The Pro-Democracy Movement in ICANN
A version of this analysis has been submitted for possible publication
to Peace Review
Hans Klein is on the faculty of the School of Public Policy at the
Georgia Institute of Technology.
The 1999 Seattle demonstrations greatly increased in public awareness of the policy-making role of international organizations like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank. The demonstrations also contributed to an on-going dialogue about global social movements and how citizens can more effectively participate in global policy-making. Simultaneously, the rapid diffusion of Internet technology raises questions whether the Internet might help overcome barriers to democratic participation in international organizations.
Important insights about these issues can be gained from a recently created organization: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Created in 1998, ICANN is a private, non-profit organization with responsibility to administer the core resources of the global Internet. ICANN's primary responsibility is to administer the Internet's domain name system (DNS), allocating to users around the world the now-familiar domain names like microsoft.com or cpsr.org that uniquely identify host computers on the Internet. Like the WTO, ICANN is often described as a neutral body performing technical functions with no policy implications. However, ICANN's technical decisions do have policy implications, most notably in the area of intellectual property rights, where ICANN's rules define property rights in the words used in domain names. Just as the definition of intellectual property rights has proven controversial in agriculture, where patents gives biotechnology firms important levers of control over producers, the creation of global property rights for expressive words in domain names has caused conflicts over speech rights. Although these policies have limited scope (the new rights apply only to Internet domain names), in making them ICANN has crossed the threshold that divides technical administration from global governance. Many observers see ICANN as likely to evolve into the Internet's governance institution, making public policy for the world's newest communications medium.
ICANN's creation was accompanied by an active grassroots Internet user movement. Users from around the world asserted a right of representation in ICANN so that they could have a voice in decisions affecting on-line communications. To a significant degree this movement was successful. Organizing largely online, users participated in the process of designing ICANN's corporate bylaws, where they successfully advocated the inclusion of user representation mechanisms. As a result, ICANN is formally one of the most democratic international organizations in existence. Before these mechanisms could be implemented, however, ICANN's staff and initial board of directors worked hard to modify the bylaws to weaken them. Through effective organizing, much of it again online, users resisted these attempts and pushed ICANN's directors to hold elections in 2000. Ultimately five of the nine user representative seats on the board were filled by election - an election in which advocates of democratic governance won numerous seats. Although constrained to a distinct minority, the user representatives have been able to use their position to increase public awareness of ICANN and its role in Internet governance.
In what follows I recount the recent history of the grassroots user
movement to promote democracy in Internet governance. First, I identify
what is at stake: the institutionalization of what is arguably the most
important new communications medium since television. Then I recount
the brief history of popular participation in ICANN, initially in the design
of its bylaws and then in the global elections of its user representatives.
I conclude with some broader lessons for social movements' use of the Internet.
What is at stake in ICANN is the institutionalization of the information infrastructure of the twenty-first century. History shows us that new technologies are occasionally developed that significantly impact communications, and at some point each technology is placed within a legal, organizational, and political framework. Such institutionalization defines various enduring parameters, like the basic principles of the public interest, the mechanisms of governance, the degree of democratic input, legal rights and responsibilities of users and producers, etc.
Today's new technology is the Internet, and ICANN is the likely institution to define its legal/political/social framework. ICANN may be to the global Internet what the Federal Communications Commission was to U.S. broadcasting in the 1930s, what COMSAT was to satellite communication in the 1960s, and what the Cable Television Act (which created public access television) was to U.S. cable TV in the 1980s.
ICANN institutionalizes numerous parameters for Internet governance. Through its central control of essential Internet resources, notably domain names, ICANN establishes itself as the gatekeeper for cyberspace. Users must obtain those resources from ICANN in order to link their computer into the Internet. This gatekeeper function is then leveraged into a regulatory function by imposing conditions on domain name usage. In order to include their host computer on the Internet, a user must sign a contract that includes ICANN's rules about user behavior. In 1999 ICANN promulgated contract provisions that mandated new global protections for intellectual property in domain names (ICANN's "Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy.)
ICANN also institutionalizes representation in governance. Its bylaws set the ground rules for participation on the board of directors, the body exercising ultimate authority. Of nineteen board positions, nine were reserved for technical experts, one for the top staff officer, and another nine for user representatives. (The significant allocation of board seats to users was the main achievement of the pro-democracy Internet user movement, and it continues to be contested at the time of this writing.)
