ICANN without restraints: the difficulties of coordinating stakeholders

People interested in coalitions and policy-making on a global
scale–topics that are increasingly relevant in a world whose borders
are irrelevant to carbon dioxide, flu viruses, and other critical
entities–need to learn from other organizations that are dealing with
these issues. This week brings particularly important news about the
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers (ICANN)
which has been making policy for eleven years under a number of
difficult premises:

  • It was created hastily and arbitrarily without roots in the
    communities most interested in its mandate.

  • Its concept of stakeholders is boundless, potentially involving anyone
    who uses the Internet or gets information that has passed at some
    point over the Internet.

  • Its reach is global, and its decisions are affected by issues of
    language and culture.

Those in charge of ICANN have compounded these intrinsic problems with
poor decisions and bad leadership. But ICANN is currently undergoing
one of its regular reorganizations. Hopes were on the rise that it
may overcome the barriers I’ve listed as well as its own history–at
least till this week.

On September 30, the U.S. Department of Commerce, which is
ICANN’s publicly accountable overseer, announced the most important
decision affecting ICANN since its founding: the U.S. government will

give up its role as overseer

and make ICANN independent.
ICANN’s missteps in the past pushed the Commerce Department to
seriously consider revoking ICANN’s authority. But that can never
happen now.

Instead, a body called the Governmental Advisory Committee provides
input to be heeded or ignored by ICANN, at its option. And because
this committee is so diffuse, its members possessing different
interests and agendas, one can hardly imagine them coming together to
strongly voice opposition to a controversial ICANN decision.

Reactions among Internet observers also indicate that this
unprecedented assignment of authority was handled in secrecy, which is
an odd way, to say the least, for a government agency to carry out a
critical policy.

Therefore, the questions that ICANN’s history raises about governance
and participation become even more relevant.

The stakes for ICANN and its stakeholders

From October 25-30, at ICANN’s regular
meeting in Seoul,
board members will meet with representatives of its noncommercial
users constituency (NCUC) to consider a proposal to improve relations with
these communities. The non-commercial users constituency is an umbrella for a
wide range of interested parties, ranging from political action
organizations and academic researchers to artists and journalists who
use the Internet for distribution and collaboration.

To some extent, the non-commercial users constituency is the soul of ICANN,
where the domain-name registrars and registries are its machinery and
the commercial users constituency its fuel. ICANN needs all these
constituencies–now they’re being renamed “stakeholder groups”–but
they are currently way out of balance.

Robin Gross, a long-time volunteer activist with the NCUC, described to
me a regulatory environment on ICANN that is all too familiar to
people working for the public interest in other settings. The other
three stakeholder groups pay experts to work full-time on ICANN
issues; these experts travel to all the meetings and are on a
first-name basis with the board and staff. In contrast, the NCUC is
cobbled together from volunteers having different interests and
backgrounds, often struggling to fund a single representative at
official gatherings.

It should be pointed out that the four stakeholder groups work through
just one branch of ICANN–but an important branch that deals with the
issues of most interest to ICANN observers, the top-level domains such
as .com, .org, and .edu. This branch of
ICANN, called the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), is the

focus of the current reorganization

The source of hope lies in the increased role assigned to the NCUC
within the GNSO. (Spend just a couple more hours learning about ICANN,
and you too will start eliminating natural language from your speech
in favor of abbreviations.)

GNSO was originally made up of six constituencies. The NCUC used to be
one of them, and commercial interests encompassed three. Now that the
GNSO is made up of four stakeholder groups, one of which corresponds
to the NCC, non-commercial interests seem to have a correspondingly
larger footprint. But even though only one stakeholder group is now
officially commercial, it has far more in common than the NCC does
with the registrars and registries (all businesses, of course) to
which the other two stakeholder groups are dedicated. So the
non-commercial interests are still a minority, not to mention a poor

Having made some progress and been acknowledged as an important set of
stakeholders, the NCUC is focused now on the question of how their
representatives will be elected. I won’t go into detail about this
question, because I’d lose my readers after the sixth or seventh
paragraph, but you can take a peek at a

press release from NCUC activists
A more general examination of the GNSO reorganization has been written

by Professor Milton Mueller

The important point I want to make is that ICANN is on the cusp of
improving the effectiveness of the NCUC, and through them the wider
public interest that goes beyond the interests of individual
registrars, trademark holders, etc.

In search of a responsive governing body

I’ve covered the policy issues in domain names

repeatedly over the years

and have followed ICANN since

its first public meeting in 1998
Most of its attempts at public input exemplified practices to
avoid–notably its idealistic but unfeasible

worldwide membership program

Thoughtful observers decided long ago that formal democracy won’t work
in a geographically distributed organization with no boundaries to
membership. Attempts to make policy through voting, or to reach
consensus on anything, will falter from differences in the ability of
stakeholders to gain access and participate, the futility of winning
sustained participation from scattered stakeholders, and the barriers
to communication and community-building. The NCUC is concerned right
now with installing a voting system that facilitates communication and
community-building in the NCUC rather than undermining it.

Thus, an organization without clear roots in geography or a particular
interest group must be governed in a centralized manner, but remain
responsive to outside pressure. This is where ICANN has lapsed. It has
always been dominated by its staff, and has drawn most of its board
members from outsiders with little background in its subject
matter. The staff are accustomed to doing whatever they think best
and, when faced with a storm of public protest, hunkering down for the

Given this analysis, the decision by the Commerce Department to let go
the reins is disturbing. A body with a history like ICANN needs to be
concerned that external judgment will ultimately be rendered on its
decisions. Reviews by a responsible government agency would be far
more meaningful than a diluted participation in a forum of many
competing interests.

But ICANN has a new chair who, according to Robin Gross, wants to
overturn the board’s traditional rubber-stamp role. Furthermore,
several board members have reacted warmly to approaches from NCUC
members and have agreed to meet directly with them in Seoul. The
decision on the voting structure for the NCUC will be small but
significant, and will tell us a lot about the ability of this
organization to reflect a wide range of interests.

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