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What ICANN Participants Have in Common with (and Could Learn from) Quakers

Graham Chynoweth

I. Introduction

Throughout my childhood, I was a practicing member of the Religious Society of Friends (the 'Quakers'). Now, for the first time, I am participating in an ICANN meeting (specifically, the 34th in Mexico City). While at first blush these to two experiences seem to have little in common, it is actually striking how much they are alike. I believe that the importance of these similarities is not the fact of their unexpectedness, but rather that to my mind my, participation in the relatively new institution of ICANN would be well served by an understanding of long established Quaker faith and practice.

The root of the similarity between the two is twofold. Firstly, it has to do with the nature of each Quaker's direct relationship with God and each user's direct relationship with the Internet. Secondly, it has to do with the collective decision making process that each group has chosen.

II. Devine Authority

When Martin Luther published To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation in 1520 he established the idea of a 'universal priesthood' in which all baptized Christians have a direct relationship with God that need not be intermediated by the Papacy. This protestant theology is deeply embedded in the Quaker tradition. As a result of this theology and the resulting notion of a direct relationship with God, each Quaker believes he can and should, upon proper reflection and prayer, claim divine authority for his actions and opinions. This claim on divine or righteous authority gives 'weighty' Quakers a deep and abiding belief and confidence in their opinions.

Given the non-religious nature of ICANN, I have found striking the similarity between the sense of confidence and, yes, righteousness, of ICANN participants and that of the Quakers I learned from as a youth. However, the more one thinks about the two, the less surprising this similarity becomes. The reason is that much like Quakers, the 'theology' of the Internet (or perhaps, in non-religious terms, its 'organizing philosophy') is based on the direct relationship between the individual and the whole and the authority derived from that participatory relationship. From its very beginning, the Internet has operated using this theology (with the idea of the 'RFC' as governing document being a prime example). Quakers are born into a direct relationship with God through baptism –Internet users are reborn into a direct relationship with the Internet thorough domain name registration. Thus, It is not a stretch to say that each Internet user can claim to be part of the Internet's 'Universal Priesthood' — each Internet user is just as connected to the Internet as any other and in a moral sense, the authority each user derives from this connection is the same as well.

What this sense of righteous authority meant for Quakers was that it was very, very difficult to justify a top-down authority structure. For ICANN, it seems to have meant the same thing.

III. The 'Consensus' Based Approach

The second similarity between my ICANN and Quaker experiences is the consensus based nature of their respective decision making processes. This morning I participated in a meeting concerning the development of working groups as part of the policy development process. In that meeting, there was much discussion about how the chairs of such working groups should lead and what it meant for a working group to reach 'consensus.' However, the meaning of this word 'consensus' was not well defined (and was not well defined in any ICANN document I was able to find after a moderately thorough review).

Into this absence of certainty a participant in the session fed his group's (W3C) definition of the term: "Consensus: A substantial number of individuals in the set support the decision and nobody in the set registers a Formal Objection. Individuals in the set may abstain. Abstention is either an explicit expression of no opinion or silence by an individual in the set. Unanimity is the particular case of consensus where all individuals in the set support the decision (i.e., no individual in the set abstains)."

Taking this as a rough proxy for ICANN approach to the meaning of the term, I was struck by the similarity to the Quaker understanding of the word 'consensus' (or more specifically the 'Sense of the Meeting') I experienced as a child. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends has expressed the Quaker 'consensus' process in this way: "Our search is for unity, not unanimity. We consider ourselves to be in unity when our search for Truth is shared; when our listening for God is faithful; when our wills are caught up in the presence of Christ; and when our love for one another is constant. A united meeting is not necessarily all of one mind, but it is all of one heart.”

IV. What it Means for My ICANN Participation

To my mind there are two lessons that I can draw from the realization of the similarities between my early faith and the ICANN experience. The first is that, so long as my belief is well and truly founded in my direct experience with the Internet, my voice can be as much a source of authority as that of any other person. Put another way — the Internet has no Pope. The second is that I must use this authority wisely in the context of group decision making for righteousness can easily become self-righteousness and thus the truth that comes from a consensus decision be obscured. Put another way — there is no substitute for knowing when to say when.

By Graham Chynoweth, VP Busniess Operations & General Counsel, Dyn Inc.
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One heart The Famous Brett Watson  –  Mar 01, 2009 1:42 AM PDT

Part of the trouble with ICANN and domain name policy in particular is that the popularisation of the Internet has meant that there will nevermore be "one heart" on the subject of domain names. There are at least three competing sects, with conflicting ideologies. Traditionally, domain names were simply a technical measure, and all was well with the world so long as the technology worked. Then domain names became potentially valuable assets, and this brought in the sect who see domain names as being primarily objects of trade. This competing ideology was almost sufficient in itself to drive a stake through the heart of consensus, but the attraction of money also brought with it the regulators: those who see domain names primarily as objects of legislation, and a means to regulate human activity. The resulting three way conflict of "don't care so long as it works", "don't care so long as I'm rich", and "don't care so long as I'm calling the shots" means that consensus is dead, buried, and rapidly decomposing.

