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ICANN, WSIS and the Making of a Global Civil Society - Part I

This is the first part of a two-part series interview by Geert Lovink with Milton Mueller discussing ICANN, World Summit on the Information Society, and the escalating debates over Internet Governance. Read the second part of this Interview here.

In 2002 MIT Press published Milton Mueller‘s Ruling the Root, one of the first detailed investigations into the Internet domain name policies. In it Mueller describes the history of the Internet address and name space and the root zone file and root name servers, without which the Internet would not be able to function. Ever since the birth of ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) in 1998, the private company that oversees ‘name space’, issues are becoming less technical and more political. Governments seek more influence in a world that is traditionally run by a select group of engineers and corporate managers. Milton Mueller is professor at the School of Information Studies, Syracuse University (NY) and director of the Convergence Center. He has widely published about regulatory issues in the global telecommunications industry. Milton Mueller is also editor and regular contributor to the ICANNwatch website.

GL: In Ruling the Root you mention the Internet’s technical cadre’s ‘allergy to democratic methods and public accountability.’ You mention that Internet pioneers, such as Jon Postel, refused to run for office in any electoral system. Those who ran the Internet in the early days were supposed to be selected with the consensus of the ‘community’. Would you say that this mentality, being a mixture of male engineering and hippie culture, is lying at the heart of the ICANN controversies? Would a cultural genealogy help us to understand the current situation?

MM: The “community consensus” idea of the early days of the Internet (1986 - 1996) was indeed part of a specific culture that developed among the (mostly male) engineers. Like all social groupings, that culture developed its own pecking order and ruling elite, but it also had communitarian, democratic and liberal elements. Democratic in the sense in which the Magna Carta was democratic - peers demanding that their prerogatives not be impinged on by the King. Liberal in that they supported open systems and resisted the state. Communitarian in that there was a strong sense of collective identity and responsibility and because one of the key issues for them was whether you were inside or outside their community. Among these types of homogeneous cultures with shared norms, you can develop a rough community consensus.

You do need to understand this culture and history if you want to delve deeply into the politics of DNS and the Internet (not just ICANN). By that I mean if you want to engage in Internet politics at the level of meeting and persuading individual people, then you need to know who are the anointed elders of this culture and what kind of norms exist among this community. But I would not say that this culture is any longer at the HEART of the controversies. It was from 1995-97, but gTLD-MoU and the creation of ICANN was basically the process by which this community came to terms with other political, social and business interests. “Community consensus” after that became a ridiculous and hypocritical notion.

As the theorists of institutional development have demonstrated, the process of forging new institutions is all about fighting over distributional effects-who is favored and who is disadvantaged when rules are defined and governance structures are erected. Of course there could be no consensus at that point. For example, any policy or rule that was favored by Network Solutions could not be agreed by the IAB-IETF elders, and any policy or rule favored by the trademark interests could not be agreed by the civil libertarians. So the invocation of this notion after 1998 shows that either the person is ignorant of what is going on or was trying to appropriate the legitimacy and the norms of the engineering community in a fundamentally dishonest way.

GL: Would it make sense to analyse ICANN (and its predecessors) as a test model for some sort of secretive ‘world government’ that is run by self appointed experts? Could you explain why governments are seen as incapable of running the Internet? This all comes close to a conspiracy theory. I am not at all a fan of such reductionist easy-to-understand explanations. However, the discontent with ‘global governance’ discourse is widespread and it seems that the International Relations experts have little understanding how the Internet is actually run. Where do you think theorization of Internet governance should start?

MM: ICANN is a test model for a global governance structure based on contract rather than territorial jurisdiction. That is an experiment worth having. The problem with ICANN is not that it is secretive. It is far less so than most international intergovernmental organizations. ICANN is in fact very political. It poses governance problems of the first order and directly involves states. It legislates rights, regulates an industry, allocates resources, and is trying to set de jure standards. So there must be political accountability. That means membership, elections, or something.

As for the “governments are incapable of running the Internet” part, the consensus is widespread because of direct experience and deeply engrained memories. Start with the OSI vs. TCP/IP controversy of the 1980s. Then move to Yahoo vs. France, which regardless of which side you take indicates a jurisdictional problem that must, if taken to its logical conclusion, point either toward globalism or toward re-engineering the Internet to conform to territorial jurisdictions.

