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ICANN is the USSR of the internet - Karl Auerbach speaks out

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Interview Karl Auerbach, the last publicly elected board member at ICANN, has been involved with internet development almost since the inception of the internet itself, and served as North America's direct representative on ICANN's Board of Directors.

Always the iconoclast on the ICANN Board of Directors - and with the Lisbon meeting now squarely in the rear view mirror - we thought Auerbach would have some interesting things to say about recent developments at the controversial group that runs the internet we all know and love.

Could you tell us a little bit about your personal history before ICANN - I've been informed you helped develop the SNMP protocol?

I didn't invent SNMP. That honor (assuming it is an honor) goes to folks like Marty Schofstal and others. I was actually a fan of one of the alternative proposals for network management, a thing called HEMS. I did start one of the early SNMP companies, Epilogue Technology. And my wife runs the oldest (and, of course the best) SNMP testing company, Interworking Labs, which is where I work these days. I'm not involved with SNMP but, instead, with other products and projects.

Perhaps my main point of view regarding what I want to do for the net is expressed in my presentation (PPT) "From Barnstorming to Boeing - Transforming the Internet Into a Lifeline Utility" (speakers notes here (PDF)). I've long been interested in making the net a solid utility, and I have a great deal of sympathy for the folks who have to go out and fix things at 3am. I'm very interested in building tools for those folks.

But you did spend quite a bit of time developing internet architecture at Cisco before joining the Board at ICANN?

Back in the mid 1990s I was at a startup company and was the principal architect of a product we called "IP/TV". It was high quality audio/video over the internet. The company, Precept Software, was acquired by Cisco. Thus, I became a Cisco person and ended up in the Advanced Internet Architectures group. I'm not really a big-company person and, as you will note from the "Barnstorming to Boeing" paper, I tend to think of the net as a large distributed system. The model of many, perhaps most, Cisco people at the time was that that net is a collection of independent boxes. It became frustrating.

So when and how long were you on the ICANN board? What do you think of the way that ICANN has changed structurally over the years- there used to be a direct elections for board members?

ICANN - well, I've been associated with ICANN since before there was an ICANN. I was one of the Boston Working Group that submitted an alternative to the Jones-Day plan that NTIA had been running with and ultimately adopted (our original proposals are still up here).

I was elected in 2000 by the voters of North America. Compared to a US presidential election it didn't have all that many voters (although I did win by a larger margin than did the person elected President that year). And it was an election that was open to all people in North America. ICANN erased the board seats of the elected directors which is why I'm not on the board today.

It is impossible to overrate the system that ICANN substituted in lieu of the elections we had in year 2000. The current system, the ALAC, is designed to insulate ICANN from internet users and the ALAC's closest historical analogue is the system of village soviets, regional soviets, and supreme soviet that formed the "democratic" structure of the now defunct Soviet Union.

It is amazing how much ICANN resembles the old USSR. ICANN is very much like central bureaucracy that is drawing up five year plans for the internet. And like the USSR that had a never ending problem with getting the right products to customers, ICANN has warped internet innovation in the domain name space with enough red tape to choke a Godzilla or two.

I came onto ICANN's board about an hour after the infamous TLD beauty contest of 2000. That was when ICANN put 40 out of 47 applicants on hold (while granting such wonderful things as .pro and .coop) for reasons such as that one director could not pronounce "aye aye aye" (odd that, considering he came from the US Navy - I guess that third "aye" was just one too many).

By the way, ICANN is still stringing those 40 applicants along in limbo - neither denied nor accepted - and has been keeping their $2,000,000 in application fees. That does not strike me as ethical. I ended up spending much of my time on the ICANN board in my own bubble - other board members simply would not listen to anything I proposed. And I did propose several things. For example, on my very first day I proposed a DNS early-warning system that would watch DNS for problems so that we could react quickly. Inexpensive, easy, useful. But ignored. And when I went to do my duty as a director by taking a look at ICANN's financial status and operations - a right that under California law is "absolute" - ICANN blocked me and I had to sue. The case file is up on EFF's website.

I won, of course. But it wasted much of my term. I really annoyed other directors by not walling myself off from internet users. For example, I publicly recorded my thoughts and reasons about my votes on matters that came before the board.

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