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Open Ends: Civil Society and Internet Governance - Part I

This is the first part of a three-part series interview by Geert Lovink with Jeanette Hofmann, policy expert from Germany, where she talks about her experiences as a member of the ICANN's Nominating Committee and her current involvement as a civil society member of the German delegation for the World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS).

Berlin-based researcher Jeanette Hofmann is a key player when it comes to German and European Internet policy. Late 2000 she briefly reached international media fame when she got elected as an ICANN at Large member. Besides her busy international agenda she is also a professor at the University of Essen where she is teaching governance-related issues. In this online interview Jeanette Hofmann talks about her ICANN experiences and her current involvement as a civil society member of the German delegation for the World Summit of the Information Society. I got to know her work in the mid nineties when Jeanette worked on an interdisciplinary research project that mapped the Internet as a set of technical, cultural and political arrangements.

GL: You recently published a paper (in German) called 'The Short Dream of Democracy on the Net.' Your conclusion is a rather sombering one. How would you describe the current situation related to ICANN? You state that nothing has been learned from the failed At-Large Membership experiment. Would you even go that far and see a backlash happening right now?

JH: The argument of my paper goes as follows: In the last decade, a growing number of international organizations have established cooperative relationships with [Non-Government Organizations] NGOs. There are two reasons why international organizations are willing to talk with NGOs. First, NGOs provide specific expertise. Second, international organizations are struggling with a widening democratic deficit deriving from the fact that international agreements are out of reach for most people. Those affected by international policies are unable to participate in the decision making process. Likewise, international organizations are not accountable to the people. Diplomats cannot be voted out of office when they act against the peoples' will. Cooperating with NGOs, however, makes international bodies appear more open, fair and thus legitimate. Civil society groups, on the other hand, are eager to get involved in international policy making because participation is seen as a first step towards substantial changes in international policies.

What looks like a win-win situation for both parties turns out to be problematic for civil society. Evidence from most policy fields shows that participation of NGOs so far doesn't lead to significant policies changes. ICANN's five At Large directors, for instance, had hardly any impact on ICANN's DNS policies. While cooperation between international organizations and NGOs may improve the reputation of the former, it clearly creates legitimacy problems for the latter. As soon as civil society organizations assume formal roles in international forums, their representativeness and legitimacy are also called into question. Ironically, NGOs are charged with the democratic deficit they once set out to elevate.

ICANN has been an excellent example of this mechanism. After the At Large directors' elections in 2000, ICANN's inner circle successfully challenged the legitimacy of both the At Large membership and the elections. Thus, most people today recall the ICANN elections as a complete failure. The elections were regarded as a disaster because they lacked, guess what, representativeness. Of course, the elections were unrepresentative! It is impossible in global environments to hold representative elections. As far as I remember, nobody ever expected the ICANN elections to be globally representative. Not even the governments in ICANN have succeeded in establishing a representative body with all nations participating in the Governmental Advisory Council. The same holds true for the Internet industry and the technical community. By and large, it is a tiny minority which really cares enough about Internet names and numbers to participate in ICANN. However, the lack of representativeness has been raised particularly as an issue with regard to individual users. The At Large membership was the only group of stakeholders, which was criticized and finally disqualified on the grounds of a lack of representativeness. Once disqualified as illegitimate, the remaining stakeholders happily agreed to kick individual users out of the ICANN board.

ICANN's organizational reform in 2002 thus put an end to the original idea of fair, equal participation of individual users in ICANN. A majority of stakeholders chose to get rid of the weakest stakeholder in the game. As a result, representation of individual users on the board has been reduced to one liaison person without voting rights. Seen from this perspective, ICANN's reform constitutes a backlash — for Internet governance in particular and for the notion of a democratization of global politics in general.

GL: Could you imagine that Internet governance will have to be drawn up from scratch? Are ICANN, but perhaps also bodies like the IETF beyond repair? You and others have tried so hard to reform ICANN from within. If you got a chance how would you start again?

JH: I have watched both organizations for several years. In my view, ICANN and the IETF are very different beasts. (I don't know enough about the Internet Society and therefore won't say anything about this body.) One crucial difference refers to the fact that the IETF is not a formal organization; it lacks any exclusive boundaries or membership criteria. Unlike most other standard setting bodies, the IETF regards itself open to everyone who wants to participate. There are no membership fees or similar means to select participants. By contrast, ICANN has spent a lot of time on defining its boundaries consisting, among other things, of admission and decision making procedures. While the IETF depends to a great extent on bottom up processes, ICANN at times seem to regard them as inevitable noise which lowers efficiency. The IETF cannot develop standards without active participation of its members, the Internet industry. The IETF thus needs to motivate those who are affected by its norm setting function. ICANN, on the other hand, works on the assumption that democratic bottom up processes are unnecessary. It is just technical coordination what ICANN says it is doing, not political decision making. Even if this were the case, it makes one wonder why technical standard setting bodies go through some effort to create legitimate decision making procedures.

As a result the reform efforts of ICANN and the IETF followed very different strategies. ICANN started with a reform proposal by its president, tasked a board member with its implementation and pursued a top down approach. The IETF chair founded a working group instead which was open for everyone to join. While the IETF initiated a process that sought to involve the whole community, ICANN followed an exclusive approach. To be sure, ICANN's supporting organizations were invited to comment on the various proposals put forward by the reform committee but the status of these comments remained unclear. The reform process failed to create more trust in the ICANN structure. Without trust, however, there is not much motivation for voluntary participation in a process such as ICANN.

Click to read Part II of the this interview.

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