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How to Listen to the Individual Internet User

Wendy Seltzer

The recent ICANN meeting in Vancouver touched upon many issues important to ordinary Internet users: privacy in domain name registration; the cost and terms of .com domain names; internationalized domains; introduction of new domain suffixes. But there were few "ordinary Internet users" at the meeting. Few people can roam the globe to keep up with ICANN's travels, and not many more participate in online forums.

This doesn't mean that individuals are unaffected by ICANN or uninterested. Collectively, individual users have substantial legal and financial interests in ICANN policies; they are clearly the most numerous affected class. However, they tend to have many diffuse interests, not one sharp connection. Unlike those whose businesses depend on ICANN-related issues, many individuals may not feel their personal stakes justify high-intensity involvement with the ICANN process. How, then, does ICANN listen to those voices?

So far, not well. This question has been plaguing ICANN from the beginning, when it established then tore down an individual voting membership. In place of votes for board seats, it gave at-large parties the ALAC, but ALAC has been struggling to be heard within ICANN and working to get in better touch with the individuals.

Why don't we hear more from the individual Internet users? First, we should dismiss the impulse to say "if they don't speak up, it must not matter." It matters to the individual if her web-hosting-plus-domain-name package increases in price without changing in service offered; it matters to the individual if he can't register a domain name for his weblog without making his address and telephone number public; it matters to the (non-U.S.) individual if she can't type domain names in her native character set. But all these users all have other demands on their time, and we need to convince them it's worth their time at least to tell ICANN/ALAC about their concerns. To do that, we need to be able to say that ICANN is listening — Not necessarily that every concern will lead to a change in policy, but that the aggregated concerns will at least inform policy discussions and form part of the "consensus" that's supposed to guide ICANN policy.

At the moment, I can't honestly encourage groups to join ALAC structures, but I can ask that they speak up so we can tell ICANN what it's failing to hear.

By Wendy Seltzer, Law professor
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Re: How to Listen to the Individual Internet User Danny Lee Younger  –  Dec 08, 2005 9:47 PM PDT

Wendy,

ICANN doesn't regard individual users as stakeholders in the ICANN process.  We have no representation whatsoever within ICANN — ICANN abolished the DNSO General Assembly, eliminated all at-large directors, closed down the "off-topic" forum, turned down an At-Large Supporting Organization proposal, and has refused petitions for GNSO constituency status for individual domain name holders.  I think that by now the community of individual users has learned to read the "NOT WANTED" sign. 

Users have voted with their feet, and now that participation is at an all-time low the ALAC actually wants us to speak up?  Having failed to fight for our representative rights, what is the ALAC now offering as an incentive for our enhanced participation?  Sadly, it has nothing to offer.

With regard to the ALAC, most of us still view the Committee as nothing more than a pathetic collaboration with the Board that serves to continue denying the at-large the representation that is our due.  It is a device designed to replace "representation" with a byzantine formula for "participation", and you wonder why you can't get in better touch with individuals…

The ALAC is a disaster just waiting to be put out of its misery.  To cite just the most recent example of the Committee's abysmal failure, while individuals came out in droves to vociferously comment on the proposed .com settlement agreement, not one single certified At-Large Structure could be bothered to submit a comment to the forum.

For that matter, in the last three years there has not been one single comment submitted by any of these 27 "certified" ALS entities on any topic whatsoever.  The ALAC is perpetuating a grandiose fraud, and ICANN continues to throw money down this useless rathole.

Wendy, if you really want to tell ICANN something on our behalf, tell them to dissolve the ALAC and to restore the representation stolen from the at-large in their "Reform" process.  You might also remind them that representation is one of the four cardinal principles delineated in the White Paper.

Re: How to Listen to the Individual Internet User Wendy Seltzer  –  Dec 09, 2005 2:58 AM PDT

Thanks Danny,

First of all, I should make clear that I was speaking for myself as an individual, and not for ALAC.  Second, and following that, I was not asking individuals to speak up through ALAC,but rather as they chose — as you do, through comments, websites, and mailing lists; for others, through weblogs; for others, through emailed comments; etc. 

In many ways I agree with you that the ALAC structure is failing individuals and their interests.  I said as much in ALAC's meeting with the ICANN board.  But rather than walk away leaving nothing at all, I'm trying to gather evidence for the case that there are better ways for ICANN to listen to individuals, and that it needs to hear those individuals to be recognized as a legitimate "multi-stakeholder" organization. 

--Wendy

Re: How to Listen to the Individual Internet User Milton Mueller  –  Dec 12, 2005 3:59 PM PDT

Wendy:
You identify a classic, well-understood problem in collective action: how do millions of people with a very small stake in a policy process defend their interests against a small number of large interests with very high, concentrated stakes in the outcome?

The answer is simple - it's just one that a lot of people don't want to hear. The answer is voting. Don't ask individual users to fly around the world, monitor all the twists and turns of a byzantine process, and otherwise spend 1000 times more time and money than a domain name is worth to them. Give them a vote. Let them express their preferences at minimal cost when they are motivated to do so, and ignore the process when they are not. Bring back At Large elections for a significant portion of the Board.

I have heard all the arguments against this, and basically they amount to the same risible point: that unless perfect representatives are elected through voting then voting itself is somehow bad. For example, one European interim ALAC member complains frequently that in the 2000 elections, Europe elected someone who didn't listen to him. Awwwww. However, 80% of the current Board members selected by Nomcom don't listen to anyone now, so that's hardly an argument that makes sense.

Re: How to Listen to the Individual Internet User Sebastian Ricciardi  –  Dec 27, 2005 9:55 AM PDT

Dear Wendy,

It would be great if you could provide practical examples on how "...ALAC has been struggling to be heard within ICANN...". We have been providing advice to the ICANN board on several topics, in many cases submitting our ideas to public comments, and we have participated in different groups (TAG, WIPO2AG, WhiosTF, etc.).

If you meant we are not getting the results one would like, that's another story, and it is the way consensus works.

I think every ALAC member acknowledge the need for improvement, and we are working towards a truly inclusive and participative mechanism. For sure, the status quo is much better than what we had before, when only a few were supposed to speak on behalf the individual user.

Cheers,

Sebastian

Re: How to Listen to the Individual Internet User Matthew Elvey  –  Jan 04, 2006 1:15 AM PDT

ICANN has all the legitimacy of The Party in Orwell's '1984', for all the reasons Danny so eloquently expressed.  It spends large sums of money doing things contrary to public interest.  You are just beating your head against the wall if you're trying to get ICANN to listen.

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