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Why I left the ICANN At Large Advisory Committee

For about the last two years, I was a member of ICANN’s At Large Advisory Commitee (ALAC), the group charged with representing the interests of ordinary Internet users within ICANN. In case anyone is wondering, here’s why I’m not on the ALAC any more.

ICANN has a very narrow mission. They maintain the root zone, the list of top-level domain names in the Internet’s domain name system. They coordinate numeric IP addresses, with the real work delegated to five Regional Internet Registries. And they keep track of some simple and uncontroversial technical parameters for Internet routing applications. That’s it. (This is all in the first section of the ICANN bylaws.)

ICANN runs only one of the dozen root zone name servers, with the rest run by volunteer entities ranging from Verisign to NASA to a Japanese research consortium. Since the root server operators might not accept ICANN’s root zone if they had technical, legal, or political concerns, ICANN carefully avoids asking them to do anything they might turn down. This means that ICANN is unlikely ever to do anything really stupid.

Most of the top-level domains are two-letter geographical country codes like .US for the United States and .CN for China, defined by a list from the ISO, over which ICANN has no say. A current dispute over the as yet unused .EH domain for Western Sahara, a chunk of African desert, between two competing governments is about as exciting as that gets.

ICANN’s most public activity is to decide which new generic or specialized domains get added. When ICANN started there were three generic domains, the familiar .COM, .ORG, and .NET, and five specialized ones. Since then, they’ve added a dozen new ones. Of these, only .BIZ and .INFO have reached a million registrations. There is some hope for .MOBI, intended for and vigorously supported by the mobile phone industry, and perhaps for .TEL which is intended as an on-line phone book. The others are so small and obscure that you’ve probably never heard of them and never will. ICANN still has no coherent process for adding new domains, and is likely to end up in yet more lawsuits over the proposed .XXX for pornography which is of course a huge political hot potato. Related to the domains are some side issues related to how much information about each domain registrant should be public, domain pricing, and the occasional misbehaving registrar.

To advise them on their work, ICANN has an impressively large and complex array of advisory committees and constituencies ranging from registries and registrars to governments, trademark lawyers, and, bringing up the rear, the ALAC for everyone else.

The people who participate fall into a small set of categories. One set is the businessmen, the registries and registrars who actually make money doing this stuff, and the lawyers, bureaucrats, and lobbyists, particularly trademark lawyers who live in dread that any domain that resembles their clients’ business or product names should ever be used by anyone else (DISNEY.XXX, anyone?) These people are sent by their employers, and do ICANN work as part of their day jobs.

Another group is what I’d call semipros, people who use a connection with ICANN to help their own careers, typically either academics who write about Internet governance and online society, or else from places where the folks back home are impressed by a connection to ICANN.

Finally, there are the idealists, of whom I am one, who want equitable access and fair prices for domain names, and the expansive dreamers who don’t understand what ICANN actually does, but imagine it to have a role in sweeping metaphors about cyberspace and global Internet governance.

The current ALAC is basically a bunch of idealists; perhaps a few also are semipros. We all do this in our spare time, getting only travel expenses reimbursed by ICANN.

After going to a few ICANN meetings I found that ICANN operates along the lines of the court of the Sun King. ICANN’s processes are hopelessly opaque, and short of a lawsuit, the way to get something done is through personal connections with staff and particularly with board members. As a result, ICANN’s meetings involve a mob swirling around the ICANN board, and to some degree the staff, trying to get face time. There’s processes to submit formal comments which the staff boils down for the board, but it’s much more effective to talk or exchange email with board members you know, which means that the more time you have to schmooze with the staff and board, the more effective you are. This puts us spare-timers at a hopeless disadvantage. Despite having gotten to know some of the staff and board members, I honestly cannot think of a single time that comments or pressure from the ALAC has ever changed an action by ICANN. Perhaps if we put in even more unpaid time that might be different, but I doubt it.

Adding to the ALAC’s problems are some serious institutional issues. The ALAC has a three-tier design in which organizations with individual members are supposed to sign up as at large structures (ALS), which band together by geographic region into regional at large organizations (RALOs) which select two of the three ALAC members for each region, with the third member picked by the ICANN nominating committee. Pre-RALO, the board picks interim ALAC members, including me.

