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International government should oversee ICANN, says consumer rights crusader

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World governments should oversee ICANN to confine its influence strictly to the nuts and bolts of DNS registration, according to a draft proposal rolled out by legendary American crusader for the little guy, Ralph Nader, during a Washington conference on DNS issues this weekend. The proposal, by the Consumer Project on Technology (CPT) on whose behalf Nader spoke, calls for the creation of a "multilateral government charter" upon which ICANN's legitimacy would depend. Perhaps unfortunately worded in its present form, the CPT proposal would apparently limit ICANN oversight to those countries that "agree that ICANN's role should be limited to tasks essential to maintaining efficient and reliable DNS management", a stipulation which might have the ironic effect of disqualifying the US from influencing its own creation. The document makes no mention of how those sovereign governments which might wish to exploit DNS registration towards a more activist regulatory agenda could participate in ICANN oversight, or even make their views known. So much for the egalitarianism suggested by the word "multilateral". Apparently, "democracy" is to be limited to those who think liberally about a resource shared throughout the world. Aside from what may be its unintentional bias acknowledging only governments with laissez faire Net policies, or its bald-faced hypocrisy -- you be the judge -- the proposal includes stipulations for increasing the public's access to ICANN proceedings. This might take the form of enabling any and all Net users to vote on ICANN delegates and board members. "What I'm suggesting is there should be direct elections, by potentially millions of people," Nader said. Presumably this feat would be accomplished via the Web, a development which could eventually transform ICANN into a springboard for launching popular referenda. And perhaps that's not a bad way of tying up its resources: Nader may be hoping that once the Hoi Polloi get to mucking about with policy issues, the DNS will be in such a state of blissful disorganisation that regulatory activism will be impossible. ICANN interim chairwoman Esther Dyson listened patiently to an onslaught of criticism and accusations from speakers and spectators alike. She said nothing new in reply, but repeatedly assured all in attendance that ICANN is dedicated to limiting its own power to the minimum needed to function as a domain registrar. ICANN's chief business will be limited to IP addresses, protocols and the domain name system, she promised. This familiar assertion has been less than reassuring among Net activists. In particular, the power of arbitration over trademark disputes, which ICANN elected to give itself, rubs many stakeholders the wrong way. But Dyson sees the move as essential, and quite prudently limited: "We're setting up the procedures for arbitrating trademarks and domain names. We're trying not to become something that can be used as an arm of government, police, big corporate interests, or nutty people of all stripes. The goal of this organisation is to keep itself very limited," she repeated. By way of evidence, she pointed out that ICANN has responded to public criticism: closed meetings are now open to anyone who can afford to attend; and the proposal to levy a $1 surcharge on registrations, which was roundly attacked as a tax, has been scrapped. But ICANN's questionable pedigree, descending as it does from a memo of understanding between the US Commerce Department and Network Solutions, along with its unpopular first steps following incorporation, have tarnished its reputation and instilled suspicion among diverse interested parties. The little guy has scant confidence that ICANN will protect the Net from irreversible colonisation by mendacious mega-corporations, while Big Business frets that the organisation might interfere with its mission to tyrannise the Net and pervert its entire function to the promotion of commerce. It will take more than repeated assurances to convince the majority of stakeholders that ICANN will be a benevolent administrator of DNS resources. The organisation is unfortunately situated between two factions, both of which foolishly see the contest as a zero-sum game where an opponent's success is understood as one's own loss. But of course the Net is almost infinitely flexible by design, and the policies and restrictions imposed by one entity are easily skirted by another. There is virtually no limit to the top level domains that can be registered, and any fool can set up a router and begin providing some form of infrastructure service. As Cisco engineer Karl Auerbach pointed out, "ICANN is erecting a door in the middle of a field". One can fiddle with the bell-pull if one is so inclined, or simply walk around. ®

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