In its first two years ICANN's actions touched primarily on two policy areas: intellectual property/free speech and industry concentration. Contract provisions on permissible character strings in domain names introduced global regulations on intellectual property where there had been no effective international law before. Intellectual property - most notably trademarks - are defined by national legislation, an arrangement that imposes large costs on property owners operating in the international arena. Global trademark enforcement is complex and costly and can require judicial action in multiple countries, possibly with very different legal systems. With Internet domain names being inherently global in scope, conflicts arose in the 1990s over the use of trademarks in domain names. For example, the domain name apple.com contains a common English-language word -- but it also bears the valuable trademark of a multinational computer corporation. With existing law providing at best unwieldy instruments for global trademark enforcement, consistent global rules would benefit both multinational corporations and consumers (who rely on trademarks to identify suppliers.)
However, when ICANN made rules protecting trademarks in domain names, it entered the arena of public policy. As a private organization, ICANN's right of to make global public policy on trademark was by no means established. Furthermore, many groups feared that ICANN's rules would favor property rights over speech rights, disallowing speech in domain names. The hypothetical example of apple.com illustrates one ambiguous case of trademark. Another example is critical or satirical speech, which is protected in some countries (including the United States) and which allows the use of trademarks by third parties (the domain name GM_sucks.com is often cited as the paradigmatic example of a domain name embodying critical speech.) By regulating intellectual property, ICANN immediately raised important questions about its own legitimacy and about the fairness of the rules it was making.
Another area where ICANN's decisions entered the realm of public policy was the structuring of the Internet supply industry. Through its control over the creation of new domain names, ICANN shapes the degree of monopoly or competition in the domain name retailing business. In the 1990s this had proven itself a profitable business, with the leading company, Network Solutions Incorporated, achieving a market valuation of over $20 billion. Other companies sought to enter this market -- but to do so they had to win approval from ICANN, which controlled access to domain names. ICANN's cautious expansion of the supplier market hindered new firms from entering the market even as it helped keep profits high for existing suppliers. Here its decisions touched on public policies issues in antitrust.
Thus much as the WTO's rules on trade and procedures have policy implications, so do ICANN's rules on domain names. With its power to act as a gatekeeper of cyberspace, moreover, ICANN can potentially expand regulatory activities in the future. It is small surprise, then, that ICANN has been the focus of controversy.
The politics surrounding ICANN involve many groups, and any characterization of the overall constellation of interests risks gross oversimplification. With that caveat in mind, however, we can identify some of the main groups that participated in the process of creating and operating ICANN. Overall there were two coalitions, which can be labeled as the "e-commerce (electronic commerce) community" and the "pro-democracy movement."
The e-commerce community consisted mainly of four main groups. First was the engineering research community that had developed the Internet under authority of the U.S. Department of Defense. Based in the Internet Society, this group included notable individuals like Vinton Cerf (one of the creators of the Internet protocols) and Michael Roberts (a pioneering administrator in the world of university-based computer networking.) A second group consisted of multinational information technology firms like IBM, MCIWorldcom, France Telecom, and Fujitsu who were joined in a trade association called the Global Internet Project (GIP). Through GIP these companies advocated policies for deregulation in order to facilitate global electronic commerce. Trademark interests were a third group, represented by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Their concern was to protect companies' names and products, be they film, software, music, or patents. A fourth group was the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC), which was the lead agency in the U.S. with responsibility for Internet domain names.
These groups saw the Internet primarily as a means for electronic commerce. Their position was that the new information infrastructure should be regulated as needed to facilitate business (e.g. strong protection of intellectual property rights) but no further. They were not overly concerned about free speech or barriers to entry to new firms in their markets, nor were they supportive of governmental attempts to regulate indecent speech on the Internet.
The e-commerce community had a strategy that consisted of two parts: privatization and control. First, they wanted the U.S. government to divest itself of the domain name system and assign authority over it to a private corporation. Second, they wanted to gain control of that private corporation. They were well positioned to succeed. The Internet researchers had performed domain name allocation since the creation of the Internet, and so needed merely to defend their current status in order to maintain control. Joined by powerful corporate and governmental interests, they were well positioned to win control of a privatized Internet.
Opposing the e-commerce community was the pro-democracy movement. The pro-democracy movement consisted largely of "outsiders." Here were many Internet user groups, free speech organizations, and a number of distinguished individuals in the technology and policy community, all loosely joined together in opposition to what they saw as a takeover of the Internet by special interests. Many of the leaders in this movement were Internet technology and policy researchers who sought to uphold the established Internet culture of benevolent anarchy. They opposed what they saw as the e-commerce community's attempt to gain control. Alongside them were numerous small business entrepreneurs who had been shut out of the domain name market. Consumer rights organizations also participated, including those affiliated with U.S. activist Ralph Nader. They were joined by a variety of free speech and social responsibility organizations, including Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (to which this author belongs,) the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Democracy and Technology. The Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), a professional association, worked on behalf of free speech concerns. Over time the movement expanded globally, with the addition of such groups as Germany's Chaos Computer Club, Korean and Japanese public interest Internet providers affiliated with the Association for Progressive Communications, and the Electronic Frontiers Australia organization.
