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Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table

Wendy Seltzer

I've finally recovered from another ICANN meeting, frustrated as ever. 700 or so people flew halfway around the world to hear canned presentations, dueling-monologue public form sessions, and resolutions that left major issues unresolved, and to gripe in the hallways about how little was being done.

Every time I talked to someone who had been away from the ICANN scene for some time and returned, I heard the same assessment: "It looks just the same as it did N years ago," for varying values of N. Yet many of us return nonetheless, I because I'm still trying to make ICANN responsive to the public interest.

I've been trying to explain why ICANN inspires such vigorous debate and loathing. ICANN is not about big issues. A domain name policy, even a perfect one, isn't going to cure cancer, or even bring connectivity to rural Africa. It's no surprise many in the GAC (Government Advisory Committee) complain about the difficulty raising understanding of ICANN issues with constituents who don't yet have reliable Internet access.

But the big issues are not on the table. Even the big issues of Internet connectivity — bridging digital divides, routing around private or government-imposed obstacles, network neutrality — are not part of ICANN's mandate or sphere of control. Thankfully. ICANN oversees allocation of IP address blocks, accredits domain name registrars, and decides what new top-level domains will enter the root zone.

Furthermore, most of the functions ICANN oversees "just work." Even if it doesn't seem "fair" that MIT has more IP addresses than many countries, by and large, those who need addresses get them. Domain names resolve uniquely. Independently designed protocols interoperate.

We're fighting over table scraps from a table that wasn't very well stocked to begin with. The fight for those crusts and bones gets even more vicious when the loaves and steaks aren't part of the debate, because we can't trade off more important issues in the bargaining.

The problem is that when it doesn't "just work," ICANN's "bottom-up" process is neither bottom-up nor effective to resolve the problems. Without big issues at stake, much of the general public can't be bothered to learn all of ICANN's acronyms and procedures to participate. Those who do are derided as kooks or edge cases. We're told that the telephone company doesn't want to hear from its customers (paraphrasing a comment by Board member Veni Markovski). 

ICANN's problem is that the table scraps of issues are still important. Certainly to those who have built businesses in ICANN-regulated industries, most notably domain name registrars and registries. But also to the general public. Lots of issues fall between out-in-the-street-protest important and negligible: the cost of domain names, the availability of domain names and new pools of domain names (TLDs), the ability of trademark claimants to take domain names from prior registrants.

ICANN's core values refer to the "Internet Community." That community is not just those with commercial interests, but especially those using the Net to communicate: the new blogger who wants a domain name to hang her weblog; the parent who wants an email address he controls; the critic who wants to criticize a business without having her home address and telephone number made public.

ICANN needs a better way to hear and respond to the public Internet community, but so far, there's little indication it's listening. Without the at-large public, this "private-public partnership" looks a lot like a conspiracy in restraint of trade

By Wendy Seltzer, Law professor
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Re: Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table Antony Van Couvering  –  Apr 14, 2006 2:20 PM PDT

The sad thing, Wendy, is not just that ICANN presents the same sad canned obfuscation every year. 

It's also that we hear the same complaints every year about how ICANN is sandbagging us with the same crap every year, with an aside about how long the flight was.

Aren't we all in a holding pattern? 

The only thing keeping ICANN together is the utter horror that an UN-style governance effort (e.g. WSIS) represents.  As bad as Vint and Paul have become, at least Robert Mugabe doesn't show up.

Re: Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Apr 15, 2006 3:34 AM PDT

Its not just that we see the same criticism and the same griping.  A lot of the commentary does seem either kooky, or edge case, or both. No surprise, given that most of the commentary is either

"I'm going to rant about you on my blog!!!!"

or

Snidely worded, with lots of "quotation marks" sprinkled into the text to make the attempts at sarcasm stand out even more clearly

That's the civil society and general watcher commentary.  The "stakeholder commentary" - nearly all of it - gets influenced by one commercial interest or the other.

Hardly any reasoned commentary at all, and precious little of what's around and available.

And with all due respect, just where do you expect an open mic session to be placed in a program? Its pretty standard that the last hour or so be open mic, for any other business, with Q&A sessions after each panel

And in case those commentators who refer to themselves as part of the "internet community" dont get it, the internet's grown rather larger and more amorphous than in the good old days that keep getting harked back to. More commercial interests, more people from completely different backgrounds - and far more complex governance processes.

