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ICANN at Large Shanghais The At-Large Conversation

Bruce Young

On October 28, as ICANN met in Shanghai, China for its regular board meeting, ICANN at Large held a lengthy meeting to address user concerns, particularly the disenfranchisement of the At-Large by ICANN, and the At-Large's self-organizing in response. The meeting was chaired by YJ Park, one of our Executive Panel Members, and was well attended. Attendees included the following:

Izumi Aizu, Executive Panel Member, ICANN at Large*
Sarita Bhatt, US DoC, NTIA
Roger Cochetti, VeriSign
Rob Courtney, Center for Democracy and Technology*
Peder Cristvall, Swedish Post Telecommunication Agency
Keuwth Cutin
Esther Dyson, Edventure*
Chun Eung Hwi, PeaceNet*
Ahash Kapur, Programme in Comparative Media Law & Policy at Oxford University
Dorothy Kidd, University of San Francisco
Kathy Kleiman, Internet Governance Project, Association for Computing Machinery*
Norbert Klein, Open Forum of Cambodia*
Wolfgang Kleinwachter, NETCOM Institute
Denise Michel, At-Large Organizing Committee
Desiree Miloshevic, Afilias*
Andy M�ller-Maguhn, Chaos Computer Club/Elected ICANN Board Member*
Nii Quaynor, Africa Network Operators Group/Elected ICANN Board member
Thomas Roessler, FITUG/DNSO GA*
Ron Sherwood, ccTLD VI*
Marlyn Tadros, Virtual Activism
Stephan Verhest, Markle Foundation

* denotes an ICANNATLARGE.ORG member.

(Note: this narrative was transcribed from meeting notes taken by YJ Park.)

Some interesting comments came out of this meeting:

Andy M�ller-Maguhn, one of the five ICANN board members elected by the At-Large in 2000, discussed his experiences while on the board. Andy reminded the attendees that the ICANN board, as suggested in the original bylaws, was supposed to be balanced between users and providers, with nine directors elected by the At-Large, and nine elected by the ICANN Supporting Organizations.

During his tenure as one of five At-Large elected directors, Andy was concerned that At-Large members expected him to be more of a "loyal opposition" to counter the industry-backed board. Instead, he felt it was better to participate constructively, and thereby hoped to gain some influence on the eventual outcome and make sure user interests were mentioned. However, intellectual property issues dominated the process very early, while freedom-of-speech and privacy interests were often left out. He also noted that the real power resided with the CEO, staff, and lawyers, and that real discussions usually occurred during evening dinner "conspiracies," not during the public board sessions. He was concerned that that balance was still missing, and that U.S. government decisions seem to be influenced more by industry lobbies than by civil rights groups.

Nii Quaynor, the other At-Large-elected ICANN board member present, noted that he comes from a community in Africa not likely to be represented by the more powerful constituencies of the Domain Name Supporting Organization (DNSO). His challenge was finding participation mechanisms for his constituents, but he faced strong legal, fiscal, process, and system barriers: sometimes he couldn't even get a visa! He emphasized that geographic diversity is crucial, including within the ICANN staff, and that his constituents are more comfortable with small changes. But he noted wryly that expected small "tweaks" often turned out to be big, fundamental changes, which were hard for his community to keep up with, and he hoped that in the future the board wouldn't change too many variables at the same time.

The most interesting exchange occurred when attention turned to the Governmental Advisory Committee, which ICANN has positioned to represent users, in place of the At-Large, since the At-Large represents elected governments. There was talk of getting nongovernment organizations, rather than diverse groups of individuals, represented within the structure, in the same fashion that intellectual property representatives are represented.

However, a question was raised to Sarita Bhatt, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who was participating in the meeting: after noting that the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the NTIA and ICANN was vague, Sarita was asked for comments about U.S. government thoughts on its legitimacy. Sarita responded that the MoU is about getting user groups more involved, that it is not a blanket policy, and that Assistant Secretary Victory met with many groups over the course of the reform process to come to its conclusions. Sarita noted that the NTIA can't fix ICANN's problems and is not involved in ICANN's corporate governance. ICANN has one year to fix itself, and it's up to ICANN and its constituencies. The current bylaws are a step in the right direction, but lots of changes are pending, and the NTIA is open to listening to many entities.

Esther Dyson argued that she has been involved with that kind of negotiation in the past, and noted that ICANN could "cut off VeriSign's air supply," but never will, nor will the U.S. government. However, the U.S. government can impose conditions on its renewal. The right amount of pressure needs to be applied. Sarita agreed, and reiterated that the Department of Commerce had set the MoU for only one year, and included specific provisions for tasks ICANN must complete. Meanwhile, she said, a number of people are looking at other options. She noted that Assistant Secretary Victory is very strict and has a new way of looking at ICANN, and that a different U.S. administration is in place from the one that was in place when the first MoU was signed.

Nii Quaynor commented that involvement by just one government may be part of the problem, and that including more international organizations would level the playing field. He also suggested it might be better to have a "network of networks" instead of individual participation.

Roger Cochetti from VeriSign asked to clarify his company's perspective about the At-Large. He said that VeriSign has an interest in seeing At-Large elections revived. For VeriSign, this is an accountability issue, and has less to do with democracy per se than with the fact that openly elected directors need to openly explain what they did, and why. He went on to say that elections are a powerful tool to enforce accountability, and that his company believes that some percentage of the board should be elected. His company has financially supported At-Large efforts, and in a statement to the ICANN Evolution and Reform Committee (ERC) a few days prior, he had mentioned that one of the committee's mistakes was removal of elected board members in favor of a "closed-circuit" nominating committee approach, which reduces accountability of board members. He concluded that the At Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) doesn't do too much harm, but was irrelevant to his company's objectives.

If nothing else, this meeting underscored the fact that there is still no clear vision, within or without ICANN, as to how the At-Large should be structured or accommodated. But it is clear, at least to most of us in the At-Large and many of the meeting attendees, that the lack of balance, resulting from ICANN's rejection of a countervailing user voice on the ICANN board, has led to most of ICANN's problems.

As recent events in the financial world have shown, the lack of appropriate checks and balances, particularly when profit is to be made, results in opportunities for those in positions of authority to abuse their office for the profit of themselves and their friends, at the expense of the company as a whole and the shareholders they supposedly serve. So it is with ICANN, except that in this case the "shareholders" are the millions — potentially billions! — of Internet users on whose behalf ICANN should be governing the public resource called the Internet in a manner that properly balances their needs with the needs of those who profit from its operation. Furthermore, unlike Enron and WorldCom, if ICANN fails in its charge — if it continues to cede valuable rights to Internet industry friends profiting from the net's operation, and to accommodate corporate interests more interested in protecting and expanding intellectual property rights than in ensuring freedom of speech and fair use — what little legitimacy ICANN still retains will be lost. And unlike Enron and WorldCom, whose shareholders lost "only" money, we Internet users potentially stand to lose our freedom of speech, our privacy, and an equal-opportunity network on which to communicate. We owe it to our posterity to ensure that this never happens. The best way to do that is to revive a strong user-controlled influence on the ICANN board that will counter Internet industry and corporate influences.

By Bruce Young, Senior Desktop Support Analyst
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