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Why ICANN Needs Fresh Blood: A Deeper View

I grew up in a utopian community in India.

I make this statement—which may seem at best tangential to an article on the DNS—at the outset because it suggests that I know something about ideology and ideologically charged debates.

Like the town where I grew up, the Internet was the product of dreamers, people who believed in the possibility of surmounting reality. In Code, Lessig compared early Internet euphoria to the euphoria that met the downfall of communism. He could just as well have compared it to the utopianism that accompanied the birth of communism. The point is that Internet pioneers were inspired by ideology, by a fervor to change the world.

That fervor was in many respects inspiring—indeed, it built the net. The problem, though, is that the same ideological purity that would change reality also has a habit of stumbling on reality. Fervor gives quickly away to fanaticism. In the town where I grew up, debates and arguments over quite practical matters would suddenly assume existential significance. The result was not only that the real matter at hand would be obscured, but quite simply that nothing would ever get done: every dreamer was so seduced by his own dream that no one could make the compromises necessary to move forward.

Something very much like this appears to have happened with the management of the DNS. ICANN was born amid the heady days of Internet euphoria. Its early promise to be the world’s first global democracy (not to mention an entirely new form of governance) was a product of that euphoria. But like so many dot-coms, ICANN quickly succumbed to the hubris of its own vision. If ICANN has been a troubled organization from the start, then that is in no small measure because it over-promised at the start.

Today, the dream of global democracy has, to put it mildly, failed. At-large elections have been cancelled; accusation of authoritarianism and secrecy are staples of the ICANN discussion. On all sides, the early sense of possibility—ICANN really could have represented a new model of governance—has narrowed. As in the community where I grew up, ideological dogmatism has led to visceral and highly personalized loathing.

The arguments surrounding ICANN are still sometimes phrased in ideological terms—as arguments over whether control of the net should be centralized or decentralized; as arguments over the relative virtues of the free market vs. regulation; as debates over the very meaning of regulation. But make no mistake: so hardened is everyone’s position by now—and so familiar is everyone with each others’ positions—that these ideological differences are simply masks for old grudges. ICANN’s critics don’t just see ICANN as a bumbling organization. They see it as a collection of evil individuals that have betrayed a dream.

I saw the personalized nature of this debate last month, in the responses to my previous column: same old characters, engaging in the same old disputes. I saw this back in October, too, when I attended the ICANN conference in Shanghai. It felt like a repeat performance of an old play. Everyone was on first-name terms. Everyone knew each other. Who knows what insults and slights had been traded between the antagonists, late on a boozy night, in one of the many exotic locations where ICANN holds its conferences? ICANN is today an insider’s scene—critics and defenders of the organization are really trapped in the same sordid game.

Everyone is to blame for this state of affairs. Or, rather, no one is to blame any longer. To be sure, ICANN’s critics could be more diplomatic; the highly personal nature of some of the attacks, and the refusal to give ICANN the benefit of the doubt during its reform process, have hardly been constructive. On the other hand, ICANN itself has hardly inspired confidence with its high-handed treatment of outsiders and its refusal to countenance criticism. (Just this month, Stuart Lynn dismissed criticism of ICANN as closed and insular with the incredibly circular argument that this criticism is in fact proof of ICANN’s openness. “Anyone can, and indeed does, use the press to amplify their views,” he said at a ccTLD meeting at the ITU. “That is the price we pay for furthering the reality and not just the illusion of openness, transparency and full accountability.”)

There was a time, I suppose, when it would have made sense to challenge not only the substance, but more importantly the dismissive tone, of such assertions. But at this stage Lynn is just responding to the accumulation of similarly dismissive and unconstructive criticism. We’ve moved beyond right and wrong in the ICANN debate. The issue is quite simply an instinctive and, I suspect, irremediable lack of trust between the participants.

What’s needed is fresh blood—new personalities, and new ideas to break the ideological impasse. In that regard, Paul Twomey’s appointment to the presidency may be dismaying—critics have charged him with being an insider. But would simply getting rid of the insiders really help? It’s not clear that even a new set of actors is enough to regain confidence and legitimacy in the Internet community. It may be that the personal distrust has muddied the institution itself, meaning that we need to come up with an entirely new framework for managing the DNS.

Last month, I wrote about some possible alternatives to ICANN—not just new personalities, but new institutions and new structures of governance. That was just a start. A number of other options (including the possible banding together of ccTLDs that has been mooted in recent months) exist. But wherever we end up, it’s time to start thinking radically. Readers of this column probably don’t care too much about the fate of a small community in India. But the Internet is too valuable a public resource to fall victim to the same stasis and ideological logjam.

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