How we got here
I never intended to become an Internet activist. I'm a techie by profession, specifically a network engineer, who managed to turn his personal hobby — computer hardware and software — into a full-time career. And like many in my profession, I was happily keeping the company's computers working for a living, and keeping my nose "under the radar." However, for some time I had become increasingly concerned about the disturbing control corporate interests were gaining over several key facets of our society, often using the very technology from which I make a living to subvert or marginalize consumer's rights. I even changed the focus of this Web site to address those concerns when it was clear few were doing so.
Of growing concern to me was the increasing domination of the Internet by US corporate interests. So I was pleased when the US Department of Commerce published its "Management of Internet Names and Addresses", (the so-called "White Paper") in June 1998, outlining plans to set up a non-profit corporation to oversee the Domain Name System (DNS), and promising public involvement in the selection of its board. I watched as ICANN became a going concern, and in February 2000 I registered with ICANN's @Large Membership, planning to be just one faceless voter among hopefully millions of Internet users who would help elect half of ICANN's board, and have a say in the governance of the Internet!
Unfortunately, it never happened that way. Instead of serving the public interest, ICANN's Internet industry-dominated "interim board members" were determined from the beginning to limit user involvement in the governance of their industry, and began what we in the At Large came to view as a lengthy effort to slowly disenfranchise Internet users from electing board members or otherwise having any say in Domain Name governance.
The chipping away of At Large influence began with the membership drive process itself. ICANN conducted a very ineffective outreach campaign, which rarely extended beyond Internet industry trade publications. On their At Large Membership Home page, ICANN boasted, "With over 76,000 activated members, ICANN achieved its goal of a large, globally diverse membership." However, they could have easily received many times that number had they engaged the mainstream press worldwide. But in a pattern we would see repeated over and over again, they went through the motions of outreach, while limiting the actual outreach effort to attract as few persons as possible outside of the Internet industry, to thereby ensure an At Large stacked with members favorable to their Internet industry friends.
The next "chip" came in the form of a limited election conducted March through October 2000. ICANN fractured the election into five separate geographic regions, and then limited members' votes to board candidates chosen from within their region, allowing only one winner per region. This process elected only five of the promised nine board members, which was disappointing to many of us. ICANN reassured us we'd have a second election at a later date to fill the remaining four slots. The second election never happened.
Shortly after the election, the ICANN staff apparently destroyed the original e-mail list, and ICANN cancelled further At Large voting, citing unfounded claims of voting fraud or "capture," and created the At Large Study Committee, the first of the so-called "AL*C" committees. The ALSC was tasked to perform a "clean slate" review of the At Large concept, and submit recommendations to the board for recreating the At Large. As part of this process, the ALSC started an e-mail forum, which quickly became a rallying point for a dedicated core of At Large members who managed to find it. Most of these were Internet industry insiders, since ICANN again made no real attempt to publicize the study outside of their industry. The rest were members like myself who grew concerned when no further word was heard from ICANN and actively sought it out. Note that this wasn't an easy prospect: this was "pre-Google," and sites not in the mainstream were easily hidden!
As with the membership drive, the ALSC's outreach efforts were intentionally ineffective, consisting of a series of regional meetings throughout the world, which were advertised almost exclusively within Internet industry circles. As far as we can ascertain, the mainstream press was never engaged in any of the cities where these meetings occurred. And if any attempt was made to engage the "wider Internet community," as the ALSC claimed in their Final Report, it was spectacularly unsuccessful, since even the techies I work with had never heard of ICANN at that point, let alone the At Large. If the common citizen had been asked a single question - "Should Internet users have a say in how the Internet is governed, or should only the moneyed interests have a say?" - the answer would have been a resounding "Yes! We want a voice!", and we would have seen a groundswell of public interest. That, of course, is why the question was never asked in public, and never openly debated anywhere outside of the ALSC forum.
When it was finally published, the ALSC Final Report was totally unacceptable to a great majority of the At Large members in the ALSC forum, for three major reasons.