That said, see what you can make of this book -

Internet Governance: Asia-Pacific perspectives
Editor: Danny Butt (Foreword by Nitin Desai)
© UNDP-APDIP, Elsevier, 2005, 155 pages
ISBN-13: 978-81-312-0110-7
ISBN-10: 81-312-0110-4

and downloadable at http://www.apdip.net/publications/ict4d/igovperspectives.pdf

Its rather more reasonably worded than a lot of the other criticism and commentary I've seen, I guess.  It might even make a couple of useful points that may be relevant in this discussion.

Re: Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table Wendy Seltzer  –  Apr 18, 2006 2:33 PM PDT

Antony — yes, and I'm trying to find ways for ALAC to break out of the holding pattern. If we haven't made progress by Marrakesh, we should all be kicked out.

Suresh — sure, there are plenty of viewpoints that don't add to the discussion, but there are other reasoned views that are often dismissed in the same breath.  The Internet may have grown more commercial, but that doesn't diminish ICANN's responsibility to the non-commercial users.  If anything, it increases the importance of efforts to reach them, since the commercial participants have other incentives to make themselves heard.

I haven't yet seen the Asia-Pacific volume, but I'll look for it.

Re: Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Apr 18, 2006 5:41 PM PDT

Even reasoned views may not take, if the tone is either mildly sarcastic or stridently critical :)

Yes ICANN should definitely hear from the Internet community at large.  But if the Internet community at large starts developing consensus on anything at all? 

Why, the people with that consensus are quite likely to form another association or organization, yet another on the long list of organizations that participate in the Icann process. 

The "internet community" as such doesnt exist any longer I'm afraid - its too large and amorphous to have any recognizable characteristics of a community any longer, there's way too much diversity (and that is, of course a good thing in a whole lot of ways, but bad if what this means is that you want to get broad based consensus for anything at all)

On the other hand what you do have is lots of articulate individuals with personal opinions - which are quite likely as good as, or possibly better than, any other opinions being aired in ICANN.

But well, knocking the ICANN process all the time (when people are not taking time off to knock the WSIS process) tends to drown any reasoned facts or opinions in the discussion.

I've seen some part of WSIS (at least the thematic meetings on spam and security, before Tunis), and I've seen something I've observed in the ICANN process, on a larger scale ..

WSIS has its clued and dedicated people just as it has its share of apparatchiks who have a solely political agenda.  And of course ICANN is immune to "used car salesman" variety people and vested interests, right?

Participating in the process to improve it always works far better than sitting on the sidelines (or in the hallways) with carping criticism and mordant blog posts.  And very very few critics of either ICANN or WSIS do more than just criticize it. Which is sad.

regards
-suresh

ps - the asiapac paper (with a lot of names you'll recognize credited for it) is at http://www.apdip.net/publications/ict4d/igovperspectives.pdf

Re: Fighting Over the Scraps from ICANN's Table Chris McElroy  –  May 17, 2006 8:38 PM PDT

What is sad is the fact that ICANN squashes any ability for the public to participate and even when it had some mechanisms in place it ignored the consensus and went the way it wanted to anyway.

I've been involved with working groups and the mailing lists. Been a member of the DNSO mailing lists and working groups, the General Assembly and now the GNSO mailing list.

No matter what users recommend or say it is ignored. ICANN never made a real effort to build a mechanism for public debate and get a lot of people to join. Too messy for them.

Name one decision ICANN ever reached that can be considered having come from a bottom-up consensus.

Why does ICANN continually ignore the need for more commercially viable TLDs as alternatives to dot com? See if you can answer that without going to the tired "stability of the Internet" argument.

You could add hundreds of new TLDs without threatening the stability of the Internet, yet ICANN continues to quote that garbage every time the subject is broached.

If there were TLDs that matched the classes that TM holder registered their marks in, it would reduce the volume of TM disputes by about 99%. A few TM holders have an interest in dot com being the only commercially viable TLD approved. It gives them rights to the string of letters they registered as a trademark that are way beyond what they were actually granted by the USPTO.

ICANN disbanded the General Assembly and the old DNSO because people did not just sign off on everything they wanted to do. There was dissent. Welcome to public debate and consensus building.

Those that have tried to participate have been marginalized so specific Board members can pursue their own agenda.

Too many moves by ICANN prove that they are not concerned with bottom-up consensus or individual users of the Internet. That deserves criticism especially from those that have tried to participate in the process.

Some of those people only have their blogs as an outlet for their opinions because ICANN won't pay attention to even the mechanisms they created to give the "appearance" of listening to the public.

What happened to the elections ICANN was supposed to have had many times over by now?

Rhetorical support of the way ICANN has been managing namespace doesn't change the fact they have done a very poor job.

Chris McElroy AKA NameCritic

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