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A Closed And Secret Process Is Not The Answer To Reform

The recent meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in China demonstrates a serious dilemma for Internet users around the world. In the name of reforming ICANN and making it more responsive, ICANN ended the seats of the At-Large directors on its board. This was the part of the ICANN structure that was supposed to be responsive to Internet users.

While the At-Large directors did not have a means to fulfill their charge of “representing” users, they weren’t the problem that ICANN has to solve. To the contrary, these directors tried to open up the ICANN processes and structure to public view. So why would the ICANN board end the At Large director positions?

When the General Accounting Office (GAO) of the U.S. government did their recent report on ICANN and its problems, they didn’t list as one of the problems, the At Large directors on the Board of ICANN. (See “ICANN and the Doc Can’t”, )

In fact, the GAO noted that ICANN had failed to address “ensuring representation of the Internet community in the domain name policy making….”(GAO-020805T, pg 5)

Instead of any efforts on ICANN’s part to respond to this problem, they have done the opposite. They have eliminated the structural form that was supposed to provide this representation. There were 5 seats of At-Large representatives on the Board of Directors that were phased out at the ICANN meeting in China.

There is no indication of any effort to offer a replacement to provide participation of the Internet community in ICANN’s policy making process.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, whose contract with ICANN has been extended for one more year, has informed ICANN that they need to succeed in their reform efforts during this period. And the contract renewal is for one year, rather than the customary two year period of the previous contracts.

The activities of ICANN in response, however, do not indicate any concern with making changes in line with the criticisms. Instead, they act as if they are emboldened to continue their secretive processes and to hide who is manipulating their activities and for what purpose.

In an article he recently wrote, “ICANN Without Schmucks”, Mikael Pawlo recounts how he attended an early meeting to create a new management structure for the Internet’s infrastructure. This meeting was in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1998. Pawlo explains that the proposition being proposed to the Internet community, to create a consensus for a new organization to administer the Internet’s infrastructure, was impossible in the time frame that was given.

“The reason I felt like a schmuck,” he writes, “was because I could not figure out how a new organization could be formed in the time frame suggested by Magaziner. I was soon to be even more dumb-founded. Out of a pink cloud and in no way related to the IFWP meetings a new organization emerged. This was ICANN…”

Pawlo proposes that the problem ICANN represents is in determining who they need to be accountable to. He answers the question “ICANN and its board members need to be held accountable to the Internet community.”

In considering how to make such accountability possible, Pawlo proposes an entity under the United Nations or similar body.

This is a proposal to be discussed by the Internet community.

However, there is no means for such discussion.

A proposal submitted to the US government before the creation of ICANN recommended creating a prototype for a collaborative process to make such discussion possible. The proposal was to create a collaborative group of researchers from different nations to develop a proposal for the protection of the Internet’s infrastructure. That proposal process would be collaborative and would include the work of learning from the Internet’s development so as to welcome input into their efforts from the Internet community.

The proposal explained:

“II. The researchers will as much as possible utilize the Internet to carry out their work. Also they will develop and maintain a well publicized and reachable online means to support reporting and getting input into their work. They should explore the role of Usenet newsgroups, mailing lists and web site utilization, and where appropriate RFC’s etc.” (See “The Internet an International Public Treasure: A Proposal”)

The process that ICANN is pursuing is the opposite.

If there is to be accountability to the Internet community, there needs to be a means for the Internet community to participate in the decision making process.

The Internet has developed and flourished as a result of providing a means for such input in the processes of its development.

Neither ICANN and the U.S. Department of Commerce, nor the other nations who are pressuring for changes in ICANN, seem to recognize this critical aspect of the Internet’s development.

At a meeting at the U.S. National Academy of Science, in Washington, on April 9, 2001, Mike Roberts, the former CEO of ICANN, explained that when ICANN makes a decision, it is based on the sum of opinions of four or five major stakeholders. He didn’t elaborate about who these were. (see “Behind Closed Doors: Planning the Next Generation DNS?”)

There is a clear gap between the needs of the Internet community to be able to understand and participate in the process of the Internet’s development, and the creation of ICANN and the empowerment of a very small number of interests to control the Internet and its future development. How does this gap close? ICANN demonstrates that it is incapable of either recognizing the problem this gap represents, or of closing the gap.

The U.S. government doesn’t seem to understand the problem either. Instead the transfer of the Internet’s infrastructure from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) authority to the Department of Commerce’s authority by the U.S. government is a decision that denies this gap. The NSF has the expertise to understand and provide for the technical problems of the Internet’s development. The U.S. Department of Commerce doesn’t have such expertise. Under its auspices the process of developing a new institutional form for the Internet and its infrastructure become entangled in political and power-seeking considerations.

At the NAS meeting, George Strawn, a representative of the NSF also made a presentation. He urged the NAS committee to take into account the international nature of the Internet and raised the question of how to balance the US centric and U.S. government centric view with the fact that the Internet is a truly international infrastructure. And he asked what the role of government should be in the Internet’s infrastructure.

Just as a closed and secretive process created ICANN, a closed and secretive process is currently changing the nature of ICANN. And just as the early closed and secretive process failed to create a viable form for the protection and functioning of the infrastructure of the Internet, a closed and secretive reform process won’t be able to solve the problems that ICANN has created.

By Ronda Hauben, Author & Researcher

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