The international group that oversees administration of the Internet has proposed cutting back public participation on its board.
In a controversial but not unexpected move, a committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers last week recommended cutting from nine to six the number of board members that can be selected by individual Internet users. It also proposed raising the threshold for those eligible to join the organization, requiring that all so-called "at large" members be domain name owners. Currently, any adult with an e-mail address can become a voting member.
The proposal was criticized by civil liberties advocates as beholden to corporate interests at the expense of the public good. Its a criticism that has dogged ICANN since it was selected by the Clinton administration nearly three years ago to take over the Internets Domain Name System (DNS). ICANN decides what new domains will be added to the Internet to supplement the crowded dot-com name space, and imposes trademark policies that determines who can register domain names using famous words and marks.
"I think the [committee] dramatically drains out any strong participation by individuals in the governance of ICANN by not only cutting the number of board seats that are open for election by the public, but also in a way more seriously and radically redefining what the public is for these purposes, in a way that is narrow and exclusionary," said Don Simon, general counsel of Common Cause, a civil liberties organization that has been pushing ICANN for nearly two years to create an open, democratic process that insures all Internet users have a voice in its policy decisions. "Our vision is that ICANN should not retreat from the notion that is contained in its founding documents. There can be and should be an important form of broad global public participation in its internal governance."
But during a conference call about the study last week, Carl Bilt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden who chaired the committee, said what his committee is proposing "is not isolating."
"My view is its the other way around," Bilt said. "What we are proposing is a system with permanence. It gives coherence and clarity and some strength for the at-large community."
He added: "We dont see the details of this set in cement yet. It is a draft report, and we will listen. But we have found something we are comfortable with."
The proposal calls for six members to be elected from different regions of the world, with a goal of having elections next year. The report is just a draft for discussion at the groups meeting this weekend in Uruguay. No final action is expected until ICANN holds its annual meeting in Los Angeles in November.
The shift from nine to six at-large representatives "is a profoundly troubling concept," said Rob Courtney, a policy analyst of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a cyberspace civil liberties group. "You need a majority to make policy changes, but you need two-thirds to change the bylaws. This division means the public could be consistently overruled. . . . There is zero assurance that two years from now they wont change the bylaws and throw out the public entirely."
ICANNs original bylaws - written as part of negotiations with the Clinton administration in 1998 to win selection as the nonprofit that would assume control of the Internets DNS - called for a bottoms-up organization that would be governed by a board of 18 elected members. Nine of those are chosen by specific membership groups representing business and technical constituencies. The other nine were to represent users at-large. The nine business and technical representatives were the first board members elected. Last year, ICANN held its first at-large elections, but only allowed five public board members to be elected after changing its bylaws to commission the study on the feasibility
Several sources who asked not to be identified said the ICANN board has grown leery of public participation in Internet governance, fearing that, as one source put it, "crazies" would win seats on the board and wrest control of the Net from more sober-minded technocrats.
One source said the board feels the at-large movement is "destabilizing. You dont know who youll end up with . . . you could end up with a bunch of nuts on your board. They dont trust the democracy."
Indeed, in first pushing to revisit the number of at-large board members, then-Chairman Esther Dyson, during a heated debate over the election process at a board meeting last year in Cairo, Egypt, put forth a plan for holding indirect election as the best way to prevent the nomination of "people who are stupid."
Dyson and Bilt were on the committee that drafted the latest proposal.
The current slate of board members remains until 2002. Well before then, the board must decide how to proceed with elections, so a new group of members will be elected and ready to take office when the current lineup leaves, Courtney said.
Common Cause and the CDT together issued a competing report last week that recommended retaining the current at-large membership number and process.
Simon and Courtney said they expect the issue to be hotly debated in Uruguay.
"It has far-reaching implications for how this international resource is managed," Courtney said. "It sets the tone for other debates we may want to have about managing these kinds of international resources."