As the Internet blossomed from a small community of users to a global phenomenon in the mid-1990s, the governance of the domain name system underwent a similarly dramatic change.
Once administered by Jon Postel, a computer scientist at the University of California at Los Angeles, the U.S. government handed over the reins to Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a California non-profit company, in 1998.
Four years later, both supporters and critics label ICANN a failure. While ICANN embarks on significant reforms, chief executive officer M. Stuart Lynn argues that his organization is hobbled by a framework that encourages too much discussion and too little decision-making.
Mr. Lynn, in fact, has it backward. ICANN is failing because too little discussion occurs in public — to such a degree that there is virtually no transparency. At the same time, too much decision-making takes place without sufficient public representation on the board.
ICANN's creation drew interest from a diverse group of stakeholders, including Internet users, domain name registrars, technical groups and intellectual property law associations. While each group offered different perspectives on such issues as domain name dispute resolution and the creation of new suffixes, there was widespread agreement on one key principle — ICANN was to be based on a self-regulatory model free from government interference.
Self-regulation was premised on a consensus-based approach in which policy discussion was open to all, supported by a governance structure that ensured representation at the board level for all stakeholders. This latter goal was to be achieved by filling half the board with guaranteed positions for several stakeholder groups and completing the other half with on-line elections that would enable Internet users to elect board representatives on a regional basis.
ICANN never really upheld its end of the self-regulatory bargain. While the stakeholder groups assumed their guaranteed positions on the ICANN board, only five of the nine elected seats were ever filled because the appointed board never put the remaining four seats up for election, thereby creating an imbalance that has never been rectified.
Moreover, earlier this year Mr. Lynn called for major reforms that would eliminate public elections for the foreseeable future. He views elections as unworkable despite the fact that they were successfully completed by ICANN in 2000, by the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) last year and were recommended by an ICANN-sponsored electoral review committee led by the former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt.
ICANN's inability to facilitate meaningful public participation in the form of a governance role will surely force governments to become re-engaged on this issue since the self-regulatory model premised on consensus is simply not being met.
Interestingly, both ICANN supporters and critics have begun to look to government for support. Supporters want to bring government (and its financial resources) into the fold by creating a guaranteed government board position, while critics have turned to the U.S. government to call for a re-evaluation of ICANN's mandate.
Governments have begun to question the ICANN approach by suggesting that more governmental oversight may be needed. This week, U.S. Senator Conrad Burns announced his intention to introduce legislation that would give Washington greater influence over ICANN. He argues that the measure is needed because ICANN has exceeded its authority, does not operate in an open fashion and is unaccountable to Internet users.
In a document released last week, the European Union argued that government must have greater involvement in public policy issues. It recommends that ICANN always consult government on policy matters and that it only be able to ignore or reverse government advice by a two-thirds majority of the board.
Similarly, late last month the Legal Counsel of the United Nations noted how unusual it is to entrust domain name governance to a private body rather than to an international representative body. It argued that the Internet requires international co-operation for both its operation and regulation and that global governmental organizations are uniquely suited to foster such co-operation.
ICANN supporters have tended to dismiss critics as merely viewing ICANN as a grand experiment in global democracy. In fact, the real ICANN experiment is about self-regulation, not on-line elections.
Indeed, even elections do not guarantee fair treatment of all stakeholders. In Canada, it is quite possible that the federal government would increase its role in the administration of the dot-ca domain were CIRA's elected board to fail to meet the balanced representation requirement.
With its most recent reform proposals, ICANN has made it clear that it will welcome public commentary but not public votes. In doing so, it leaves the public without its promised role in Internet governance and heads toward the end of a self-regulated Internet.