Notes about the conference "Governing the Commons: The Future of Global Internet Administration"

Aside from the "executive" setting - a fastidious array of linened tables in a Hilton meeting room just a suburban stone's throw from the Pentagon - the two-day conference Governing the Commons: The Future of Global Internet Administration felt much like a golden-age usenet group come to life: alt.conspiracy.org.icann, say. Nowhere else could one find a motley group of geeks devoted to the fascinating and frustrating project of deconstructing, disassembling, or simply destroying ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

ICANN-GAC's organizational structure as depicted in a chart by Tony Rutkowski. The small picture above it is of John Postel and Joyce Reynolds, who until a few years ago maintained DNS.

ICANN is the year-old California-registered nonprofit corporation vested by the U.S. Department of Commerce (DoC) with "responsibility for the IP address space allocation, protocol parameter assignment, domain name system management, and root server system management" - which, venerable netizen Tony Rutkowski of the Center for the Next Generation Internet contended, is "a two person function." ICANN sees things in a different light. In a 7 June 1999 email from MCI/WorldCom Senior VP Vint Cerf (who advises ICANN but is not an officer) to ICANN's Interim President and CEO Mike Roberts, discussing ways to finance the cash-strapped non-profit, Cerf wrote, "ICANN must succeed or Internet will be in jeopardy" - a line that "ought to play well with any company whose stock price is dependent on a well-functioning Internet."

But how exactly to define "well-functioning"? The minimalist - and compelling - answer was advanced by Karl Auerbach, a Cisco Systems engineer representing the Individual Domain Name Owners Constituency (IDNO): the net's purpose, he said, is the "end-to-end transmission of IP (Internet Protocol) packets." It was by doing this reliably that the net succeeded long before ICANN came along. To pragmatic networkers, the cynicism of Cerf's email is seen as indicative of ICANN's ambitions, and his bluster its delusions of grandeur. Were it merely a matter of psychology, these tendencies would be of little concern; but because ICANN is the nexus of the political and commercial forces through which the net's older technocratic culture is being supplanted, its actions are widely viewed as a putsch in progress.

In the 1 September issue of his COOK Report, Gordon Cook, an articulate critic of ICANN, bluntly summarized a sentiment that was widely if more cautiously expressed at the conference: "ICANN should be put out of its misery and the Internet left to run itself." But computers don't build themselves, routers don't configure themselves, and severed cables don't repair themselves, so Cook (and others who speak in these terms) is euphemizing: he means not physical networks but "human" networks, the extensive web of professional organizations that have maintained (among other things) the standards defining everything from client-server transactions to the shape of cable connectors. The reliability of computers and networks is a testament to the competence and coordination of these alphabetical bodies - IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), IAB (Internet Architecture Board), ITU (International Telecommunication Union), and so on. There are many more.

To credit these groups with their formidable accomplishments is not to say they're apolitical or immune to parochial fights. On the contrary, they are intensely political and fractious - but, nevertheless, largely responsible for developing and coordinating the net. It is these organizations that ICANN offended - but how?

Milton Mueller of Syracuse University's School of Information Studies argues the offense predates ICANN's formation: ICANN is merely "an extension of the gTLD-MoU coalition." In short form, gTLD-MoU is the "Global Top-Level Domain Memorandum of Understanding"; in long form, it was a hasty 1997 attempt by various groups (notably the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority - IANA - and the Internet Society - ISOC - to adapt DNS to the net's surging commercialization by adding new top-level domains (.firm, .shop, etc.), opening domain registration to companies other than the monopolistic Network Solutions, and "develop[ing] equitable dispute resolution mechanisms over conflicts between parties concerning rights to domain names."

One third of the gTLD-MoU's twelve-member Policy Oversight Committee went to what Mueller calls "trademark interests" - the International Trademark Association and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Despite the insistent claims of ICANN officers, notably Interim Chairman Esther Dyson - who had no official relationship to gTLD-MoU - that ICANN's activities are merely "technical," ICANN has interpreted its mandate of "domain name system management" in explicit policy terms. For example, it has sought to move beyond the gTLD-MoU's heavily criticized goal of "equitable dispute resolution mechanisms" by establishing a "uniform dispute resolution policy" - potentially binding international criteria for settling conflicts between intellectual property-holders and registrants of domain names. Mueller interprets these persistent attempts to set policy as proof that ICANN-supporting factions have been dragging their feet in order to facilitate "global surveillance" and "implementing longstanding plans to secure the net against" intellectual property infractions.

Where Mueller sees premeditation, Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami noted for astute legal analyses of technical issues, sees things forgivingly as an unfolding "adhocracy." He doesn't view this drift toward intellectual property concerns as less pernicious; rather, he noted, the DoC "never washed its hands of control." Echoing Rutkowski's claim that ICANN is a "government corporation in disguise," Froomkin stressed that the DoC has insulated its grip on many of the net's essential services from public accountability by half-handing management to ICANN - a private concern, to which "government limits don't apply," capable of imposing public policy.

