ICANN abolishes Net democracy, but Esther steps in

The old fruit's back

As expected, the domain name quango ICANN yesterday affirmed its commitment to "meaningful participation and representation for individual users" by abolishing the board elections in which you or I could vote for who sets key Internet policy.

The British chair of ICANN, Stuart Lynn, had outlined the proposal a fortnight ago, so it was sure to supersede the old, Mugabe-style policy of holding "elections" in which a) the ruling party is assured of a majority b) voting systems break down just when they start to be used and c) the opposition and journalists are intimidated not, as in Zimbabwe by violence, but by bureaucratic ennui.

Even the official public declaration from Accra seemed to choke on its own chutzpah. Parse this resolution, and see if you can find the verb:-

"Whereas various proposals failed to achieve broad consensus support in the community [the consensus overwhelmingly favoring the option of dropping the incumbent doozies], notwithstanding repeated efforts to achieve that end [there was just one election], in part because of widely divergent views [everyone hates us] and fundamentally different perspectives about the expected or desired results of various approaches within the ICANN community."

We can't.

Fifteen resolutions in, however, ICANN cuts to the chase:-

"The Board is not persuaded that global elections are the only or the best means of achieving meaningful public representation or the informed participation of Internet users in the ICANN process."

But just to be on the safe side, elections are being abolished anyway.

(In one of that year's most memorable quotes, ICANN explained that the enthusiastic public response to the 2000 At Large Election was because of a "basic misunderstanding" of ICANN's mission, which as we then noted was a striking case of vox diaboli).

There's some excellent coverage from the usual suspects: ICANNWatch, the ICANNBlog (Brett Fausett is in Accra), Rudetechbot and - pulling in a variety of sources including live irc logs from the Accra sessions - does-not-exist.org. (There's some fascinating stuff on the re-appointment of KPMG as ICANN auditors at the latter.)

Lynn's proposal sees the At-Large elected representatives (who only form a minority of the board) replaced by representatives nominated by governments.

Which means that candidates of the caliber of North America's elected representative Karl Auerbach, a veteran Internet engineer responsible for some of the key technical landmarks in the Net's history, and with years of constructive input into Internet policy, will be replaced by C-grade donors to national ruling political parties. And what a treat that nomination process promises to be: with anonymous, club-class Midlands biscuit entrepreneurs, Tennessee-based ball-bearing manufacturers, shire dames and if we're lucky (and we do hope Italy and Greece don't let us down here), Prime Minister's Mistresses, all vying for the honor of contributing to ICANN policy.

A couple of years ago Auerbach impressed us by returning a call to The Register on Thanksgiving Day afternoon, which goes way beyond the call of duty, and somehow we suspect we won't be getting the same courtesy from his successors.

Yesterday Auerbach noted, "My board seat, and those of the other four elected board members will simply vaporize this fall, with no replacements, no elections ... no nothing."

That's Life

If the Accra proceedings weren't already absurd enough, who should pop up, clanking her chains, but tech eccentric and former ICANN chair Esther Dyson. Dyson, a peripheral but unavoidable figure in the Californian social calendar (although here, we've carefully developed heuristics that fill our calendar with dentist appointments whenever one of her self-regarding "conferences" looms) returned as the first "interim" ICANN chair after doing her bit to derail the Russian economy in the early 90s.

The nutty woman hasn't been idle, though.

Since late last year she's been involved in a contra operation, blessed by the board, to seek new ways of developing consensus, which don't involve any consensus at all. This goes by the name of the ALSC or the "At Large Study Committee", which was a bureaucratic ploy to signal the extinction of Net democracy while deferring the fateful decision itself for several months.

But the extent of Esther's capacity for self-delusion, for her flinty-eyed conviction that she's doing the world a favor, is apparent in this quite surreal e-mail, forwarded to several journalists and reproduced here. She forwards the touchy-feely, look-at-the-bunnies bits of yesterday's ICANN press release prefaced with the line "hard fought…. FYI from Esther".

Bless her.

Dyson played the role of lightning conductor in ICANN's early years, and her presence - always just about available enough, and credible enough for mainstream salon opinion - helped convey the message that despite its shaky finances and battling constituents, ICANN was set on an honest course. Now we know that was a sham, but Esther still insists she's saving the world. Just for us!

The finishing touch is her signature file which promises (and this comes above several plugs for upcoming books, conferences etc) …

"Esther Dyson Always make new mistakes!"

If only that were true. ®

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