net.wars: Why I am standing for the ICANN board
by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 28 July 2006
Like many of the Net's founders and creators, I am an idealist: I want the Net to remain as free and unfettered as possible, avoiding the twin dangers of stagnation and disintegration, both of which are possible outcomes of poor management.
ICANN's job is nominally to provide technical oversight of naming and addressing, but it is impossible to consider these issues without making what is essentially public policy. Governments, corporations, technologists, and lawyers have an important role to play, but they are not the only stakeholders, and it seems to me that Net users and consumers are insufficiently represented.
I believe I can help represent that point of view. I also believe increased representation of that point of view is necessary. The uniform dispute resolution procedures, for example, are generally considered to be disproportionately weighted in favor of large corporations at the expense of the very small businesses and individuals that the Net is supposed to empower.
The Internet was famously decentralized to withstand a bomb outage. Even so, from the earliest days there have been a number of benevolent dictators who guided the development of specific areas or applications. It is to some extent unavoidable that assigning unique identifiers ? names, numbers, and ports ? must be handled by one or more central authorities. The most visible aspect of this, the Domain Name System, for all that it has scaled well since Paul Mockapetris devised it in the 1980s, is a single, central point of failure managed by an organization that no one understands and few people trust.
The lack of trust is partly unavoidable. ICANN's predecessor, Jon Postel, was a rare man whom almost everyone trusted. Had Postel lived, he might have been able to act as a guarantor of the fledgling ICANN and been able to transfer some of that trust. After his untimely death and in his absence, it was inevitable that Netizens would treat any new authority with suspicion, especially since many had already vehemently rejected the earlier proposed gTLD-MOU that was widely interpreted (however incorrectly) as a "coup".
But much of today's distrust was not unavoidable. Despite ICANN's insistence that it is an open and accountable organisation, observer after observer has complained that, while portions of its official meetings are public, decisions are in reality made behind closed doors, often in advance.
While I appreciate that the changing meeting venues are intended to avoid giving an unequal advantage in attendance to any one nation or group of nations, the meetings' peripatetic nature make it hard for observers without significant funding to attend on any regular basis. Therefore, it is even more crucial for ICANN to engage the Internet community at large on questions of policy and direction. The decision to do away with elected At-Large board members was widely perceived to derive from a dislike of the electoral results; that, too, has made ICANN look secretive and unaccountable.
The past cannot be changed, but the future can. ICANN has frequently stated that it intends to be publicly accountable and open, and perform its duties of technical oversight by consensus. But because "code is law", technical decisions have public policy consequences. "Technical oversight" is an incorrect description unless ICANN's mission becomes the janitorial role of merely implementing technical decisions made by others (a role to which some have argued it should be constrained).
ICANN's latest strategic planning statement (PDF) expresses no such intent. Instead, it says, "The continued evolution of the Internet, especially the DNS, brings with it an increasing number of policy issues of ever increasing complexity that need to be decided through the ICANN process."
But as a policy-making body ICANN has the endemic structural problem of lacking the checks and balances that constrain a democratic government's behavior.
Admittedly, technology moves fast and democratic deliberation takes time. As long as ICANN is tied to the Department of State, there is at least some small measure of democratic oversight. WSIS, for all its flaws, is made up of representatives of democratically elected governments. Other technical bodies, such as the IETF, make technical policy by opening their meetings and allowing full participation; technical merit gets you heard. The early Internet made history for its openness, using RFCs to suggest, not impose, technical changes.
As ICANN's strategic plan itself recognises, this is a key moment in ICANN's history: if it is to become independent it must find a way to become truly accountable. It would be a betrayal of every principle on which the Internet was founded for the Internet's most important single point of failure to be completely controlled by a self-selecting body whose inner deliberations and functioning remain obscure.
In these latter days, it is hard for anyone who is not, as I am not, a programmer (or lawyer) to make significant contributions to the Internet's development. The Internet in its many aspects has been my main focus as a London-based journalist since 1991. I continue to make that choice because I want to help push Internet policy and development in what I feel are the right directions: toward openness and experimentation, away from closure and control.
I believe that serving on the ICANN board would be a logical continuation of my work over the last 15 years.
P.S.: I also really love to travel.
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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).
net.wars: Why I am standing for the ICANN board