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In Defense Of Face To Face

I recently caused a stir in a small but passionate community.

I was speaking about a topic I’ve discussed many times before: the need for more effective public input into the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit corporation that controls the Internet’s protocols, addresses and domain name system.

“We want public input into ICANN,” I had said at a conference at Oxford University.

Then, I referred to ICANN’s new At-Large Advisory Committee, set up to foster public input and on which I sit: “We’ve got a mechanism where (the public) can have a seat on the task forces, liaisons to working groups, be part of the policy making process—I see that in many ways as more important than having a seat on the board.”

Surely, I must have been joking! At least, that’s what the reaction to my statement implied.

Even someone as clueless as I should know better than to say that having one of the 15 seats on the ICANN board—which has the final vote on policy—is not the most important thing in the world when it comes to representing the best interests of the public.

You could consider this a small spat over one little agency, but in fact the issue is much broader.

It underlies everything from what the United States is—and should be—doing about Iraq to how much we can expect of the Internet in fostering democracy and liberty worldwide.

Sometimes I think we worry too much about structure and not enough about texture. Yes, it matters to some extent who is on ICANN’s board—or who is in power in Iraq—but it’s not as important as it may seem.

Change the structure and you don’t necessarily change the texture that determines much of what actually goes on. Structure helps change things over time, but it doesn’t work on its own. People need to know what to do to use and reinforce the structure.

We discovered that to our cost in Russia, where we thought that regime change would change everything. It didn’t.

I still remember the Russian who said to me with great enthusiasm: “Our government is going to set free-market prices—just like yours!” He knew he wanted free markets, but he just couldn’t conceive of how they really work.

Russia is still working on its transition, trying to fix its society from the ground up, and that transition is far from over. It instituted elections and it opened free markets, but it had no culture of obeying laws or enforcing them fairly.

Much the same can be said about Afghanistan, and perhaps someday about Iraq. Regime change is easy. Culture change is hard.

Change From The Roots Up

So, to get back to ICANN, that’s why I think it’s just as important for people to be involved at the grass-roots level, shaping policy rather than just voting on it.

The issues surrounding ICANN have a lot to do with its management and policy-making groups as well as its board and its bylaws. They concern how seriously people are treated and how well they are listened to.

The ICANN board’s votes are usually fairly general; all the details and nuances occur in the implementation, either in the policies that are put to the board, or the ones that are created and implemented afterward at its direction.

I was ICANN’s founding chairman from 1998 to 2000. From my own experience on the board, being chairman didn’t necessarily mean that I got what I wanted (which is certainly a good thing). But it also means that changing members of a board or even a chairman doesn’t necessarily change that much.

In fact, my experience has shown me that a persistent individual can accomplish quite a bit. Ironically, acting as a free agent rather than a spokesperson, I have done more to change ICANN since leaving the board than I could do on the board.

One To One, Face To Face

How can an individual be effective?

It’s definitely not through online discussions, which has been suggested as a possible way to get the public more involved in ICANN, as well as in other issues. As useful as those discussions can be for the participants, they rarely seem to lead to consensus for anything beyond very small, cohesive groups.

I have never seen anyone in an online discussion say: “Oh, your trenchant comment has changed my mind.”

Fundamental change gets accomplished through human interaction, mostly face to face, rather than online or by votes.

In this world of instant publishing and online discussion, wonderful and democratic as they are, I fear that people are getting better and better—or at least more frequent—at expressing themselves, and spending less and less time listening.

As Americans, we have a democracy. The differences between Republicans and Democrats may seem great, but there are lots of assumptions we share without noticing. It’s those assumptions that change only gradually, and through direct experience.

How policies are set does matter, and it depends on who’s in the trenches setting them. At the top, only one team can win. But at the policy-making level, a variety of people can have a seat at the table and have direct input into the discussion.

Those seats at the table should be real, not virtual—not just comments sent in over e-mail to be read by a clerk and summarized as “public input.”

I’m not saying that voting doesn’t matter, or that individuals cannot take power and carry things further than the voters expected. In many ways, however, such elections are expressions of change rather than creators of it.

But who’s on top is not the only thing that counts. People are most effective one on one, with other people. So despite all the hopes for online communication and elections, even the Internet’s own policies will likely end up being determined face to face.

This article is reproduced with special permission from New York Times Syndicate. Copyright 2003, New York Times Syndicate.

By Esther Dyson, Chairman of EDventure Holdings

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