Even if those limits did apply to ICANN, it isn't obvious how one could enforce them. Rutkowski, Mueller, and Froomkin largely agreed that ICANN's byzantine organization and procedure isn't a bug, it's a "feature" (intended or not) that negates accountability. Comparing it to a software project run amok, Froomkin sees "every sign of a code base gone wild." These criticisms were bitterly confirmed by other attendees. Auerbach cited instances when his efforts to engage ICANN on behalf of the IDNO had fallen flat while multinationals were given the podium; when Dyson dismissed his claims, he curtly referred her to the meetings' transcripts. That he had attended any ICANN meetings was itself impressive: like the "intragovernmental body" ICANN has sought to "constitute itself as," Rutkowski noted derisively, it meets far from the madding crowd of net users, in seemingly random cities - Berlin, Singapore, and Santiago (where it held its first open board meeting).

However, of the rapidly expanding millions of users worldwide, only seventy or so took the time to sit through two days of speechifying and debate at the "Governing the Commons" conference. Among such a self-selecting group, in which a self-consciously representative ethic was very pronounced, the factional lines were clearly drawn, even if the precise nature of the problem wasn't very clear. At one extreme (a tiny minority) were Richard Forman of register.com, which as one of the first ICANN-accredited new registrars has benefited from the current situation, and Tod Cohen, a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who rambled semicoherently about how MP3s have destroyed "the Brazilian music industry."

As if to confirm fears that ICANN's composition makes it "easily captured - and has been" (Rutkowski), Cohen explained his position thus: "Lemme give you the bottom line - we're gonna protect ourselves." To those who argued that civil liberties protect (at least) parodies against overzealous suppression by intellectual property-holders, he offered the argument, favored by quasi-totalitarian regimes, that some cultures don't regard value free speech.

The other, more colorful extreme was exemplified by the feisty Peter Deutsch, inventor of the ur-search-engine Archie, who insisted that DNS needs no coordination: the apocalyptic scenarios of a net "split" by conflicting DNS registries is a canard favored by ambitious bureaucrats - because pragmatism at every level will lead people to shun registries that propagate name conflicts. Though Deutsch's DIY solution to breaking ICANN's hegemony met with some reluctance, a few attendees said they had configured systems to consult nameservers supporting alternative gTLDs such as ".web". However, the practical experiences of would-be maverick registrars, Chris Ambler of Image Online Design and Paul Garrin of name.space, dampened his arguments: the failure of their efforts to popularize nonstandard gTLDs - due largely to Network Solutions' refusal to integrate these new gTLDs in the net's central "root servers" - had ghettoized them.

Overall, there was a consensus among the conference attendees - hardly a neutral group - that ICANN is at best misguided and at worst a tool of intellectual property-holders. But there was no consensus on how to find a better alternative - or, for that matter, what consensus is, how to establish it, or whether it's a valid way to resolve problems. Auerbach dismissed the term "consensus" as "new-age" rubbish; Froomkin acknowledged that "the term [has been] abused" in efforts to govern the net; Don Telage, Senior VP of Network Solutions, gave a boring presentation, "The Mechanics of Consensus," only to conclude that "consensus-building is a boring activity"; David Post of Temple University observed that consensus can dwindle into "a tyranny of the minority"; Dyson stressed that consensus doesn't require unanimous agreement; and so on. The futility of such time-consuming debates guarantees that policy will be de facto, not de jure.

Though the representatives of the net's old-guard organizations repeatedly faulted ICANN for its labyrinthine organizational structure, the conference itself tended to drift into those same realms - partly because of the sponsors' public policy orientation, but partly because governance of conflicting interests typically proceeds by producing higher layers of abstraction - bureaucracy. In the closing remarks session, Deutsch hit the nail on the head when he noted that calls to open ICANN to greater public input contradicted calls to restrain it from becoming more bloated.

The sad fact is that the success of the net, not the machinations of ICANN's officers, is what has attracted the interest of politicians and multinationals. Whether ICANN proves solely or primarily a creature of these forces will be seen in time in the policies it seeks to impose. If they bend too far toward the constrictive agendas of intellectual property-holders, there's a real chance that the legendarily anarchic net will reveal effective pockets of rebellion; if so, ICANN will be faced with "adhocratic" eruptions - alternative domain name services, end-to-end encrypted IP packets, mass parodies, and years-long security efforts broken by overnight hacks - that will put would-be governors' adhocratic efforts to shame.

Pointing to the absurdly complex chart of ICANN and GAC (the international Government Advisory Committee) Rutkowski had posted on the wall, Dyson remarked - not very convincingly - that "if you made the boxes curves, you'd see self-organization swirling up from the bottom." Perhaps. But it's doubtful that uniform policies organize themselves as quickly or effectively as the chaos they seek to restrain.

"Governing the Commons: The Future of Global Internet Administration" was held at the Hilton Hotel at Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia, on 23-24 September. It was sponsored by Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (of which the author is a member), the Morino Institute, and the Open Society Institute.