November 17, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—I think the august and sagacious board members of ICANN—a new corporation set up to handle names and numbers on the Internet—didn’t know quite what to make of the fractious but intensely articulate crowd of 300 that attended their first open meeting this past Saturday. News reports have emphasized the criticism, accusations, and demands heard from the floor. But many of us were struck by how polite and restrained the attendees (including myself) were, given the contention and sourness that lay along our path to this historic occasion.

On a raised podium sat seven to eight of what has been called the Initial Board of the corporation—heads of companies and non-profit organizations with years of managerial experience and in some cases an impressive technical background. During the day, as they ventured more and more to speak their minds, they clearly demonstrated their knowledge of organizations and political processes, as well as their desire to understand what the users before them wanted.

Filling the rest of the room to very edges was a broad range of technical and business people, some of whom had traveled over 24 hours through multiple time zones to make it to that day’s meeting. Most of those who spoke had interacted many times before, if only online. They had forged a far-flung and hard-won community called the International Forum on the White Paper, formed to build this new corporation through a consensus process that involved several meetings around the world plus the most unrelentingly high-traffic mailing list I have ever been on.

The IFWP participants were angry, to be sure. In meetings and on mailing lists, they had joined the dance to form a new corporation in good faith. They learned in turn the quadrille of picking through legal minutiae and the no-holds-barred polka of rumor-mongering and letting accusations fly.

But no dancers like having the rug pulled out from under them. And that’s what happened when one key constituent—the Internet Assigned Number Authority, which currently manages some of the systems to be turned over to the new corporation—started releasing draft proposals for a new corporation without going through the open process.

At the end, IANA left behind even its erstwhile partner Network Solutions, the company managing the largest domains, and presented its proposal for a company named ICANN to the government by itself. This final proposal, like the many drafts proceding it, failed to meet several consensus points developed in IFWP meetings and reflected only a few of the repeated criticisms leveled against earlier drafts.

The proposal came with ready-made set of initial board members purportedly selected by a single person, Jon Postel. (Dr. Postel was a key administrator of Internet numbers, and died tragically of an illness during the final proposal period.)

Even more upsetting to IFWP, the Commerce Department accepted the proposal, effectively discarding several others. To be sure, the press release accepting the proposal put in some verbiage about incorporating changes suggested by IFWP participants. But they were couched in such vague language—"We strongly recommend that you review and consider…" in one place, and "We hope that ICANN is prepared to address the concerns" in another—that the corporation could slide by its responsibility just as easily as IANA had ignored most criticisms during the proposal process.

At first, the IFWP dissidents were loath to accept the facts on the ground. As late as the evening before the Saturday meeting, suggestions were floating around for a lawsuit or pressure for Congressional intervention to halt ICANN in its tracks.

Yet there was some harbingers of hope too. The new chair of the ICANN board—noted author and business consultant Esther Dyson—joined the IFWP list and stressed that the board wanted an open process.

And actual concrete movement was visible on one major issue: that of representation for Internet users in the new corporation. Whereas the proposal leading to the formation of ICANN waffled, the initial board announced that they wanted a membership and an elected board.

So on Saturday, the participants realized that there was nothing to be gained by stonewalling and possibly a good deal by voicing concerns respectfully. And so we heard many suggestions that day, some familiar and some rather novel, some from old-timers and some from unknowns.

Being a brief getting-to-know-you meeting, it produced no firm policies, but only a sense of potential for ongoing discussion. The issue of how to define membership, too complex to be solved in a day, will be turned over to an advisory group that will accept suggestions. This handing-off does not impress me, actually, because it continues a process of devolving difficult decisions to lower and lower levels.

Closely related to the membership question was fear that the corporation could become a tools of deep-pocketed companies. More than one speaker begged, "Don’t let ICANN become like the telecom industry."

Financial considerations led to some tension. But there are so many important matters under the control of the new corporation, and so many ways to raise money, that the important question is not how to fund the corporation but how to avoid using fees or dues to exclude segments of interested users.

The most contentious part of the day came near the end when transparency was discussed. The by-laws simply promise to post minutes of all meetings. Several people in the audience suggested transcripts and even the the broadcasting of board meetings.

These may well be unfeasible, as board members insisted, because serious negotiations require some privacy. Many in the audience were audibly incensed to hear about hints of back-room horse-trading—but I’m sure many of them run private companies and appreciate the need for secrecy in their day jobs.

The solution to transparency probably lies half-way between the extremes suggested in the by-laws and those of the most radical attendees. Certainly, it is reasonable for the public to know how elected board members have voted, even though the board strongly resisted that suggestion. Furthermore, the oft-suggested ombudman or neutral reconsideration board would be an important addition to the corporation.

A wide cultural gulf exists between the people on the podium Saturday and the ones on the floor. I’m not talking about nationality or language—everyone agrees we need even more diversity in those areas. I’m talking about one’s approach to people and decision-making.

The members of the ICANN board are highly responsible men and women running large organizations (some of them multi-million-dollar companies). They are clearly used to top-down management: listen to all sides, go away and make a decision, come back and promulgate it.

The people in the audience have become comfortable with email lists and peer-to-peer discussions. They want everything out in the open, and righteously nail anyone who is discovered to conceal anything. The two cultures will not mix easily.

While asking for our trust, board members repeatedly claimed that they would remain fair and accountable "because you’re watching us like a hawk." But there is fear among some audience members that public scrutiny will fall off over time—especially if the main initial questions are solved—and that a different type of predator will win out: special-interest groups with the resources to pay for membership and send representatives.

I think most of the audience would have been happier if the board could have said something on Saturday like, "We know the process that led to us being here was all effed-up, but we want to start over and make it right." They are not the sort of people to talk so bluntly. Apparently they disagree in any case.

The board’s defensiveness about their right to make decisions suggests that Internet users will continue to see stonewalling and vague promises of openness. The board may, in the end, do the right thing. But how or why they do it, we will probably never know.

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