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ICANN. What? Who me?

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Esther Dyson, one of the key figures in the development of the commercial Internet, advisor to Al Gore, promoter of the Net in Eastern Europe and poster woman for the dotcom millionaires, went to massive lengths today to distance herself from the failures of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Despite having been a Founding Director, Dyson now says that her involvement in ICANN's development was actually very limited.

"I was peripherally involved", she claimed. "I went to a few meetings and we discussed a bunch of topics. but for my sins of negligence I ended up being invited to join the board of ICANN when it was created."

Dyson also attempted to downplay the importance of the first board of directors, of which she was a key member, saying "we were not supposed to be the final board. we were supposed to figure out the transition to the final board". She also acknowledged that many of the criticisms made were justified: ICANN was unaccountable, secretive and inefficient in its early days.

"ICANN is not perfect", she admitted, "and I'm not really here to defend it." However she did attempt to justify its continued existence, saying: "I'm a critic who thinks these things are hard to do and I can't see any other way."

The unexpected confessional may have been prompted by her current need to re-establish credibility with the net community as she works to develop proposals for getting ordinary users involved in the formulation of ICANN policy through the At Large advisory committee which she chairs.

"We want public input into ICANN", she said. "We've got a mechanism where it can have a seat on the task forces, liaisons to working groups, be part of the policy making process - I see that in many ways as more important than having a seat on the board." Others, of course, may disagree.

Dyson was speaking in the Oxford Union at a conference called 'The Politics of Code', jointly organised by the Oxford Internet Institute and the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Politics at Oxford University.

The one day conference brought together many net luminaries, including Professor Lawrence Lessig from Stanford University, Alan Davidson of the Center for Democracy and Technology and Harvard Alvestrand, chair of the IETF.

The goal was to debate two complementary issues: how program code controls our online behaviour, and how the net can be regulated by governments rather than companies.

Lessig, jet-lagged and miserable after losing Eldred vs Ashcroft, was entertaining but didn't say anything new. Fortunately the last session was enlivened by a witty contribution from CDT's Alan Davidson, who gave a talk which poked fun at the different cultures of the standards bodies ("In the Web Consortium you pay to play, everybody votes, then Tim decides. At the IETF you hum") while giving several good reasons why you should believe it when a lawyer turns up at a technical meeting saying 'I'm here to help.'

Then it was off to drinks in Oxford's delightful Ashmolean Museum, where the real work of the day got done as contacts were established, names put to email addresses and new alliances forged. Let's just hope the policy makers and lawyers get their act together before the pigopolist revolution is complete. ®

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