- The first was the decision, "Based on our view of ICANN as a balance among developers, providers and users, we would recommend that the At-Large membership select a third of ICANN's Board." This would have allowed Internet industry insiders a two-thirds majority on the board, which was contrary to what the majority of voices in the ALSC forum had been asking for: the nine seats elected at large asoriginally promised.
- The second was the decision, "We have thus decided to recommend a system with voting rights based on domain names, and we have proposed the creation of a system in which those domain name holders wishing to be part of the process also become part of the process of setting up an At-Large Supporting Organization (ALSO)." This decision was based on the illogic, " . . . 'individual Internet users' is appropriately defined as 'individual domain name holders.'" In other words, the At Large would no longer represent Internet users, but rather domain name holders, who already had board representation through the Domain Name Supporting Organization General Assembly, a body which, by the way, has also since been disbanded by ICANN!
- The third reason was the statement " . . . we do not accept the notion that users' interests are somehow exclusively or even best protected by the direct election by e-mail address holders of half of ICANN's Board. Clearly this approach does not have consensus support." This decision would remove from the At Large the right to vote for our own representatives, and proved for once an all that the "consensus" ICANN valued was certainly not the members of the At Large!
At this point it was clear that ICANN's true goal was to disenfranchise Internet users from any say in ICANN policymaking. To say that we were disappointed and outraged would be putting it mildly. Nonetheless, a dedicated core of us continued the conversation in the ALSC e-mail forum, trying to decide how to influence decisions within an ICANN that clearly had no interest in granting the public any voice. Until February 2002.
That month we heard reports from our European members that ICANN's chief lawyer, Joe Sims, was in Brussels Belgium holding closed-door meetings with European Commission members, to gauge their reaction to plans that would completely restructure the ICANN board, replacing the At Large with a body of government representatives! The rumors were confirmed days later when ICANN President M. Stuart Lynn posted his "ICANN - The Case for Reform". The anger and outrage, still high due to the ALSC Final Report, was elevated to a steely resolve. It was now clear that, in their March 2002 meeting in Accra, Ghana, ICANN intended to implement the Lynn Proposal and formally throw the At Large out.
So, seeing our rightful place being denied to us, we began self-organizing ourselves outside of ICANN!
Armed with an idea proposed by Pindar Wong from Hong Kong, China; a Web domain donated by Jefsey Morfin, in Versailles, France; Web development skills provided by Joop Teernstra, in Auckland, New Zealand; US$1000 in seed money donated by Esther Dyson, New York City, USA, and the At Large members participating in the ALSC forum conversation, ICANNATLARGE.ORG was born. Our goal was to use the site as a base on which to form an international organization to represent - and defend the interests of - Internet users worldwide, based on concepts ICANN espoused but never embraced: open, transparent, bottom-up driven processes; and policies driven by consensus.
Examining ICANN's Domain Name Plans
So what now? Going into the future, outgoing ICANN president Stuart Lynn's A Plan for Action Regarding New gTLDs gives us a good glimpse of what ICANN has planned for the Internet, so let's look at it closely.
In the past, ICANN has made some fundamental errors implementing new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), most of which stemmed from a failure to enforce rules to ensure fairness and public accountability. Although it is unlikely in the extreme that ICANN will improve the fairness of future gTLD roll-outs, given their increasing isolation from external inputs, it is none the less important the following hard questions about this proposal are asked:
I. A Proposal for the Board to Extend the Proof of Concept in Parallel with Evaluation of the new gTLDs:
This section focuses primarily on sponsored gTLDs, which, according to Mr. Lynn have "fewer worries about trademark infringement and cybersquatting." While the problems Mr. Lynn alludes to are not in dispute, the difference in problem levels between sponsored and unsponsored gTLDs can be as easily attributed to ICANN's failure to enforce registration rules for the unsponsored gTLDs as to any other cause. This is particularly true regarding the ill-advised and highly abused pre-registration or "sunrise" rules for accommodating trademark holders, where persons were allowed to register domain names with no clear trademark, sometimes for generic names or terms that would never pass muster for trademark consideration! It was also true for the so-called "landrush" rules governing open registration, that were supposed to be first-come, first-served but often ended up with whole ranges of domain names already reserved when the gates opened. In both cases, the public is left with the perception that insiders received preferential treatment over members of the public.
