If ICANN, You Can

Imagine your company having a say in the way the Internet is run. Not just in how you are connected or what services you get from your Internet service provider (ISP), but actually input as to the way the Internet works and how it is administered. It may soon happen.

At a recent series of meetings in Santiago, Chile, the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN) met to bring together a diverse set of Internet users: intellectual property experts, advocates for online privacy, ISPs and individuals who simply own a domain name. All were brought together to examine how the Internet should be governed as it evolves from a government-sponsored activity to an effort supported and governed by those who use it.

ICANN is the follow-up organization to the venerable Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA): a tiny government-sponsored organization that established the policies for assigning Internet addresses and names and ran the key computers that supported the Internet’s naming system. For the greater part of the 1990s IANA was essentially the work of one person: Dr. John Postel. Throughout the 1990s Dr. Postel administered and governed some of the most crucial resources on the Internet. That he was largely an anonymous figure at a time when the Internet was becoming a household name is a testament to both his effectiveness and the old boys network that ran what became today’s Internet.

Dr. Postel died last year, and in his place ICANN has emerged as a more inclusive organization to attack the Internet’s policy, governance and legal issues. These issues are more complex than the ones encountered only a few years ago. This change is an example of how the Internet, long the domain of engineers and technical types, is becoming a mainstream commercial resource.

At the Santiago ICANN meetings, one of the items discussed was the formation of an organization that any Internet user could join to have a voice in the future of the Internet. ICANN is scheduled to have 18 people on its board of directors. Three will be nominated by those that work on Internet protocols and standards, three will be nominated by the regional Internet registries that allocate IP addresses for use in the Internet and three others will be nominated by those working with the Domain Name System. The nine remaining will be nominated by an at-large membership of the Internet.

At first blush, the idea of at-large members in the Internet’s fundamental governance body might seem slightly bonkers. After all, does that mean that anyone with a modem and a subscription to an ISP can be a member of ICANN? Remarkably, that’s what is going on. The idea is to diversify the range of interests and expertise that shows up on the board of directors for ICANN. The goal is that, unlike the past, more than just a few technical engineers will make the critical policy decisions facing the governance of the Internet.

The first election of at-large members is slated for next year. Some have complained that the interim ICANN board has gone too far without input from at-large constituents, but the new process will eventually ensure that anyone with legitimate interests will have equal footing with technical experts and huge corporations.

That means people with intellectual property rights, interests in public advocacy, e-commerce businesses and even you or me can participate in the debate on central issues facing the continued growth of the Internet. In addition, the rules are set up so that a single country cannot dominate the debate.

It may not be a pretty process. People who have never been participants in Internet governance are suddenly going to find they have a say in international Internet issues. That will require new ways to identify issues, build consensus, and then make decisions. This is likely to be difficult as new players adjust to unaccustomed roles. Even so, the diversity of backgrounds and interests, along with an open decision making processes, will be a welcome change from the earlier environment where a few anonymous engineers -- however well-intentioned -- made global decisions about the Internet with limited input from the people affected.

Whether it’s you personally, or as a representative of your company, it’s worth it to take an interest in the way the Internet is governed. One of the outcomes of the Santiago meetings is that you can actually get involved directly. To find out how, check out www.icann.org. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.