CYBER-FEDERALIST No. 8 December 27, 2000
ICANN's At Large Study
Civil Society Democracy Project (CivSoc)
The Internet Democracy Project
Yesterday marked the deadline for submitting public comments on ICANN's newest project: the At Large Study. The study will consider whether ICANN should have At Large directors at all, how many they should be, and what is the appropriate structure of the At Large membership. The URL to the Call for Public Input is: http://www.icann.org/at-large/study-comments.htm
This project is also called the "clean sheet" study, because it explicitly breaks with previous commitments to Internet user participation in ICANN. ICANN's last Board of Directors articulated the break in one of their bylaw revisions, modifing the bylaws to state: "previous decisions and conclusions regarding an 'At Large' membership will be informative but not determinative." Thus, despite the fact that Internet user participation is a fundamental aspect of ICANN's institutional design, the At Large study abandons that commitment.
Just a few months ago this proposal would have struck fear into anyone supporting Internet democracy. ICANN's At Large structure embodies its democratic elements. But today there can be less worry. Times have changed.
In the four months since the At Large study was announced, democracy has been implemented in ICANN. First, in October the At Large elections brought a tidal wave of reform, with reformers winning most At Large director seats, notably in the European and North American regions. Then in November at ICANN's Annual meeting in Marina del Rey, the At Large membership self-organized, launching an Interim Coordinating Committee to ensure the continued vitality of the membership. With directors on the Board and coherent organization at the global grassroots, the At Large membership is alive and well.
As a result, the most radical changes considered in the At Large Study seem infeasible. It will be difficult for a clean sheet study to propose eliminating the At Large directors. Likewise, as the membership continues the self-organization process, it will be difficult for the study to eliminate the emerging user organization.
Still the study presents opportunities for mischief. ICANN's staff might be tempted to try to weaken or re-write the rules for Internet user participation in ICANN. Attempts could be made to reduce the number of At Large directors from nine to five, to eliminate elections as the means of selecting directors, and to marginalize the At Large membership. The study may also provide an excuse for further delay in the implementation of At Large mechanisms. To prevent or minimize such actions, Internet users will have to participate actively in the study process.
On a more optimistic note, the study could actually contribute to the At Large membership's self-organization. All Internet users would benefit from a constructive attempt to develop better mechanisms and roles. The Interim Coordinating Committee can solicit analyses on relevant topics, and these can be submitted to the At Large study. The study could provide a useful avenue for delivering the results of member self-organization to the Board.
A number of excellent comments have been posted in response to ICANN's
Call for Public Input (CFPI). Most notable are those from:
Even as the study process moves forward, it may be useful to identify some additional "big picture" topics for consideration. Many of these are suggested by the Call for Public Input (CFPI) itself:
* At Large election analysis: The CFPI repeatedly refers to the At Large membership in terms of a "problem." However, the recent elections were a major success. Turnout was high, issues were debated, and highly-qualified candidates were elected. Significantly, the technical expertise of the At Large directors is higher than the Board average. This success should be documented.
* The problem of capture: In one At Large region there may taken place
a top-down mobilization by the business constituency. The elections
should be studied to see if there was an attempt at capture. An initial
study of the Japanese elections is available at:
* Consensus procedures in ICANN: the CFPI refers to ICANN as a consensus development organization. Yet concerns have been expressed by at least one At Large director that the ICANN staff selectively invokes "consensus" for its own convenience. For instance, the CFPI includes a questionable claim that there is "consensus" that the At Large membership is a "problem." Consensus should be given clearer procedural definition, and demonstration of a lack of consensus should also be defined.
* Constraints on ICANN: the CFPI notes that "ICANN's mission is narrowly (and properly) circumscribed." This is not obviously true. ICANN's repeated changes to its by-laws demonstrate how ineffective those bylaws are at limiting the organization. The very idea of a clean sheet study illustrates how commitments can be cavalierly abandoned. Formal and effective constraints on ICANN's mission need to be identified.
In summary, the At Large study needs to be carefully watched in order that it not serve a means to weaken democracy in ICANN. On the other hand, the study can serve as a useful vehicle by which the self-organization of the membership receives consideration by the Board of Directors. Hopefully the study can also help clarify issues of consensus and constraint.
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:
The Cyber-Federalist is written by Hans Klein
Subscribe to the CYBER-FEDERALIST!
Created before October 2004