I’ve finally recovered from another ICANN meeting, frustrated as ever. 700 or so people flew halfway around the world to hear canned presentations, dueling-monologue public form sessions, and resolutions that left major issues unresolved, and to gripe in the hallways about how little was being done.
Every time I talked to someone who had been away from the ICANN scene for some time and returned, I heard the same assessment: “It looks just the same as it did N years ago,” for varying values of N. Yet many of us return nonetheless, I because I’m still trying to make ICANN responsive to the public interest.
I’ve been trying to explain why ICANN inspires such vigorous debate and loathing. ICANN is not about big issues. A domain name policy, even a perfect one, isn’t going to cure cancer, or even bring connectivity to rural Africa. It’s no surprise many in the GAC (Government Advisory Committee) complain about the difficulty raising understanding of ICANN issues with constituents who don’t yet have reliable Internet access.
But the big issues are not on the table. Even the big issues of Internet connectivity — bridging digital divides, routing around private or government-imposed obstacles, network neutrality — are not part of ICANN’s mandate or sphere of control. Thankfully. ICANN oversees allocation of IP address blocks, accredits domain name registrars, and decides what new top-level domains will enter the root zone.
Furthermore, most of the functions ICANN oversees “just work.” Even if it doesn’t seem “fair” that MIT has more IP addresses than many countries, by and large, those who need addresses get them. Domain names resolve uniquely. Independently designed protocols interoperate.
We’re fighting over table scraps from a table that wasn’t very well stocked to begin with. The fight for those crusts and bones gets even more vicious when the loaves and steaks aren’t part of the debate, because we can’t trade off more important issues in the bargaining.
The problem is that when it doesn’t “just work,” ICANN’s “bottom-up” process is neither bottom-up nor effective to resolve the problems. Without big issues at stake, much of the general public can’t be bothered to learn all of ICANN’s acronyms and procedures to participate. Those who do are derided as kooks or edge cases. We’re told that the telephone company doesn’t want to hear from its customers (paraphrasing a comment by Board member Veni Markovski).
ICANN’s problem is that the table scraps of issues are still important. Certainly to those who have built businesses in ICANN-regulated industries, most notably domain name registrars and registries. But also to the general public. Lots of issues fall between out-in-the-street-protest important and negligible: the cost of domain names, the availability of domain names and new pools of domain names (TLDs), the ability of trademark claimants to take domain names from prior registrants.
ICANN’s core values refer to the “Internet Community.” That community is not just those with commercial interests, but especially those using the Net to communicate: the new blogger who wants a domain name to hang her weblog; the parent who wants an email address he controls; the critic who wants to criticize a business without having her home address and telephone number made public.
ICANN needs a better way to hear and respond to the public Internet community, but so far, there’s little indication it’s listening. Without the at-large public, this “private-public partnership” looks a lot like a conspiracy in restraint of trade.