Like the e-commerce community, the pro-democracy movement supported Internet privatization. With libertarian values running strong, especially among engineering and small business groups, they, too, wanted the U.S. government to give up its authority over the Internet. However, this community wanted to ensure that the resulting private corporation for administering domain names would be transparent, accountable, and representative - in a word, democratic. This commitment to democracy distinguished them from the e-commerce community.
The pro-democracy movement possessed little financial clout and few
linkages to centers of political or economic influence. Nonetheless,
they worked hard to ensure that Internet privatization would lead to an
open and accountable institution for Internet governance. Perhaps most
important for them was that they were all Internet experts. In all
carrying out a social movement for democracy in cyberspace, they ceaselessly
employed the Internet.
From 1997 through 2000 the pro-democracy movement pursued a campaign that unfolded in two stages. In 1997 and 1998, before ICANN's creation, they sought to influence its institutional design by promoting user representation mechanisms in the new organization's bylaws. Following the launch of ICANN, in 1999 and 2000 they worked to preserve these democratic mechanisms and to elect user representatives to the board of directors.
Although attempts at institutional design for the Internet date back to the mid-1990s, it was not until 1997 that the U.S. government initiated a formal process in this area. In that year the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC) was named the lead agency for Internet domain name matters. Policy leadership in this area came directly from the White House, in the person of President Clinton's policy advisor, Ira Magaziner. As it turned out, Magaziner proved receptive to calls for democratic governance.
The catalyst for the U.S. proceedings had been an attempt in early 1997 by many of the groups in the e-commerce community to unilaterally create an Internet governance institution without consulting the U.S. government. This rather audacious initiative had received a sharp rebuke from the U.S., and had raised Internet policy high on the Clinton agenda. The unilateral action had also catalyzed what would become the pro-democracy movement, especially its early members from the research community, who began to vigorously decry the attempt to seize control of cyberspace.
Magaziner's policy in 1997 constituted a setback to the e-commerce community. The process was open and fairly inclusive - exactly what the e-commerce community had sought to avoid in the past and what it would vigorously oppose in the future. From mid-1997 and into 1998 the DOC solicited public input about appropriate policies for domain name administration. Numerous individuals and organizations that would form the pro-democracy movement submitted comments, and in so doing they both educated themselves on issues and began to recognize each other. Magaziner also personally consulted with members of the e-commerce community, with governmental leaders from around the world, and with some of the leading participants in the pro-democracy movement.
Following a year of consultation the DOC released a "White Paper" policy statement, in which it announced that it would privatize the domain name administration function and place it under the control of a to-be-created institution. Significantly, the White Paper assigned the task of institutional design to "the Internet community," which had until September 1998 to reach consensus on a set of bylaws for the new corporation. Again, this inclusive approach was a setback for the e-commerce community, for it allowed participation by citizens, small business, and public interest groups.
The institutional design process ran through the summer of 1998, with public meetings held in Geneva, Singapore, Virginia, and Boston. However, according to participants such as Stanford University legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, the e-commerce community sought to undermine the process. They stopped participating and instead unilaterally proposed their own sets of bylaws. They also convinced other key players to abandon the open forum. With the final Boston meeting cancelled, members of the pro-democracy movement doggedly continued their work and produced a final set of bylaws based on principles elaborated in the earlier meetings. With relatively few resources, the pro-democracy movement conducted much of its work on-line. Multiple email discussion groups allowed for intensive online interaction. Individuals from around the world could keep in regular communication.
Alongside productive and civil communication was a steady stream of heated, aggressive, and often offensive communication; the public forum - both online and in its face-to-face meetings - was grassroots democracy in its most open and unpolished form. To the e-commerce community, this disorder provided a useful excuse to withdraw into closed sessions. Loudly decrying the advocates of openness as "the crazies," the lawyers, lobbyists, and defense-funded engineers of the e-commerce community departed to make their own plans. The activists of the pro-democracy movement continued working in open committees to develop the best consensus they could.
When the September deadline arrived, multiple sets of bylaws were submitted to the DOC. One version, from the e-commerce community, proposed an organization whose governing board was exclusively composed of technical experts. The second version, submitted by the pro-democracy movement, proposed a governing board consisting exclusively of representatives of Internet users. After a brief period, the DOC said that it would accept only a set of bylaws that included both experts and user representatives. The new Internet corporation would not be a closed technocratic organization; nearly half the seats on its governing board were reserved for users.
