A Peek into the Plumber's Pipe

02.08.1999

What's Wrong with Esther Dyson

As chairperson of the ignominious Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Esther Dyson is perhaps the most prominent individual affecting the future of the Internet as we move into the Third Millennium. Looking into her background, she is also the most dangerous, for under her influence there is little chance the Internet will remain an open and flexible broadcast medium.

Esther Dyson's comments on John Horvath's article: We are not perfect

What is needed now more than ever as the development of the new media enters the tricky phase of governance (or self-governance, as you wish) is a level-headed, neutral approach to the task at hand. Dyson may possess the former; she is anything but the latter.

Not only is Esther Dyson the Interim Chairman of ICANN, she is also currently the chairman of EDventure Holdings, a small but diversified company focused on emerging information technology worldwide. She is a member of the President's Export Council Subcommittee on Encryption and sits on the boards of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Scala Business Solutions, Poland Online, Cygnus Solution, E-Pub Services, Trustworks (Amsterdam), IBS (Moscow), iCat, New World Publishing and the Global Business Network. She is on the advisory boards of Perot Systems and the Internet Capital Group, and a limited partner of the Mayfield Software Fund.

Dyson is also on the boards and executive committees of the Santa Fe Institute and the Institute for East-West Studies, and on the board of the Eurasia Foundation. She is a founding member of the Russian Software Market Association and a member of the (US) Software Publishers Association. She serves on the advisory boards of The Software Entrepreneurs Forum (Silicon Valley), the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, the Russian Internet Technology Center, and the Soros Medical Internet Project.

Previously, she was a securities analyst (New Court Securities, 1977-80; Oppenheimer & Co., 1980-82), and a reporter for Forbes magazine (1974-77). Her academic credentials are a little more modest: she holds a Bachelor's degree in economics from Harvard University (1972).

This impressive curriculum vitae clearly demonstrates why Dyson is a danger to the Internet. She personifies a system whereby conflicts of interest are perpetuated through interlocking directorates, a trademark of rampant capitalism. Under such a system, business interests liaise with each other by working closely on various boards. This kind of inbreeding works along the lines of "you be on my board, I'll be on yours." Hence, ICANN is prey to the back-room dealings of its board, which is one reason why it conducts much of its activities in secret.

The problem with such executive inbreeding is, obviously, the question of whose interests will be put first. Will a certain company with a directorship within the board be favoured over one that has no such representation? More importantly, if a clash arises between the interests of big business and the general public, will the selfish desires of a few (big business) be favoured over the basic needs of the many (public interest)?

These questions have already been asked by many and have, for the most part, been ignored or conveniently side-stepped by Dyson et al. In one instance, replying to an inquiry by James Love and Ralph Nader (June 15, 1999) which raised concerns over ICANN and its activities, Dyson went so far as to state that ICANN "governs the plumbing, not the people."

Dyson's use of the plumbing analogy is interesting in that it subliminally betrays her sympathies. Two years ago, she used the exact same expression defending the monopolist Bill Gates: "Just because he controls the plumbing does not mean that he will control the architecture." ("Can cyberspace slam the gates?", article by Mark Tran, The Guardian, May 23, 1997; culled from the Online-Europe archive). Of course, not everyone agrees with this pathetic assessment, which is why Microsoft is now fighting an anti-trust case in the US.

As the months go by and the myriad issues surrounding control over key aspects of the Internet heat up, it has become increasingly apparent that ICANN (as it now stands) will be to the Internet what Microsoft is to the world of software. With public aversion to Microsoft and the anti-trust case against plumber Bill well underway, it's time to take a closer look at plumber Esther as well -- and all other such plumbers, for that matter.

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