Try to find a policy set which satisfies all three sects. Pay close attention to the fact that multiple people want to be rich and/or in control. For extra credit, bring peace to the middle east.

Graham Chynoweth reaches back to his childhood Steve DelBianco  –  Mar 01, 2009 5:05 PM PDT

Graham Chynoweth reaches back to his childhood experience and draws some interesting parallels between the Quaker faith and the mystical methods of ICANN.  However, to really make the most of the religion analogy, let’s set the way-back machine to sixteenth century England – during the time of Henry the 8th – that’s where you’ll find a closer match: between ICANN and the Catholic Church of Rome.

Like the Catholic Church, ICANN draws its legitimacy from hallowed texts: “Thou art Peter", says the New Testament, "and upon this rock I will build my church”.  And while ICANN today may be about as old as the Catholic Church of St. Peter’s day, ICANN’s Peter sits at the head of well-organized church whose coffers are overflowing.  Importantly, as in Henry’s England, there’s clear trouble brewing today from kings who don’t care to be subject to any Church.  At risk is nothing short of the breakup of the today’s church – the potential of a divorce between ICANN and some of its key constituencies. 

In the controversies I heard today at the ICANN meeting in Mexico City, national governments are sounding more and more like England’s King Henry VIII.  Some kings have already set up their own church, as China did by adding their own top-level domains within their borders.  Other kings (or governments) have suggested they will be glad to split the church further if they don’t get their way on several key issues: 

Will governments sign operating agreements for ccTLDs?  Only if the agreements are ‘voluntary’. 

Will ccTLDs adhere to technical standards?  Perhaps, if it is convenient for the governments in question. 

Should governments pay fees to ICANN?  To the extent that they want to pay, we’re told.  But very few governments pay any ICANN fees today.

And what about IDNs in new TLDs?  Governments want to launch when they’re ready, without concern for IDN versions of generic top-level domains.

Finally, governments are insisting on control over territory and place names in both top-level and second-level domains.

When faced with a similar dilemma, the Catholic Church held firm to its doctrine.  And King Henry and England went their own way.  Apart from some nasty early scuffles, the Catholics and Anglicans co-exist peaceably today.  But what is ICANN going to do when faced with the same dilemma?  Let the kings go their own way, or give-in to government demands to water-down doctrine in the name of church unity?  Nobody knows what today’s schism might bring for Internet users around the world, but whatever happens, this is more than an abstract theological debate. 

Stay tuned....

Quaker queries Mitchell Santine Gould  –  Mar 01, 2009 10:59 PM PDT

I'm glad to see that readers are considering your post thoughtfully, in the spirit it was written, since engineers can be a pretty skeptical bunch.

I'll add my thoughts, as a person of faith, but clearly at the risk of detracting from your real point, which is to hold up a model of cooperation among competing interests.

The first thought is that both evangelical and unprogrammed Friends may question whether you've overlooked something vital when describing consensus-building in Friends polity. They emphasize that their goal is something beyond consensus. Getting the sense of the Meeting invites Divine guidance, which can be beyond human understanding. Isn't it hard to import THAT into an engineering summit? (On the other hand, it's worth pointing out that a few bona fide unprogrammed Friends are also card-carrying atheists, yet share the same respect for Divine guidance.)

Second, I was confused by your reference to Quaker baptism. I thought I knew a little bit about evangelical Friends, but I assumed all flavors of Quakers felt that the term "Quaker sacraments" was an oxymoron.

Quaker Baptism Graham Chynoweth  –  Mar 02, 2009 12:47 AM PDT

Mitchell,

Thanks for you comments. 

With regard to your first point, my goal was not to conflate, but to analogize, the engineer's experience at ICANN and the Quaker's at church.  Where Quaker's seek divine inspiration to guide them in their action, I would hope that engineer's seek inspiration from their understanding of the true purpose and power of the Internet to guide them in theirs.

With regard to your second, it is true that Quakers reject outward observances of the sacraments.  However, the notion of 'baptism' is not foreign to Quaker faith and practice. Moreover, my purpose in including the reference to 'baptism' was to evoke the sources of extra-individual anointment through which Quakers and Internet users derive their authority.  While this may be a bit into the 'weeds', the following excerpt provides some context for the Quaker approach to the idea of baptism:

'The absence from Friends' worship of the outward observance of the Lord's Supper, water baptism, and other sacraments emphasizes the reality of inward experience. Friends are aware of the power of a true, inward baptism of the Holy Spirit; in meeting for worship at its best they know direct communion with God and fellowship with one another.' (Taken from the Faith and Practice of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting)

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