CAIRO (03/10/2000) - The democratic model used by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers took a decidedly undemocratic turn Thursday, as ICANN board members and others clashed with public advocates over how to structure the group's at-large membership, especially the subsequent at-large election of half of ICANN's permanent board.
The at-large membership issue isn't the most obviously compelling one facing ICANN, the nonprofit technical organization tasked with administering the Internet's technical aspects. Usually, ICANN spends much of its time talking about questions surrounding Internet domain names, and Thursday was no exception. But the at-large membership issue goes to the heart of ICANN's mission, because it's a crucial test of just how literally democratic the organization will end up. In the first hours of Thursday's public session, sparks flew over how - and even whether - to set up an at-large membership.
"I'm puzzled about the at-large concept, because I'm not sure how it helps ICANN do its job," said Vint Cerf, an ICANN board member widely regarded as an Internet deity.
Cerf's comment comes a little late in the deliberations. Last November, ICANN started the at-large membership ball rolling with a plan to sign up at least 5,000 members on its Web site. ICANN President Mike Roberts reported that about 6,000 people have signed since ICANN opened up the process on Feb. 23. Members must be 16 years old, and have both an e-mail and a postal address. So far, the majority of members are North American males between the ages of 20 and 40. A tiny fraction of them are African. ICANN's plan calls for the at-large members eventually to elect an at-large council of 18 people, who would then elect nine new members to ICANN's 18-member board.
Also last November, the Markle Foundation, a philanthropy that's been lavishing money on Internet-related causes, on cash-strapped ICANN to help fund the at-large process. But the foundation also commissioned a study of that process, which was unveiled last week by the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause. The study criticizes the at-large election process as being not ready for prime time. Among other recommendations, the public advocates say that ICANN should first publish a clear definition of its organizational mission, and that at-large members should elect their board members directly.
"This is a serious exercise in legitimacy," said CDT executive director Jerry Berman. "Let's be accountable, let's let people vote for members of the board."
Berman and other public advocates pledged to work with ICANN to improve the at-large process But the CDT/Common Cause study was like a bucket of gasoline thrown on the smoldering embers of the ICANN board, whose wounds from the organization's tortuous first year have barely scarred over. Board member Amadeu Abril i Abril said he was "at least surprised and possibly disgusted" that the Markle Foundation had funded the study. "We should not go to the public at large, and try to orchestrate global elections," said board member Hans Kraaijenbrink, who called the CDT/Common Cause document "a study we didn't ask for."
Kraaijenbrink's comments reflected an apparent schism between those such as Berman, who interprets the phrase "democratic election" literally, and some ICANN board members, who say the at-large membership should be limited to, as interim ICANN chairwoman Esther Dyson described it, "informed stakeholders" in the Internet.
One audience member, Dennis Jennings, who represents country-code top-level Internet domains, dismissed the need for at-large members altogether, drawing a parallel to airplane passengers having a say in piloting aircraft. Jennings called the notion of broad-based democratic representation in ICANN "a millenium arrogance." Dyson pointed out that the Internet is "not the province of business and technical interests." Nevertheless, Dyson worried aloud about the technical know-how of the nine future members, saying that the thing to do is to make sure the new members aren't "people who don't know what they're doing."
Some on the ICANN board also appeared to bridle at the inference that the organization's mission isn't already published in its bylaws. In a heated exchange after the morning session, Joe Sims, an attorney who advises ICANN, angrily insisted that the organization's boundaries are already clearly drawn, telling a Markle Foundation spokesman that "we didn't ask you to do outreach to the consumers." The afternoon public session was largely consumed with discussion of Internet domain names. 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.
The trademark holders' lobby continues to oppose what it says is premature creation of new generic top-level domain names. The trademark lobbyists say that better domain name dispute resolution, and a more comprehensive "whois" database of registry information are needed first. Furthermore, they're pushing for a list of "famous marks" that would automatically be accorded trademark protection in any new domains. Besides those questions, DNSO working groups are also wrestling with the question of whether to create "specialized" domains, such as .union, that would be open only to certain registrants, much like the current reservation of .gov for government entities.
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 allowing governments a greater say in reassigning those domains' administration away from individuals and companies. In most cases, the administrators were granted their duties years ago by the late Dr. Jon Postel, who founded the Internet's numbering and addressing system.
Currently, assignments are handled by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.
In recent months, governments who are waking up to the lucrative potential of their country-code top-level domains have clashed with administrators, who don't necessarily operate with the best interests of the particular country's citizenry at heart. Last month, IANA reassigned rights for the .pn country-code top-level domain, assigned to tiny Pitcairn Island, after all but one of the island's residents asked for the transfer. This domain issue is a delicate one for ICANN, because it skirts close to making the organization an arbiter for decisions that many think should be handled internally between governments and administrators, who usually operate in the same country.
Nevertheless, cementing relationships with the GAC and country-code top-level domain administrators is high on ICANN's list of things to do to consolidate its own legitimacy. The ICANN board is scheduled to vote on the at-large election process at its meeting Friday. Although the board may decide to take the public advocates' advice to go slower, it will probably move ahead with the elections in some fashion.
That's because ICANN's interim nine-member board is still hoping to get at least partial relief by Sept. 30. In any case, ICANN is unlikely to scrap the concept of indirect elections altogether, because California, where ICANN is incorporated, allows members of an organization who are empowered to directly vote for the leadership to sue the organization over policy and procedural differences. And creating a class of an unlimited number of people with a new legal right of action against ICANN would paralyze the organization just as it begins to get off the ground.