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A Study on Public Participation in ICANN

John Palfrey

The following is an executive summary from the preliminary study by John Palfrey, Clifford Chen, Sam Hwang, and Noah Eisenkraft at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. This study considers to what extent the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has achieved its stated goal of a "representative" and "open" decision-making process.

An initial review of approximately 100,000 postings by members of the Internet user community to ICANN's e-mail lists and public online forums — indeed just a few of the several means of public participation in ICANN's decision-making process — showed that public commentary for or against a given proposal before the Board does not correlate strongly to an outcome either for or against that proposal. The data suggest that the Board has been more likely to rely heavily upon staff recommendations and upon the input of the Supporting Organizations, in which the public can also participate, than on broad-based input from the Internet user community.

In large measure because of the difficulty of assessing public involvement in the Supporting Organizations, it is unclear whether ICANN has been successful at collecting commentary that is representative of the Internet user community through its full range of user input methods. On some key issues, such as the reassignment of the .org domain and on specific Top-Level Domain extensions, Internet user community members posted very few substantive comments, despite the very large aggregate number of postings, to the public message boards.

In a parallel analysis of the Board votes at ICANN, we found that, of the 723 resolutions passed by ICANN, 597 were passed without a dissenting vote. Only 10 of the 42 directors in ICANN's history cast a single "nay" vote during their tenure on the Board.

None of the findings in this report bear on whether or not the ICANN Board made the right decision on any given issue from the perspective of fulfilling the technical coordination — rather than the procedural — side of its mission.

Based upon these findings and related evidence, we reach three conclusions:

1. ICANN's experimentation in new modes of corporate governance has broadly failed in terms of attracting and incorporating "representative" input from the global Internet user community, at least with respect to the public online forums. This failure underscores the need for an overhaul of ICANN's governance structure away from its semidemocratic past. Online message boards and public e-mail lists have proven extremely limited for ICANN as a means of engaging the global Internet user community in the decision-making process.

2. Regardless of the new structure adopted, ICANN should clarify the way(s) in which users can involve themselves in the decision-making process for managing the domain name system, at a minimum by indicating plainly the relative weight given to Supporting Organization input as compared to other forms of direct public input.

3. To the extent that we seek new means of governing the technical architecture of the Internet, we ought to look beyond ICANN, which may never have been the right place for such experimentation given its limited technical mandate. 

By John Palfrey, Executive Director & Lecturer on Law
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