The Latin American RALO finally started last December, RALOs in Africa, Europe, and Asia may start later this year, and even in North America, where for a long time there was no activity at all, we’re seeing RALO interest, mostly from Canada. As I watch this process, I see that whether by design or by accident, the RALOs will force out the idealists in favor of dreamers and maybe semipros, since nobody who actually understands ICANN’s narrow mission and the ALAC’s impotence would waste time on RALO bureaucracy. Nonetheless, there seem to be plenty of dreamers on tap, including several groups that are not eligible to be an ALS, being organizations that consist of organizations rather than individuals. (They belong in ICANN’s NCUC instead.)

This brings us to the last straw, the Ombudsman. In an organization as opaque as ICANN, an Ombudsman should be a good idea to deal with tangles of red tape. Unfortunately, the current Ombudsman has avoided anything that might antagonize ICANN’s staff or politically well connected committees, most recently refusing to address ICANN’s year long failure to enforce contract terms against incompetent registrar Registerfly.

The ALAC, having no political power at all, has had multiple run-ins with the Ombudsman over delays in handling ALS applications, due to a combination of our screwups, staff issues, and for a while a Catch-22 in which several ALAC members wouldn’t participate or vote, so we could never get a quorum. Most recently we had what should have been a tiny administrative issue with a group of ineligible Swiss dreamers who desperately want to be an ALS, making the silly argument that since their board has individual members, they qualify as an ALS. (If that’s true, so does General Motors.) The Ombudsman decided to make an example of us, wrote a long scathing report saying, among other things, that the applicant is qualified because he says so, and posted it as a featured item on the ICANN web site. The report is riddled with factual errors and unsupported conclusions that we pointed out and he declined to correct, but I gather that at least some of the ICANN board takes it seriously, and the ALAC will have to expend significant effort to deal with it.

You know what? I don’t have time for this nonsense.

I thought hard about what I might accomplish if I spent several more years on the ALAC. Maybe we could get retail domain name prices to be $10.50 rather than $11. Perhaps we could get anonymous domain registration so freedom fighters can register vanity domains like THEDEARLEADERSUCKS.COM, or get ICANN to fix the loophole that permits domain tasting. We might have some effect on the constipated process for approving new top level domains, or the endless arguments about permitting non-Roman alphabets in top and second level domain names. Or we might not. In the big picture, how much effort is this all worth? Not much. Certainly not almost a month each year.

The individual members of the ALAC are all great people with whom I have enjoyed working, and the three annual ICANN junkets (next up, Lisbon at the end of this month) are always fun, but the ALAC simply isn’t worth the time, and it is particularly not worthwhile to spend time dealing with internal ICANN politics that shouldn’t be happening in the first place. So if anyone else wants my seat, they’re welcome to it.

By John Levine, Author, Consultant & Speaker

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Jeremy Malcolm  –  Mar 7, 2007 12:04 AM

Come over to the Internet Governance Forum instead, John.  Yes it is also a little dysfunctional (see http://igfwatch.org/ for commentary on this aspect), but it is acting in issue areas that are more important, though lower profile than Internet naming and numbering (because there is less money in them).  There are dynamic coalitions of the IGF (which you are welcome to join) for issues such as spam, privacy, open standards, IPR/A2K, Internet Bill of Rights, freedom of expression, access for remote communities, and my own baby, remote participation.  The IGF would only need fraction of the interest shown from volunteers in ICANN in order to achieve significantly more.  The official IGF site is at http://www.intgovforum.org, and the community site is (for now) at http://igf2006.info/.

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Mar 7, 2007 2:44 AM

IGF has a lot of commonalities with ICANN -

1. Academics with biased agendas (semipro)

2. A large “civil society” crowd - again what John calls semipros - most of which alternate slogan shouting with scarfing down spoonfuls of caviar topped salmon http://www.mccullagh.org/photo/1ds-12/igf-reception

3. The usual industry players

4. Unbiased idealists - some with impractical, head in the clouds, ideas - and others who are also practical, and who can actually bridge the gap between technical, policy and government types (John is one of the very few people I know in a very broad cross section of people who can do this, and do it well)

4. Exotic, far flung locations (a beach resort in Greece, Rio, New Delhi ...)

5. No funding / travel support for attendees [which is probably a good thing, cuts down what’d be a far huger number of freeloaders who couldnt get funding from one of several NGOs]

Probably the one difference is the deliberate lack of a huge bureaucracy, and of a decision making process.  IGF is designed as a talk shop, and as a place for people to network (layer 9’s importance should never be underestimated) - and at that, it has been a success. 

I’ve been at a bunch of different forums and on quite a few lists - antispam / malware, igov, network ops etc, and IGF is about the one place where I can see people from all those fora, with shared interests, together in the same room.

