ICANN reforms – Public out, Government in

A bit controversial, this one

ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

The Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers yesterday unveiled a "sweeping proposal for radical reform" of the organization, in which the current public free-for-all policy-making structure is replaced by one that has a heavy emphasis on international government involvement,

Kevin Murphy writes


The proposal, made by ICANN CEO Stuart Lynn, is designed to turn the internet addressing authority into an "agile, successful" body, ICANN said. But the fact that much of the direct policy-making powers held by the general public will be eliminated in favor of national government representation has many ICANN participants fuming.

"We've just had the equivalent of the president of the United States abolishing Congress," ICANN director Karl Auerbach said. Auerbach, who represents North American internet users, is one of five directors elected by the public at large in an online poll mid-2000. His seat would be eliminated under the Lynn proposal.

The proposal is not a way to kill dissent by the back door, however - ICANN is being very upfront about what it sees as mischaracterizations of its role and responsibilities. Lynn is characteristically blunt about how he sees the role of public discussion. His proposal takes a frank point of view over those who have turned ICANN into a "debating society... with too much focus on process and representation."

"ICANN is not an exercise in global democracy," he said in a press conference yesterday. "Some people would like it to be that, and they spend a lot of time worrying about that." His proposal blames the discussion-for-discussion's-sake parts of ICANN policy-making for the lack of participation of key interest groups, such as the bodies that operate the internet's country-code top-level domains and DNS root servers.

ICANN gets its authority from the US Department of Commerce, and all major decisions regarding the DNS root servers must still be rubber-stamped by the DoC. The Memorandum of Understanding between the DoC and ICANN stipulates that the organization must seek to sign contracts with these ccTLDs. The end goal of the MoU is to hand complete control over the root to ICANN.

"An ICANN process without the full participation of the 243 ccTLDs cannot accomplish its core objectives of privatization and internationalization," Lynn says in his proposal. The ccTLDs are organizations or companies that run domains such as .uk, .fr and .de. Many have been reluctant to get involved with ICANN due to funding and representation concerns.

Two recent instances where ICANN has managed to sign a cooperative agreement with a ccTLD - in the US and Australia - have both come about when control of the domain has been redelegated and ICANN, due to its secondary powers as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), has been able to enter negotiations with the relevant government.

Lynn was cagey about how much interaction ICANN staff had with governments before the proposal was handed to the ICANN board on Sunday, saying talks with governments are ongoing. But a spokesperson later confirmed rumors that ICANN's controversial outside counsel, Joe Sims of Washington DC law firm Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, met with the European Commission's Christopher Wilkinson and others in Brussels last week to present the proposal.

Under the Lynn proposal, the current board makeup would be scrapped and replaced with a 15-member Board of Trustees. Five "ex officio" trustees closely resemble the makeup of the current 19-member board. As well as Lynn, there would be one representative from each of four new Policy Committees which represent technical interests, as well as commercial interests such as registries and registrars.

Of the remainder, five would be nominated in an "open" process involving the public and a board-appointed Nominating Committee. And, controversially, five would be selected by national governments under a yet-to-be-decided system, likely to take one trustee from each of five geographic constituencies.

"The most evolved form of representation of the public interest is government,"Lynn said. These government-selected trustees would essentially replace the current publicly elected directors, and would likely be drawn from the ranks of non-policy-makers on the government payroll, such as civil servants and academics, Lynn said.

Director Auerbach dissents here (and on every other part of the proposal) and believes directors should be elected by and for the public. He told ComputerWire: "If one really were to believe the claim that governments are representative, then one would have to believe that governments would also represent the DNS registrars and registries within their borders, and other groups that ICANN's plan has carved out for special preference while, at the same time, axing any meaningful role for the public."

"Having online elections has become a goal in itself," said Lynn. "[People say] we need to have online elections because we need to have online elections." He said that online elections are "notoriously hopelessly flawed", as ICANN demonstrated mid-2000, when a pitiful turnout and allegations of a flawed system blighted what many hoped would be a landmark event in internet governance.

Although ICANN's role is ostensibly policy and technology oriented, rather than regulatory, its decisions have major effects on the domain name industry.

Companies involved in registering names, such as VeriSign Inc and Afilias Ltd, declined to immediately comment yesterday as they began digest the details of the proposal.

Elana Broitman, director of policy at Register.com Inc, said: "We commend the spirit in which the proposal is being made - making ICANN more efficient and effective. But we may have concerns with regard to some of the details... registrars and registries, which fund the majority of ICANN, are losing a portion of their voice/vote on the Board."

To a very large extent, the Lynn proposal is an admission of defeat - that ICANN has failed to operate as anticipated and needs rethinking. "A candid assessment of ICANN's performance to date would have to conclude that it has fallen short of hopes and expectations," Lynn said.

While few would disagree, stakeholders appear split on an alternative.

"If we're not effective, if we're not agile, then the alternative is an international treaty organization," said Lynn. His view is that if ICANN fails under its current or proposed structure, its role could be fulfilled by a treaty organization similar to the International Telecommunications Union, although this is not something he wants to happen.

Lynn was somewhat vague over when and how the proposal will be discussed and eventually decided upon. It will certainly not be during ICANN's next quarterly meeting in Ghana, Lynn said, as the organization has other pressing matters to deal with and the proposal needs to be digested and discussed for longer before a decision can be made.

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