Now move to the present, as governments start to get aware of ICANN and more involved in it, what do they do? What is the first thing they ask for? Is it defending consumer rights, end user civil liberties? Better representation for the public? No. All they are asking for is their own pound of flesh. Governments want special rights to country names in new TLDs. Intergovernmental organizations want special protection of their acronyms in the name space. Government law enforcement agencies want untrammelled access to user data via Whois. In WSIS, they ask for making ICANN into an intergovernmental organization, so that states can control it, and presumably kick civil society out of all serious deliberations, as they do in WSIS.

This behavior is not an accident or an aberration. Governments participate in Internet governance to further their own power and pursue their own organizational aggrandizement. The emergence of countervailing power centers such as the tech community and ICANN is a good thing.

You’d be surprised at how much of the world is run by small interlocking communities of experts, and naive leftists would no doubt be thoroughly surprised at how poorly the world would work if that were not the case. For example, think of the importance of WiFi standards-those are set by IEEE committees which are non-political and self-governing. Or think of how self-governing the academic community is or wants to be. Usually these kinds of systems work well and stay in the background until their operations create some kind of political problem demanding a more public resolution. This can happen in two ways: a public disaster which causes people to point fingers at responsible parties, or some kind of property rights conflict, which requires public and institutional solutions.

The real issue here is raised by your statement that “International Relations experts have little understanding how the Internet is actually run.” True. The intimate relationship between technical knowledge and governance structures that Lawrence Lessig wrote about creates a space where technical experts assume political power, or policy requires deep knowledge of the technical system. Theorization should start by investigating the way complex, distributed technical systems respond to shape international rules and norms, and vice versa.

GL: In 2000 ICANN organized so-called Membership at Large elections to have members of the Internet community on its board. Soon after they were cancelled. How do you look back at this experiment?

MM: I do not consider it a failure. It was an experiment that succeeded. It clearly revealed the preferences of the wider public following Internet governance, and for that reason, it was killed. Everyone involved in ICANN up to that point knew how artificial the representational structure it created was, and how that structure distributed power to a very small, unrepresentative, insulated group. We knew all along-in every forum, from IFWP to the DNSO to the Board selections-that ICANN was under the control of a small, self-selected clique dominated by Joe Sims. It was stunningly obvious to me, at least, that if there ever was a fair and open election conducted among the people involved that this clique would receive an overwhelmingly negative vote.

So the ruling party lost the election. That was perceived as a problem by ICANN management, and the solution was to eliminate elections. The fact that so many have accepted the ex post construction of this, that the election was a “failure,” shows how effective they have been in papering over the message that was sent. I recognize that when some people refer to the “failure” of the elections they are referring to mechanical problems, or more subtly and significantly, to the incursion of nationalistic competition that occurred in Europe and Asia. But again, I would argue that these phenomena were signs of success, not failure.

The mechanical problems occurred because more people registered to vote than ICANN was prepared for. The level of participation surprised even me. Think about the implications of that—a global electorate. Of course, election opponents could have claimed—more reasonably—that a small turnout was a symptom of failure too. If you look at the regional results for Africa, where something like 35 people appointed an ICANN Board member, you get a sense of what a failed election might have looked like.

The election also revealed some issues regarding mass voter registration in China and Japan. But it was unclear whether this was due to attempted manipulation or to language problems, which required Asian voters to go to English-language web sites to be enfranchised. Either way, the mechanical and verification issues could be solved. At what price? That was the only real criticism that was ever made of elections. Could ICANN afford to do them? One could debate cost-benefit here, but that was not the debate we had.

As for nationalistic competition (e.g., ICANN membership races between Germany and France, or between China and Japan) here again the election simply revealed in a realistic way the ways in which voters define their preferences. In many parts of the world people still define their identity in national terms and would prefer a candidate from their “own” country. The same was true of any democratic experiment—in U.S. Presidential elections, people are more likely to favor candidates from their own state. So what? One of the most intelligent things that Esther Dyson ever said about ICANN was her comment that the only solution to this was the development of the Internet-governance equivalent of political parties. This would have to occur over the long term, obviously.

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