Despite these past failings, there is certainly a place for sponsored gTLDs, targeted at various professions and trades. They would also be well received by interest groups, hobbyists, etc., as well. However, there are two questions that need to be asked and resolved if sponsored gTLDs are to be opened in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner:
- Which sponsored gTLDs do we open? To date, the sponsored gTLDs being considered for implementation are targeted primarily at so-called "white collar" professions and interests. However, the Internet is an increasingly important communications and customer outreach resource for all manner of businesses in the "blue collar" manufacturing and services sectors. ICANN should seriously consider implementing sponsored TLDs for some of these. For instance, .UNION should be seriously considered for one of the three new test case domains. But ICANN should go even further. Most of the names in the pool of 40 gTLDs names ICANN chose the first seven new names from were finalized over two years ago. Since then, Internet use has extended far deeper into small business. With that in mind ICANN should have an open call specifically for gTLDs in the non-computer trades and services industries.
- Who will have a voice in their selection, and the rules and restrictions that govern them? When the first 40 domains were chosen for consideration, the discussions regarding the selection rarely emerged outside of deep Internet industry circles. However, whether Internet industry wishes to believe it or not, the Internet is an international public resource, and should be managed accordingly. In that light, ICANN should be holding an open comment period, similar to those US regulatory agencies hold, to allow interested individuals a chance to steer the decision. Leaving the decision up to a registry or potential registry adds an artificial "filter" that perpetuated the while-collar, high-tech bias that colored the first 40 candidate names. We can do better by opening the conversation. A good start would be "low buzzword count" advertizements in Reuters and other internationally-respected news services.
II. A Plan for Implementing the Key Recommendations of the NTEPPTF Report regarding the Evaluation of New gTLDs:
This section of Mr. Lynn's plan discusses implementation strategies for recommendations made by its New TLD Evaluation Process Planning Task Force (NTEPPTF). There are three specific areas being addressed in the NTEPPTF report, all of which are important and appropriate, but all of which are subject to possible manipulation or misinterpretation to justify the status quo (i.e. too few gTLDs!).
- Initial Evaluation Project. This calls for research on how well the new gTLD roll-outs handled things like preregistration for trademark holders, cybersquatting prevention, enforcing registration rules, Whois accessibility and accuracy, protection against accidental or malicious acts, and legal or regulatory problems and disputes. Due to poor planning and lack of registrar oversight, the INFO and BIZ domain roll-outs both experienced failures in all of these areas. However, even though it is appropriate that these questions should be asked and answered, decisions need to be made about the following:
- Who will conduct the evaluation? To avoid the appearance of bias, this evaluation needs to be performed by an outside organization without direct ties to ICANN or the Internet industry. ICANN has a history of manipulating its internal "studies" in order to get the results their board is looking for. If this evaluation is to have any credibility, it needs to be free of any insider influences.
- Who will have input? If the evaluation is to be meaningful, it must range far outside the halls of ICANN's staff offices and the Internet registries. The At Large and several non-government organizations (NGOs) have documented numerous instances of misconduct, and unfair or preferential treatment on the part of the registries charged with managing the new-gTLD roll-outs. This information is critical to gaining a true picture of the successes and failures of the first seven new gTLDs. But it is not likely to see its way into any final report if responsibility for the review stays within the ICANN staff.
- Monitoring Program. The second major recommendation of the NTEPPTF was to set up a monitoring program to examine the effect of the seven new gTLDs on root server performance, DNS stability, Whois accuracy and completeness, registry rule compliance, and the effectiveness and compliance of "sunrise" and "landrush" start-up rules. This program is necessary, but will only be effective if conducted properly. Which begs the following questions:
- Who will conduct the monitoring program? Once again, any program conducted or influenced by ICANN or the registries will lack credibility within the Internet community. Any monitoring program developed should be conducted by an outside activity with minimal direct ICANN or registry involvement.
- How will public complaints be accepted and investigated? NGOs and the At Large have documented numerous instances of rules violations, preferential treatment and bad judgment on the part of registries managing new-gTLD roll-outs. Any monitoring process developed needs to include procedures to accept and investigate complaints lodged by NGOs, The At Large, private individuals, and Internet industry "whistleblowers", with mandated feedback to the submitter.