Oh - about the one panel I really appreciated in IGF (other than the stopspamalliance one, which I strongly recommend) was David Allen’s “Academics in the IGF” panel - it has a lot of potential, and probably some of the most brilliant people who were at the Athens IGF were in that room.

Adam Peake  –  Mar 7, 2007 9:39 AM

Suresh, I believe Declan’s picture was taken at a reception put on by the Greek government for the volunteers who helped staff the meeting. Perhaps tagging the photo “Greek govt say thanks to IGF volunteers” would give a different flavour? (sorry :-)

As for “exotic, far flung locations”.  The governments of Greece, Brazil (2007), India (2008), Egypt (2009) and either Lithuania and Azerbaijan (both “bidding” for 2010) have offered to host the meeting free of charge. 

Where would a mundane location be? Paris (OECD), Geneva (ITU and UN), New York (UN). Like ICANN, IGF is trying to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t have such events in their region. And they do it by accepting offers to host free of charge.  ICANN takes a lot of criticism for being a travelling circus, but how else can it (or IGF) more clearly demonstrate a commitment to international participation?

A meeting was held in Geneva a couple of weeks ago to take stock of the successes and failures of the Athens IGF, full transcript available http://www.intgovforum.org/Feb_igf_meeting/13_February_Consult_2007.txt  And the secretariat is still hoping people will comment on what went well/less well, and how to improve the meeting in Rio—online form for comments http://info.intgovforum.org/Q2006v2.php

Suresh Ramasubramanian  –  Mar 7, 2007 11:10 AM

Hi Adam - yes I’m aware the meetings are hosted free of charge - and certainly appreciate the gracious gesture of the governments that have agreed to host IGF.

However, please consider that a “greatest good of the greatest number” policy means that holding one of these in Europe - or in a major asian / US based airline hub is actually a better idea than it sounds. 

The reason is direct flights, and far cheaper air tickets available to major airline hubs from most parts of the world.  In fact, for a continent like africa, you’ll find that its often cheaper to fly KLM or Lufthansa to Europe, or Emirates to Dubai, and then back into another african country rather than fly within the continent.

That is why, when I and my colleagues on the apricot management committee evaluate bids to host APRICOT we would prefer that it be hosted in a city that has a major international airport, rather than a fun beach resort that requires connecting flights from some other city.  Yup we did the recent apricot in Bali, but then Denpasar Bali (DPS) has international flights from all over asia coming into it ..

The “traveling circus” criticism is actually enhanced by having the meeting in a location that has a tourism cachet to it.  Do a meeting in a profoundly uniteresting and drab place like (for example) Minneapolis, or Bombay, and you’ll find that far more people prefer to attend the meeting than to sneak out for a spot of sun and sand.

I didn’t know that the Greek post office reception was only for IGF volunteers - didnt see any signage saying that, and saw quite a few attendees / speakers piling onto the caviar just as assiduously as anyone else :)

Martin Hannigan  –  Mar 9, 2007 7:10 AM

John, thank you for a job well done. I appreciated your representation.

Best Regards,

Martin Hannigan
Plain-old Internet User

Kuo-Wei Wu  –  Apr 8, 2007 8:14 AM

Dear John,

I really appreciated your saying. First of all, I don’t like the three-tier design ALS—RALO—ALAC—ICANN at all. I said it at ICANN Marrakech meeting already.
1. No matter individual or ALS, they have no resource (money, time and people) to participate ICANN process.
2. The process of ALS is too slow (since they have no real political power at all).
3. It should be ALS—ALAC—ICANN. ICANN should invite all the ALS to join the ALAC meeting at least once a year to discuss issues we concerned. And ICANN should provide minimum resource for those ALS to such meeting (even just one airline ticket and cheap hotel for one ALS).
At ICANN Lisbon meeting, it loooks like RALO in process (Latin American, Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe). Actually, all the RALO have a long way to go (sufficient resource for them to survive and in work). The most importance is how to link ALS to RALO, and RALO to ALAC, and ALAC to ICANN? During APRALO process in Bali meeting on Feb. 2007 (it can have such meeting because ICANN provide money for each ALS to have one person to join the meeting), my friends asked me “how you not run for officers or ALAC?”. My answer are (1) I have no idea to make it really effective with solid and reasonable resource. And I hate to raise such money from each ALS, because I know they have no resource to do so. (2) I worry to be the ALAC and can not present the concern from RALO’s consensus. And it is just my personal view or opinion. There are many questions without answer. But we should not give up to push or watch the process of ICANN and Internet Governance, because we have to live with Internet no matter what.

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