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Cyber-Federalist No. 10  
CivSoc of CPSR

Comments on Cyber-Federalist No. 10

CYBER-FEDERALIST       No. 10        March 27, 2001

The Origins Of ICANNS's At Large Membership

Civil Society Democracy Project (CivSoc)
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR)

The Internet Democracy Project


Of the many controversies surrounding ICANN, perhaps the most contentious have been those about At Large Membership (ALM). Should there be a membership?  If so, what form should it take? Now that it has been created, should it be abolished? Who would want to abolish it and why?

Underlying all these issues is one foundational question: What is the appropriate role of the Internet user in Internet technical coordination?  Furthermore, as we recognize the linkages between Internet technical coordination and public policies for intellectual property, industry competition, and even national sovereignty, the foundational question can be restated as: What is the appropriate role of the Internet user in global Internet policy-making? 

The ALM issues go very deep indeed!

Here I don't attempt to define the user's role in technical coordination or in policy-making.  Instead I review the history of the ALM's creation. By understanding that history, we can better understand questions confronting us today.

Before ICANN: The Internet Society (ISOC)

From the earliest days, proposals for an institution to perform technical coordination have included a mass membership component.  The early model for this was the Internet Society (ISOC).

ISOC was created in 1992 to serve as the institutional home for standards-related bodies like the IETF and, later, for the IANA function of technical coordination.  ISOC is a membership organization, with both organizational and individual members (who today number around 6,000.)  ISOC's founders include many individuals who were active in the creation of ICANN, most notably Vint Cerf, Jon Postel, and Mike Roberts.

In a 1996 document known as "draft-Postel," a proposal was made that ISOC assume responsibility for technical coordination.  Had this proposal succeeded, then ISOC would have assumed the role of today's ICANN -- and ISOC's members might have had a status similar to today's At Large Membership. Technical coordination would have been performed by a mass membership organization with an elected Board of Trustees.

That proposal was rejected, however, and its place there came the IAHC plan in 1997 (URLs of web sites with more information are below).  In the IAHC plan ISOC shared top authority with WIPO, ITU, and other groups. ISOC, a mass membership organization, controlled two board seats.

Right from the beginning, then, attempts to institutionalize the technical coordination functions included a mass membership component.  Furthermore, that membership-based approach was pioneered by people like Vint Cerf, Jon Postel, and Mike Roberts.

The Green and White Papers

Following the US government veto of the IAHC plan in 1997, new policy parameters for membership were defined.  These were set out in 1998, first in the Green Paper and then in the White Paper.

While both documents pointedly ignored any special role to ISOC, they defined a role for Internet users in technical coordination. The language for this was somewhat vague, however.

Relevant portions of the GREEN PAPER read as follows:

"Principles For A New System. [...] 4. Representation.  Technical management of the Internet should reflect the diversity of its users and their needs.  Mechanisms should be established to ensure international input in decision making."

"... the organization and its board must derive legitimacy from the participation of key stakeholders.  Since the organization will be concerned mainly with numbers, names, and protocols, its board should represent membership organizations in each of these area, as well as the direct interests of Internet users."

"... membership associations representing 1) registries and registars, and 2) Internet users, must be formed."

The WHITE PAPER came a few months later and contained official US policy.  The White Paper stated:

Technical coordination "... should be vested in a single organization that is representative of Internet users around the globe." 

"Principle for a New System. [...] 4. Representation.  The new corporation should operate as a private entity for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole.  The development of ... policies ... will depend on input from the broad and growing community of Internet users."

These policy guidelines do not provide a definitive answer to the role of members in technical coordination.  They do, however, provide some indications of what the role would be.  First, the focus is now on *users*, rather than on Internet professionals. ISOC is a professional association not a user organization, so this change in definition is significant.  Second, there is specific reference to the creation of a membership association for users.  User participation would be in the form of members joined in association.  Third, there is mention that the Board should represent users' "direct interests."  Mention of direct representation suggests that there should be little intermediation between users and their board representatives, while the reference to interests recognizes that user participation goes beyond issues of technical expertise.  In summary, the White and Green Papers emphasized a role for Internet users, they conceived of users as members joined in association, and they foresaw direct board representation of users.

