BOSTON (03/03/2000) - A plan to allow anyone worldwide with an e-mail address to vote for members of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) runs counter to the democratic process, could be subject to fraud or "capture" by special interests and is generally fraught with problems, according to a three-month study of the proposal.
The study, previewed today at a press conference, was conducted independent of ICANN by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) and Common Cause, which are both nonprofit groups based in Washington D.C. and focused on educational and lobbying efforts. The CDT and Common Cause solicited opinions from the Internet community and from experts in voting, elections and the democratic process.
"Nearly every member of the Internet community with whom we spoke, as well as respected outside observers, identified fundamental problems with the current plan," according to the report's executive summary released this morning.
"These problems are compounded by the fact that most of the electorate envisioned by ICANN does not know what ICANN is or what it does. In short, what we found is a proposed election process for ICANN viewed with almost uniform skepticism by informed observers."
The at-large ICANN membership push is aimed at giving individuals globally a voice in choosing directors for the group's board. Potentially, millions of people could vote in the election, but ICANN has stated that it needs a minimum of 5,000 registered global voters. At-large members will choose nine of the 19 ICANN board members, with the first of the at-large elections for directors expected by September. That election will be indirect because the at-large membership will first choose a council which will in turn select the board members, a situation that the study said could lead to "capture" by special interests or fraud.
The current ICANN board is to consider and adopt policies regarding the composition and structure of the at-large membership and consider rules for nominating and electing candidates for the at-large council at its meeting in Cairo next week, where the election report also is slated for discussion. ICANN was formed in September 1998 to oversee some Internet technical management functions, including the management of the domain name system (DNS), the allocation of IP (Internet protocol) address space, assigning protocol parameters and managing the root-server system.
A key problem identified in the study is that ICANN's mission is not clearly stated in its bylaws and documents located "all over the Internet," said Jerry Berman, the CDT's executive director.
"There is very little consensus about the mission of ICANN," he said at the press conference. "There is very little understanding of whether ICANN is a narrow technical mission; some people think it's going to be the new government of the world for the Internet ... Not understanding the mission makes it very difficult."
Also of significant concern is the fact that the election to choose the nine at-large board members will be carried out by a council rather than the broader at-large membership. The Markle Foundation, which funded the study and also is assisting ICANN with the election process, recruited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter's organization, the Carter Center, to offer its expertise culled from the experience of monitoring nominally democratic elections such as the recent voting in Indonesia. Common Cause also monitors U.S. elections.
"There is concern by us and certainly by many others that this board is subject to capture," Berman said. "There is concern that it's subject to capture by a small group of corporations, to a country, to an advocacy group bent on changing the way the Internet works for its own purposes."
It is possible that millions of people will register as ICANN members and voters and vote for "slates committed to board members who are high visibility who are not representatives of the interests of ICANN," Berman said. Though it's possible that directors chosen will be representative, "there's a big question mark," he added.
The CDT and Common Cause have been asked by the Markle Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes communication technology for the public good, to provide educational brochures regarding the election for the at-large membership. Asked during a question-and-answer session if the groups would promote a problematic electoral process, Berman and Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger said that they are hopeful that the problems with the plan can be worked out.
The study recommends the following measures be taken:
-- ICANN should define its mission so that its decision-making authority is limited and its work restricted to technical management issues. "ICANN must do a better job of explaining to the public what it can and cannot do, and make those limitations a clear and binding part of its structure," the executive summary suggests.
-- ICANN should create an independent election authority to establish election rules and to audit and monitor the election.
-- Those who choose the at-large board should include individual Internet users. Currently, the study supports keeping prospective membership open to anyone with an e-mail address as Internet users are those who will be affected by ICANN policies. However, the executive summary notes that the broad scope of possible members is "highly problematic."
-- The electorate should choose the at-large directors directly rather than through an at-large council. "Having an 'At-Large Council' choose the Board members diminishes accountability and both the reality and appearance of an open, inclusive, representative and democratic election," the study summary says. If an indirect election is used, some mechanism of accountability should be developed, the study says.
-- ICANN should create a candidate nominating process and campaign rules for putting names on a ballet.
-- ICANN should use some form of proportional representation voting for the at-large elections.
-- ICANN should periodically review its at-large membership and elections processes.
"Regardless of how the election proceeds, however, it must ultimately be viewed as a first experiment in democracy for this new technical management body," the executive summary says.
"We're not saying that this ought to be stopped. We're not saying that under no circumstances can this proceed," Harshbarger said at the press conference, adding that a democratic process should be the major concern rather than making certain the election occurs by September.
A text of the executive summary can be found at http://www.commoncause.org/icann/. The full report is to be posted there later today.
The CDT, in Washington, can be reached at +1-202-637-9800 or http://www.cdt.org/. Common Cause, in Washington, can be reached at +1-202-833-1200 or http://www.commoncause.org/. ICANN, based in Marina del Rey, California, can be found on the Web at http://www.icann.org/.