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The End of the Experiment

An abstract from John Palfrey’s recent paper that takes a critical look at ICANN’s attempt in cultivating global Internet democracy.

Amidst a firestorm of debate, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has experimented with various forms of governance of the domain name system (DNS) involving input from the Internet community since its founding in 1998. ICANN’s experimentation in running a representative and open corporate decision-making process has largely failed. This failure has manifested itself most explicitly by ICANN’s retreat from its effort to enable the direct election of a subset of its Board members and, less explicitly, by the extent to which other efforts to engage the Internet user community in the decision-making process have proven ineffective. The lesson of these failures is not, as some have argued, that ICANN should simply become more democratic in its decision-making process, at least not through the means that have to date come up short. Some activists and academics have hoped to prove that Internet technologies could enable a new mode of governance of the Internet’s technical architecture that would empower users and global civil society. Driven in part by this misplaced idealism and in part by the crush of myriad interests at the bargaining table, ICANN’s leadership sought to develop a novel means of involving the Internet user community in a consensus-based decision-making process. A systematic review of over 100,000 comments by public participants in ICANN, other inputs that the Board considered, and the Election of 2000 for five ICANN Board members, reveal that ICANN never fully succeeded in integrating users into the governance model in other than an ad-hoc fashion. Instead, the Board appears largely to have based its decisions upon the recommendations of professional staff and of the powerful Supporting Organizations (SOs), in which users could participate. It is likely through these Supporting Organizations that individual members of the Internet user community have been best able participate meaningfully in ICANN’s decision-making process, but this participation is extremely hard to gauge, either for an individual him or herself or for a researcher assessing the data ex post.

While ICANN does not point the way toward a promising new model for governance of the technical architecture of the Internet, the failure of its experiment in representation does provide several insights into the global problem of governance of the Internet’s technical architecture. First, the failure of ICANN’s experimentation in democratic governance shines further light upon the need for an overhaul of ICANN’s governance structure. Such reform should not necessarily involve greater use of public comment submissions systems or direct elections, given the ineffectiveness of these modes to date. This overhaul should move ICANN away from its semidemocratic past and toward a structure better suited to the entity’s narrow technical management purpose, with a corresponding commitment to refrain from adding to that mandate. Second, ICANN should clarify the way in which users can involve themselves in the decision-making process for managing the domain name system, arguably through the Supporting Organization process. Third, we should look beyond the ICANN model, which has never been the appropriate venue for experimentation in global decision-making, toward new ways to govern the technical architecture of the Internet in an increasingly networked, less bordered world.

By John Palfrey, Executive Director & Lecturer on Law

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