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06 Mar 2007
For about the last two years, I was a member of ICANN's At Large Advisory Commitee (ALAC), the group charged with representing the interests of ordinary Internet users within ICANN. In case anyone is wondering, here's why I'm not on the ALAC any more.
ICANN has a very narrow mission. They maintain the root zone, the list of top-level domain names in the Internet's domain name system. They coordinate numeric IP addresses, with the real work delegated to five Regional Internet Registries. And they keep track of some simple and uncontroversial technical parameters for Internet routing applications. That's it. (This is all in the first section of the ICANN bylaws.)
ICANN runs only one of the dozen root zone name servers, with the rest run by volunteer entities ranging from Verisign to NASA to a Japanese research consortium. Since the root server operators might not accept ICANN's root zone if they had technical, legal, or political concerns, ICANN carefully avoids asking them to do anything they might turn down. This means that ICANN is unlikely ever to do anything really stupid.
Most of the top-level domains are two-letter geographical country codes like .US for the United States and .CN for China, defined by a list from the ISO, over which ICANN has no say. A current dispute over the as yet unused .EH domain for Western Sahara, a chunk of African desert, between two competing governments is about as exciting as that gets.
ICANN's most public activity is to decide which new generic or specialized domains get added. When ICANN started there were three generic domains, the familiar .COM, .ORG, and .NET, and five specialized ones. Since then, they've added a dozen new ones. Of these, only .BIZ and .INFO have reached a million registrations. There is some hope for .MOBI, intended for and vigorously supported by the mobile phone industry, and perhaps for .TEL which is intended as an on-line phone book. The others are so small and obscure that you've probably never heard of them and never will. ICANN still has no coherent process for adding new domains, and is likely to end up in yet more lawsuits over the proposed .XXX for pornography which is of course a huge political hot potato. Related to the domains are some side issues related to how much information about each domain registrant should be public, domain pricing, and the occasional misbehaving registrar.
To advise them on their work, ICANN has an impressively large and complex array of advisory committees and constituencies ranging from registries and registrars to governments, trademark lawyers, and, bringing up the rear, the ALAC for everyone else.
The people who participate fall into a small set of categories. One set is the businessmen, the registries and registrars who actually make money doing this stuff, and the lawyers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists, particularly trademark lawyers who live in dread that any domain that resembles their clients' business or product names should ever be used by anyone else (DISNEY.XXX, anyone?) These people are sent by their employers, and do ICANN work as part of their day jobs.
Another group is what I'd call semipros, people who use a connection with ICANN to help their own careers, typically either academics who write about Internet governance and online society, or else from places where the folks back home are impressed by a connection to ICANN.
Finally, there are the idealists, of whom I am one, who want equitable access and fair prices for domain names, and the expansive dreamers who don't understand what ICANN actually does, but imagine it to have a role in sweeping metaphors about cyberspace and global Internet governance.
The current ALAC is basically a bunch of idealists; perhaps a few also are semipros. We all do this in our spare time, getting only travel expenses reimbursed by ICANN.
After going to a few ICANN meetings I found that ICANN operates along the lines of the court of the Sun King. ICANN's processes are hopelessly opaque, and short of a lawsuit, the way to get something done is through personal connections with staff and particularly with board members. As a result, ICANN's meetings involve a mob swirling around the ICANN board, and to some degree the staff, trying to get face time. There's processes to submit formal comments which the staff boils down for the board, but it's much more effective to talk or exchange email with board members you know, which means that the more time you have to schmooze with the staff and board, the more effective you are. This puts us spare-timers at a hopeless disadvantage. Despite having gotten to know some of the staff and board members, I honestly cannot think of a single time that comments or pressure from the ALAC has ever changed an action by ICANN. Perhaps if we put in even more unpaid time that might be different, but I doubt it.
Adding to the ALAC's problems are some serious institutional issues. The ALAC has a three-tier design in which organizations with individual members are supposed to sign up as at large structures (ALS), which band together by geographic region into regional at large organizations (RALOs) which select two of the three ALAC members for each region, with the third member picked by the ICANN nominating committee. Pre-RALO, the board picks interim ALAC members, including me.
The Latin American RALO finally started last December, RALOs in Africa, Europe, and Asia may start later this year, and even in North America, where for a long time there was no activity at all, we're seeing RALO interest, mostly from Canada. As I watch this process, I see that whether by design or by accident, the RALOs will force out the idealists in favor of dreamers and maybe semipros, since nobody who actually understands ICANN's narrow mission and the ALAC's impotence would waste time on RALO bureaucracy. Nonetheless, there seem to be plenty of dreamers on tap, including several groups that are not eligible to be an ALS, being organizations that consist of organizations rather than individuals. (They belong in ICANN's NCUC instead.)
This brings us to the last straw, the Ombudsman. In an organization as opaque as ICANN, an Ombudsman should be a good idea to deal with tangles of red tape. Unfortunately, the current Ombudsman has avoided anything that might antagonize ICANN's staff or politically well connected committees, most recently refusing to address ICANN's year long failure to enforce contract terms against incompetent registrar Registerfly.
The ALAC, having no political power at all, has had multiple run-ins with the Ombudsman over delays in handling ALS applications, due to a combination of our screwups, staff issues, and for a while a Catch-22 in which several ALAC members wouldn't participate or vote, so we could never get a quorum. Most recently we had what should have been a tiny administrative issue with a group of ineligible Swiss dreamers who desperately want to be an ALS, making the silly argument that since their board has individual members, they qualify as an ALS. (If that's true, so does General Motors.) The Ombudsman decided to make an example of us, wrote a long scathing report saying, among other things, that the applicant is qualified because he says so, and posted it as a featured item on the ICANN web site. The report is riddled with factual errors and unsupported conclusions that we pointed out and he declined to correct, but I gather that at least some of the ICANN board takes it seriously, and the ALAC will have to expend significant effort to deal with it.
You know what? I don't have time for this nonsense.
I thought hard about what I might accomplish if I spent several more years on the ALAC. Maybe we could get retail domain name prices to be $10.50 rather than $11. Perhaps we could get anonymous domain registration so freedom fighters can register vanity domains like THEDEARLEADERSUCKS.COM, or get ICANN to fix the loophole that permits domain tasting. We might have some effect on the constipated process for approving new top level domains, or the endless arguments about permitting non-Roman alphabets in top and second level domain names. Or we might not. In the big picture, how much effort is this all worth? Not much. Certainly not almost a month each year.
The individual members of the ALAC are all great people with whom I have enjoyed working, and the three annual ICANN junkets (next up, Lisbon at the end of this month) are always fun, but the ALAC simply isn't worth the time, and it is particularly not worthwhile to spend time dealing with internal ICANN politics that shouldn't be happening in the first place. So if anyone else wants my seat, they're welcome to it.
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