LOYAL OPPOSITION: Vote to Stop the Matrix

This fall there's a damn important election. No, not the Gush-Bore, rush-to-the-corporate-center face-off. Sure, the Supreme Court and all our rights may be up for grabs. But another election could determine the future of something larger than the US political system -- the Internet.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (aka ICANN), which coordinates domain names and Internet addresses and oversees other technical aspects of the Interent, will be holding its first elections for five at-large members of its 19-person board. Who can vote? Any geek (or non-geek) older than sixteen with a computer, an email account, and an old-fashioned postal address (those who reside only in virtual space are not eligible).

Why should you care? ICANN manages the Domain Name System, which assigns web site names and addresses. Sound dull, or a matter just for cybernerds? Well, controlling domain names is akin to controlling store signs, book titles, trademarks, license plates, mailing addresses, or beachfront property. Some names can be worth a fortune (think sex.com or Jesus.com or pets.com). And as the Internet swells, it will be up to ICANN to oversee the new domains that are needed to meet the demand, such as ".store" or ".personal". Though ICANN's role is supposed to be strictly technical, its decisions could raise questions involving free speech, privacy, and Internet openess.

ICANN has a tough task. By some estimates, 98 percent of the words in the English langauge have been grabbed for dot-com addresses. That's hard to believe. As a test, I opened my dictionary to the middle and started trying names. Midge.com? Taken. Midinette.com? (A midinette is a Parisian sales woman.) Taken. Midrash.com? (A midrash is an early Jewish interpretation of a Biblical text.) Taken. Midriff.com? Taken. Midstream.com? Taken. Miff.com? Taken. Mig.com? (A mig is a playing marble -- or a Russian jet fighter.) Taken. Of the dozen words I chose at random, only one was available: "midmashie." That's a particular sort of golf club.

Ponder what's going to happen when new domains open up. Who will get the right to use "sex.store" or "MichaelJordan.personal"? (There's more than one MJ.) As the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) puts it, "If you imagine the Internet as a city with finite borders, ICANN acts as the zoning authority who hands out parcels of property to interested parties." Will it favor a big corporations when it comes time to decide who receives the address "tobacco.bus"? Or might it grant this name to a public interest group opposing the tobacco industry?

As the Internet grows and turns into what we are not yet able to envision, will ICANN's role evolve to incorporate more than these important zoning matters? "There are fears," says Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst with the CDT, "that ICANN will not be a democratic instituion and will be used in ways -- which are difficult to forsee now -- to control the Internet. A lot of people equate it with the WTO and other global initiatives in a negative way. We have a chance now to make this a more democratic and accountable organization." In other words, to stop ICANN from becoming the Matrix.

The US government used to be in charge of Internet names and addresses. But ICANN was formed in 1998, at the initiative of the Clinton Administration, which wanted a private non-profit corporation handling the Internet naming and numbering systems. It is chaired by cyber-guru Esther Dyson, who also sits on the board. Nine of its board members are chosen by organizations that run the technical side of the Internet. (There's the Address Supporting Organization, the Protocol Supporting Organization, and the Domain Name Supporting Organization.) Nine seats are at-large positions divvied up by graphic regions (Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America/Caribbean, and North America). These seats are meant to reflect the voice of Internet consumers, and five are up for grabs in the online vote scheduled for the end of September.

ICANN is hardly an ominous outfit, but there has been some trouble with its election rules. In March, CDT and Common Cause issued a report identifying problems with the election plan. "ICANN," they noted, "faces the daunting goal of seeking a fair ballot, free from capture or fraud, from a potential electorate of millions of Internet users worldwide who have little knowledge of ICANN and little understanding of its mission, in order to select a high-quality board of technically-capable members -- all by September of this year. Realistically, without substantial changes to the proposed process, it is difficult to see how this is possible."

At that time, the two groups criticized ICANN's plan because it set a relatively low 5000-person quorum (which would allow a motivated group to "capture" the system by stuffing the e-ballot box); created an indirect procedure under which voters would only elect members of a council that would choose the board members; and failed to establish a clear nomination process or a campaign to educate the electorate about ICANN and the election. The two groups asserted that Internet users should be able to elect at-large board members directly, that an election authority should be created to audit and monitor the election, that there should be a process that would allow nominations through an ICANN nominating committee and through petitions, and that ICANN ought to not rush to hold these elections.

Moreover, their report maintained that ICANN should develop rules that limit its authority to technical management issues: "ICANN must do a better job of explaining to the public what it can and cannot do, and make those limitations a clear and binding part of its structure." ICANN has no constitution at the moment, and some Internet-observers worry about a mission-creep that would permit a not-truly-democratic ICANN (perhaps one dominated by corporations) to affect the Internet beyond its oversight of names and addresses.

ICANN took some points of criticism well -- but not all. It decided to hold direct elections of the at-large board members. To avoid a rush to failure, it modified the schedule so that only five, not all nine, at-large board positions would be selected this year.

Yet ICANN also messed up on several important fronts. It created its elections and nominating committees in non-public meetings, so outsiders had no chance to exert a say about who should sit on these panels. These committees are dominated by current board members who represent the supporting organizations. So ICANN insiders have too much opportunity to influence who will run for the seats that are supposed to represent the e-public. And the rules drafted by ICANN's nominations committee favor candidates it annoints over candidates who enter the race by way of petition.

In an email alert, CDT and Common Cause noted that they "believe the ultimate fairness and legitimacy of ICANN's elections are in jeopardy under the current proposed rules." They urged ICAN to require that the nominations committee name at least three candidates for each seat. The committee could nominate just one candidate per seat for a sham election. CDT and Common Cause also suggested that ICANN lower the high threshold it set for candidates who use petitions to join the fray. To win a spot on the ballot, a candidate who is not chosen by the ICANN nominations committee must obtain the support of 10 percent of a region's electorate. Yet there is no effective way for a candidate to locate and contact ICANN members to ask for their backing. A member is anyone who meets the qualifications noted above and who registers with ICANN. (To register, go to the CDT site: www.cdt.org/action/icann. Common Cause and the American Library Association have joined CDT in mounting a registration campaign for ICANN voters. The tenative deadline for registering is July 31.)

ICANN, pioneering the first international online elections, is an entity to watch. "ICANN is in its infancy," notes Don Simon, a lawyer working with Common Cause. "It has the potential to be an enormously important organization that makes sure the Internet continues to grow and develop in a way that is open, accessible, functionable and fair. This is a real experiment. Can you internationalize and democratize the technical administration of the Internet to preserve its values and potential? Can ICANN be an international organization that serves as a bulwark against any government efforts to control the Internet?" For this to happen, Simon notes, "ICANN must create a real election. The legitimacy of ICANN is tied to the legitimacy of its first election."

ICANN's beta version of its election rules do not inspire confidence. Perhaps CDT and Common Cause will succeed in pushing it to develop an election plan that actually serves the constituency that these at-large seats are meant to represent. In the meantime, Internet users should register now to vote in this cyber-election. It's the least you can do to help prevent ICANN from becoming Keanu Reeve's worst nightmare.

David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation and author of Deep Background, a novel of political suspense published by St. Martin's Press.

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