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At Large Membership: ICANN's Ultimate Tar Baby

By Ellen Rony - Prepared comments delivered as a panelist at the ICANN At Large Study Committee Meeting on August 13, 2001

ICANN's goal is to replace each and every one of the current Initial Board members as soon as possible, consistent with creating a process that minimizes the risk of capture or election fraud, and that will lead to a truly representative Board.
-- Esther Dyson, testimony to the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Energy and Commerce (July 22, 1999)

The At Large Membership is ICANN's tar baby. For those unfamiliar with the Uncle Remus Brer Rabbit stories, a tar baby is a situation from which it is impossible to extract yourself. Consider the image.

We might not be here today if ICANN trusted the Internet community. Nine initial, interim, unelected ICANN board members told us that we could not elect the full complement of At Large board members to replace them, even though we are ICANN's raison d'etre.

We are the domain name registrants, system administrators, administrative contacts, content and infrastructure providers, ISPs, registrars, scientists, researchers, TLD operators, network engineers, financiers, captains of industry, entrepreneurs, teachers and students who use Internet protocol addresses and the domain name system, and we give ICANN a reason to exist.

The At Large model initially agreed among ICANN's founders, the Department of Commerce and members of the Internet community who contributed to the organizational process has never been tried. Before the ICANN structure was even given a chance, the fundamental At Large membership became an endangered species.

The At Large election held last October was a compromise interim solution adopted by ICANN's Board. The election showed that the Internet community can, indeed, rise to the task, despite significant technical and procedural flaws in the voting process, despite the board's attempts to establish constraints on participation and despite a gross underestimation of public interest in the At Large membership.

No one disputes the legitimacy of the five elected At Large board members. But many question the legitimacy of the four initial members of the board who sit at the table by virtue private appointment. ICANN will never achieve legitimacy while they remain.

ICANN needs the legitimacy the only popular assent of those whose Internet activities are affected and shaped by its policies. can provide it. ICANN will never achieve fundamental legitimacy without an At Large membership.

There is no particular magic in the number nine for At Large membership, except that it represents balance to the number of elected representatives from the Supporting Organizations. The SOs are organized as topical forums of specialized interest and organizational participation &emdash; they do not cover the broader interests of the general public in ICANN s issues and policies.

Some say that there is no need for At Large representation because ICANN is engaged in the narrow responsibility of coordinating technical parameters for the Internet and overseeing the root server system. They prefer to restrict decision making to technical resource managers. Clearly ICANN needs such technical expertise.

However, ICANN's discretionary policy making has broad impact beyond the technical sphere. The Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, declared by fiat to be a "consensus policy" was not a technical decision but established entitlement for the benefit a particular segment of the Internet community. The restructured ICANN/VeriSign Agreement creates dramatic change in the long familiar structure of gTLD administration. It was driven by economic politics not technical concerns. In September, ICANN will decide whether it will employ mechanisms to displace any of the 2.8 million occupants of .ORG.

So, along with the allocation of Internet resources. ICANN has developed policies that affect domain industry competition, pricing, privacy, use, and intellectual property. Why should we presume that only members of the techno power elite are qualified to grapple with these issues?

The SO structure needs review and overhaul. The infrastructure providers--registries, registrars and root server operators, deserve a seat at the table, their own infrastructure SO. However, such an overhaul takes time, and meanwhile there are four board members who still have voting power without being elected.

The At Large Study Committee has determined after so many discussions and meetings that yes, there is a public interest vested in ICANN. It is a "public benefit corporation" and yes, individuals need a voice.

At Large representation on the board is an obvious necessity--for legitimacy, to effectively represent public opinion and interest, to advise on policy, and provide a form of checks and balances on our reigning decision-makers.

Unfortunately, there is no community consensus about ICANN's framework of operations, so my advice to the ALSC is to concentrate on immediate remedies.

I have four specific recommendations.

First, insist that ICANN make no major policy decisions until the representation system is functional.

That means replacing the four original interim board members with elected representatives. You don't need a new election to do this. It won't cost anything. The board can appoint replacements by using the At Large election results to choose those candidates who received the greatest percentage of votes for their region.

Yes, because of the procedural flaws, it's an imperfect solution, but I posit that there are fewer alligators in that swamp than any lame justification for continuing the terms of the four unelected board members. Direct elections provide a tangible form of accountability. Remember, those four have made significant decisions affecting the Internet but they have not been required to meet a voting threshold or establish a threshold of support from any region. They have not received a single vote. To whom are they accountable?

Second: Public interest in ICANN's activities must be reflected in its board composition and policy-making structure. The Internet community feels shortchanged. Public participation is the antidote for the lack of accountability.

Third: A commitment to an At Large membership and strong public voice in the structure of ICANNs decision making must be written into the Articles of Incorporation, which are more difficult to revise than the Bylaws. The bylaws have gone through nine revisions in less than two years and provide weak protection for the endangered At Large membership.

Fourth: ICANN must avoid creating a thicket of new complications for public participation. ICANN's cachet is the trust it establishes with the Internet community. That trust has been undermined by encumbering with At Large membership with constraints, employing opaque processes and engaging in semantic gymnastics, e.g., selection of At Large directors rather than election; the corporation shall not have members notwithstanding the use of the term "members" in its bylaws. Vintage ICANN.

I urge the ALSC to make a clear and unequivocal statement that ICANN's only priority is to complete its obligation to establish a fully formed and fully empowered At Large membership and representative board. ICANN ignores its errors at its peril. It cannot throw its tarbaby out with the bathwater.

In my humble opinion.

By Ellen Rony
© August 13, 2001


Other articles, editorials and domain-related comments by this author:

Whither .ORG?

The ICANN-VeriSign Agreement: A Sweetheart Deal

The Divine Right of Names: New TLDs Prep for Start-up

The Envelope, Please: New Top Level Domains on the Horizon

Procter & Gamble Bids Adieu to SINUS, THIRST and FLU

Words First!

Sunrise+20: The Numbers Tell the Story

Famous Marks

Clicks or Mortar: Are Domain Names Property?

Res Ipsa Loquitur

RDND: Reverse Domain Name Denigration

IIR: Internet Impact Report

The Devil is in the Details

An Alternative to ICANN?

Comments on the WIPO Interim Report RFC-3











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