The ICANN Bylaws

Following the release of the White Paper, in the summer of 1998 there took place the International Forum for the White Paper (IFWP) to design the bylaws of what would be ICANN.  The bylaws would translate the White Paper's broad principles into operational rules.

In the IFWP process one of the most hotly contested issues was whether ICANN would be a membership organization.  Jon Postel at IANA now opposed membership, and one may surmise that this position was shared by others with close ties to ISOC.  Despite their earlier attempts to give a major role to ISOC, they now opposed linking users and technical coordination. Working in a independently of the public forum, they produced a set of bylaws with no provisions for membership.

A second bylaws proposal was produced by some of the participants in the IFWP who called themselves the Boston Working Group (BWG).  They proposed bylaws that included membership.  They also put the membership provisions in the articles of incorporation rather than the bylaws, to protect them against later attempts at elimination.  (It is more difficult to amend the articles than the bylaws.)

In a September 1998 article in _The_Standard_ Larry Lessig summarized the differences between the two approaches: 

"These two processes produced two very different results. IANA proposed a powerful but closed corporation. Principles of separation, or checks on its powers, don't sing in its draft. The board need not answer to the demands of "members"; there are no "members." The only check on its powers will be the California Attorney General, who might have other things to do than monitor this board. It is an engineer's corporation, but with none of the virtues of openness and vulnerability that mark organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force." (Lessig, 1998)

In the fall of 1998 the US Department of Commerce reconciled the two versions of the bylaws by requiring that provisions for membership be included in the bylaws.  Membership was included in ICANN, but it was codified only in the bylaws, leaving membership vulnerable to later attempts at expurgation.


From this history we can gain a better understanding of ICANN's At Large Members. 

ICANN's membership was intended to represent Internet users from around the globe.  Members were conceived as joining in association and having direct representation of their interests on the board.  Their role was seen as balancing the influence of the ICANN board, serving as a check on its power and ensuring accountability.

ICANN's membership provisions were actively opposed by groups working closely with IANA.  This opposition represented a shift from their earlier proposals to locate technical coordination authority in ISOC, itself a membership organization.  However, ISOC and ICANN embody different conceptions of members: ISOC's members are conceived of as Internet experts, whereas ICANN's members are intended to be Internet users. ICANN's At Large Membership is intended to be open, independent, and consisting of users rather than experts.

Perhaps the greatest historical irony is that today's on-going process to revisit and possibly eliminate the At Large Membership was anticipated from the start. The bylaws have shown themselves to be a weak mechanism for protection of membership provisions. Shortly after its creation, ICANN began modifying its bylaw provisions about membership.  These amendments weakened the membership provisions -- and may yet lead to the termination of user involvement in technical coordination.

Today's "clean sheet" study of the ALM re-opens a question that was settled in 1998.  Should Internet users have a role in technical coordination?  The answer in 1998 was a definite "yes": the US Department of Commerce's recognition of ICANN was conditioned on its membership provisions, and membership was broadly supported in the IFWP process and even in the earlier draft-Postel and IAHC plans. 

Despite this, at its 2000 Yokohama meeting the ICANN board modified the bylaws to state: "previous decisions and conclusions regarding an "At Large" membership will be informative but not determinative."  This was a striking turn-around from a commitment made just two years earlier.  The amendment holds the prospect of eliminating the main mechanism for achieving a balance of influence in ICANN.

History helps us understand the functions of the At Large Membership as well as to identify the supporters and opponents of the membership. Today's review of membership must be seen in historical perspective in order to be fully understood.


Draft Postel.
Also described in Milton Mueller (1999), "ICANN and Internet Governance: Sorting through the debris of 'self-regulation'" (published in INFO).

Internet Society.


Green Paper.

White Paper.

Boston Working Group.

Lessig, Lawrence, "A Bad Turn for Net Governance." The Standard. September 18, 1998.,1151,1718,00.html

ICANN Yokohama Bylaw Amendments.

At Large Membership Study Committee.


CYBER-FEDERALIST is a regularly published series of analyses and commentaries on Internet governance and ICANN . It is produced as part of the Internet Democracy Project. See:  (archive)

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