, including some members of the board and its staff, were never comfortable with the idea of the at-large seats. Originally, the group planned to have the seats filled indirectly, by a committee chosen to represent the at-large Internet community. But nonprofit groups such as Common Cause and the Center for Democracy and Technology last year pressed for a direct election of at-large board members and, after winning the backing of the U.S. government, convinced ICANN to follow their advice.
In a compromise crafted during last year's ICANN board meeting in Cairo, the group agreed to hold an election to fill five of the nine seats directly, while reserving judgment on how the remaining four seats would be filled. As part of the compromise, ICANN also agreed to conduct a broad study of the initial election and the implications for selecting future at-large candidates.
Ahead of last week's ICANN meeting in Yokohama, Japan, however, controversy erupted when the group's staff proposed amending ICANN's bylaws not just to conduct the study but also to phase out the existence of the nine at-large directors within two years. The staff plan also made clear that the study was to focus not just on the selection method of the at-large board seats but also on whether such members were needed at all.
That reopened the battle in Yokohama, with CDT staff counsel Alan Davidson and Common Cause general counsel Don Simon lobbying meeting participants, board members and anyone else who would listen to their pitch to oppose the staff plan.
"I think a lot of people feel it would be a mistake," Davidson said, using a low-key attack that went over well with influential meeting participants. The staff plan went well beyond the Cairo compromise, he said.
ICANN staff argued that the elimination of the nine seats was needed to allow the board of directors maximum flexibility to respond to the results of the six-month study. To mollify the critics, they rewrote the plan and, by Saturday, the proposal would have phased out only some of the nine at-large seats.
"The board might decide that nine at-large directors are the wrong number," said ICANN lawyer Joe Simms on Saturday as the criticism continued to escalate.
During Saturday's open forum, which allowed participants to address ICANN's board directly, criticism of the scaled-back plan continued to mount.
Critically, the complaints came not just from U.S. nonprofits but also from representatives of several governments that sit on ICANN's government advisory committee.
ICANN board member and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf entered the fray, suggesting that the phase-out be dropped altogether while allowing the study to go forward. "Some people would be more comfortable," he said.
At the end of Saturday's session, the staff still maintained that the phase-out was required, but too much support for their position had eroded. Becky Burr, the U.S. Commerce Department official who oversees ICANN issues, pointed to the international outcry.
"It's a question of expectations, and I don't think the community expected that the resolution in Cairo would be implemented that way," Burr said.
On Sunday, the board voted to keep the nine at-large seats for now, but also defined the study explicitly to review the need for the seats, not just the manner in which they should selected. That could be a Pyrrhic victory for the public interest groups, which now move to the next battle: ensuring that the study reflects their views.
"The board did the right thing in preserving the principal of having nine at-large seats," said Common Cause's Simon. "They set good rules for the election, and it's going to be a very interesting experiment."
About 43,000 people around the world so far have applied to vote in the election, scheduled to take place in early October. Anyone 16 years of age or older with postal and e-mail addresses is eligible to participate by registering at ICANN's Web site, http://www.icann.org/ , through the end of July.
Each of the five seats will represent a different region of the world: Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America/Caribbean and North America.
ICANN has already established a nominating committee that will put one or more candidates on the ballot for each of the five regions. At Sunday's meeting, the board decided that people wanting to run who are not chosen by the nominating committee will have to submit backing from at least 2 percent of the voters in their region to qualify from the ballot. Backing will also have to come from voters in at least two countries.
Up to seven candidates will be allowed to run in each region, with slots going to those with the most backers on their nominating petitions. In the unlikely case of a tie for the last ballot slot in a region, all candidates with the same level of support will be placed on the ballot.
(Aaron Pressman is senior writer for The Industry Standard, an IDG publication.)