- Does ICANN intend to act to resolve problems detected through the monitoring program? This program will serve no useful purpose if ICANN continues to ignore misconduct, rule-breaking and shady practices on the part of the registries. Violations should have clear, pre-identified punishments tied to them, and ICANN should be expected to promptly apply them, up to and including cancellation of registry contracts when violations remain unresolved, or are repeated.
Part III: Evolving the Top Level gTLD Namespace. This section presents two different proposals for designating future gTLDs: the "laissez-faire approach," conducted similar to the previous round, where potential registrars recommend names; and a " taxonomic approach," where a "broad community of ICANN stakeholders" designed the new TLD structure.
Mr. Lynn's recommendation is that "the Board seek DNSO (or its successor) advice on how to evolve the top level generic namespace". I disagree. We need the involvement of the entire Internet community on this one, not an in-house ICANN study lead by the Internet industry-dominated DNSO. The future shape of the gTLD namespace is more a political issue than a technical one, and we need far greater discourse on this subject — by groups and entities representing diverse interests — than the subject would ever receive in a closed DNSO forum!
In all of this document however, there are several questions of import that Mr. Lynn leaves unanswered that need to be addressed:
- How many new gTLDs should we eventually have beyond the "three more sponsored gTLDs,"? Despite ICANN's publicly stated fears to the contrary, well respected voices associated with this industry that I trust assure me that there is really no legitimate technical reason anyone has brought forward why we can't have hundreds or thousands of new TLDs. Based on three-letter alpha codes alone, the permutations lead to over 17,000 possible TLDs. If you add in Unicode foreign-language alphabets . . . you get the idea! That said, the only other factor driving ICANN to keep the TLD count is greed-based manipulation of supply to frustrate demand and keep registration fees artificially high! As virtually every business, organization and interest group of any size stands up a Web presense, and as this movement moves into as-yet undeveloped areas of the world, we have the future need for a great many more gTLDs than I expect Mr. Lynn is envisioning. Our challenge is to get ICANN to expand it's processes beyond his vision!
- Will intellectual property issues continue to predominate in these new gTLDs, or should we finally say "enough is enough already!" and make new gTLDs strictly first come, first served? I obviously vote for the latter! Corporations have already spent enough useless dollars registering domains that serve solely as a redirector to their .COM address. We should designate certain domains, such as .COM and .BIZ as "commercial preserves" where companies and their customers can expect trademarks to predominate. But everything outside of that should be open to first-come, first served.
- ICANN's Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) needs to be rethought, even within commercial domains. In the US particularly, prior to the Internet, numerous companies could use the same name for their business without violating a trademark, as long as they were in dissimilar industries. However, under UDRP, there can only be one of everything. This often results in the company with the deepest pockets winning the dispute by being able to throw more money and lawyers at the battle than most small businesspersons are able to rally. The UDRP process also tends to favor commercial trademark rights above free speech rights, particularly when a parody or "flame" site is involved. Nor is the UDRP process necessarily the last word in a domain name dispute: several UDRP disputes have moved into the courtroom when one of the parties was unhappy with the result.
It is clear now that ICANN's long term goal has been to slowly remove all outside influences from their decision-making, so that they can continue to pass regulations that favor their Internet industry friends and other moneyed interests, at the expense of the small domain holder and the millions of users who increasingly depend on the Internet to live their lives. And so far they have been successful:
Now that they have silenced external dissent, they are free to continue to restructure the Internet to suit their industry friends, and continue to keep new top-level domains a scarce resource, and thereby a valuable one for existing registrars.
- Establishing the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP), which favors the large trademark holder at the expense of the small domain holder
- Silencing the At Large
- Eliminating the Domain Name Supporting Organization and its General Assembly, which served as a voice for the small domain user.
So what can you do? Not much at this point. Despite the best efforts of those of us in the At Large community, the Internet has been well and truely captured by corporate interests — you need only look at the Net Neutrality battle and corporate interest arrayed against it, to see the truth. Our only chance to ensure the "little people" have a voice online is to fight to keep the Internet ope