CYBER-FEDERALIST No. 3 July 28, 2000
WHY ICANN'S ELECTIONS MATTER
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR)
Internet Democracy Project
If you haven't yet registered to vote in ICANN's At Large elections, you have just until Monday (July 31). The web site is slow, but registration is not impossible.
In light of this deadline, it may be useful to remember why participation is so important.
The recent ICANN meeting in Yokohama gave stark evidence of how Board representation affects Internet policy. At Yokohama the Board made important policy decisions over new top-level domain names (to complement .com, .edu, .org, and others.) The Board set a non-refundable $50,000 fee for submission of an application to operate a new domain name. This policy effectively excludes small and non-commercial groups from proposing new names. But those groups are not represented on the Board, and so could not voice their perspective there.
The lesson is this: representation shapes policy.
Industry has long recognized the importance of top-level domain names (TLDs): being a ".com" company is now a prerequisite for doing e-commerce. Other groups are also recognizing this: the European Union wants ".eu," bankers want ".bank," a U.S. Congressman recently proposed ".sex" for porn sites. What everybody recognizes is that a top-level domain makes content visible on the Net. For better or worse, domain names are the road signs for navigating cyberspace.
Civil society groups (i.e. non-profit and non-governmental organizations) also have a stake in domain names. Such groups, whether they are advocating human rights, free speech, culture, or just the local bowling league, often have high ideals -- but low resources. In general, the Internet has been a boon to them, providing advanced communication capabilities at non-profit prices.
So when ICANN made policy to add top-level domain names -- to increase the road signs in cyberspace, so to speak -- civil society organizations were interested. TLDs like ".humanrights," ".union," ".critique," or even ".museum" were suggested. Such new domain names could render groups' issues more accessible to a global public.
Priced Out of Reach
Unfortunately, ICANN's policy on new names shattered any such hopes. The Board set a high price for participation in the name proposal process: a whopping $50,000. That money doesn't buy you domain name; it just allows you to submit a proposal.
So don't expect to see even a proposal for a ".humanrights" or ".museum" anytime soon. The Board priced that possibility out of reach.
The Board's pricing decision was best suited for business interests. The price is low enough to be affordable ("only" $50,000!) to bid on a business opportunity worth perhaps billions. Moreover, by putting domain names out of reach of civil society groups, the high price prevents competing proposals from non-business groups. That may not have been the intent, but it is the effect.
So how does this relate to the At Large elections?
Who is on the Board?
Consider who made the decision. Today's ICANN Board is a remarkably talented and experienced group of people. But conspicuously absent from most directors' background is affiliation with any organization concerned with the rights of Internet consumers, with free speech, and with other civil society concerns.
As the ICANN web site documents, most directors' affiliations are with such industry and government entities. I list just a few names: BULL, MCIWorldcom, Dun & Bradstreet, European Telecommunications Network Operators Association, Australian Communications Industry Forum, U.S. Dept. of Defense/ARPA, Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, European Commission -- the list goes on. (You can see for yourself at: http://www.icann.org/general/abouticann.htm )
That does a lot to explain the $50,000 fee. There are very few directors with a professional or personal background in civil society institutions -- a few university affiliations are the closest one finds. They do not have experience trying to support the public interest on a tiny budget.
In making the pricing decision, directors presumably balanced competing demands and set a price that was reasonable -- from their perspective. Indeed, when you realize that the ".com" name business is worth some $20 billion, then $50,000 is not much. But had there been a representative of speech rights on the ICANN Board, then maybe that person could have educated the other directors. Maybe that person could have proposed different fees for business, government, and civil society names.
Unfortunately, that person was not there. Users don't have representation on the Board -- yet.
Can't We All Just Get Along?
So if you care about what neighborhoods get created in cyberspace and where the road signs direct the users, then you should care about the At Large elections. They present an opportunity to add new voices to the Board. Today's concerns for e-commerce, trademark, and property rights could be complemented by concerns for affordability, abundance, and non-commercial communication.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the elections is that it might transform ICANN into a more likeable institution. Imagine a body performing technical coordination -- with its myriad public policy implications -- in a manner that balanced concern for trademark with the many other concerns of Internet users. Imagine unpopular decisions made by a more representative Board -- people wouldn't have a reason to complain if they had a voice in the process!
What a relief that would be. Maybe we could all just get along!
Help make that happen! Register to vote: http://members.icann.org/join_now.htm
CYBER-FEDERALIST is a regularly-published series of analyses and commentaries
on Internet governance and ICANN elections.
It is produced by CPSR as part of the Internet Democracy Project. See:
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Created before October 2004