Thus the first period in this history ended with a notable victory for the pro-democracy movement. Faced with a concerted attempt by powerful interests to create an organization governed exclusively by technical experts (of which their firms and research communities were the predominant home institutions), the pro-democracy community had produced an alternative plan that gained recognition. True, this recognition reflected the receptiveness of the White House to their efforts, but without effective advocacy there would have been no proposal to receive. The year 1998 ended with the incorporation of ICANN as the new corporation to assume authority over a privatized Internet.
The second stage in the pro-democracy movement began after the incorporation of ICANN and continued to the first election of directors, held nearly two years later. During this period, from October 1998 through the end of November 2000, the pro-democracy movement expanded. More traditional activist groups in free speech, privacy, and consumer rights began participating in the U.S., while European and Asian participants grew in number. This period also saw efforts to promote solidarity across groups. In November 1999 a conference brought many of the groups together, and, while not creating any formal coordinating mechanisms, promoted greater awareness of the collective interest that united the many individuals active in the policy process.
Meanwhile the e-commerce community had continued working actively in private to shape ICANN. The fact that the engineers who administered domain names were part of their coalition proved a great advantage. Shortly after incorporating ICANN, they unilaterally announced a set of interim directors who would govern ICANN until the democratic mechanisms specified in the bylaws were implemented. As it later leaked out, this interim board was selected in a complex process in which Ira Magaziner played an important role; overall, however, the e-commerce community won a significant degree of control of the new organization. Perhaps more important than picking board members was the power to select staff: the complexity of domain name issues put the staff in the position of deciding most issues and simply presenting them to the board for approval. The e-commerce community placed a trusted university administrator as ICANN's new president. Democracy in ICANN was reduced to a mere formality of the bylaws, as the board and staff were appointed through back room deals between powerful interests.
In 1999 ICANN began to slowly develop plans for implementing democracy - and began rapidly developing plans to protect e-commerce. Already by fall 1999 ICANN made regulations on intellectual property in domain names and began imposing them on users around the globe. In contrast, the implementation of democracy advanced slowly. Following a complicated series of meetings, the interim Board proposed in summer of 1999 to eliminate the positions for user representatives. In the debate that followed, the interim board succeeded in reducing the number of positions open to election to just five, with the remaining four seats withheld pending further study. The Board also decided to appoint a committee to nominate candidates for election.
Although they came late and were for only five of nine seats, elections for the board of directors were finally held in the course of 2000. The entire election was held via the Internet. Voter registration took place in the spring, with anyone possessing an Email address allowed to participate. In the summer of 2000 primary elections were held to identify nominees in each of the five geographic regions identified by ICANN. Then in October 2000 elections were held.
The elections were a major victory for the pro-democracy movement. In two regions the results were particularly noteworthy. In North America the four top vote getters in the primary election were all harsh critics of ICANN, and the winning candidate ran on a platform that advocated firing ICANN's president. In Europe, where ICANN's nominating committee left open only two spots for popular nominees, strong critics won both available spots, and a harsh critic of corporate capture won the seat. The pro-democracy movement reigned supreme in these two regions. In the African and South American regions the winning candidates also were also those who had supported the pro-democracy movement. In contrast, a very different dynamic prevailed in the Asia-Pacific region. There the election turned into an international rivalry between Japan and China, with large corporations and government officials engaged in a top-down voter mobilization of workers. The winner was a Japanese nominee who perfectly embodied the e-commerce community's interests: a Fujitsu Corporation intellectual property lawyer working from the company's government affairs office in Washington, DC. Thus one region saw a successful top-down corporate mobilization of Internet users.
Thus by the end of 2001 the pro-democracy movement had managed to seat
two strong advocates on ICANN's board, and two other directors had some
relationship to that movement. This was a far cry from the nine seats
that were supposed to be available. But it was also considerably
more citizen representation than existed in comparable international organizations.
Judged against their goals, the pro-democracy activists had achieved some
success; judged against the standard of prevailing practices in international
organizations, they have achieved an outstanding success.
The pro-democracy movement around ICANN was unusually effective in its use of the Internet. In this case the formation of a movement and that movement's use of Internet technology were not conceptually distinct, because it was a movement of Internet users. Thus there were no significant barriers of access, skills, or training. The case analyzed here is that of a fully wired community. Because of this, the experiences of this movement may offer a vision of the future for groups who are not yet fully online.
The pro-democracy movement was unusual in other ways, too. It was comprised of individuals who often possessed very high levels of education and wealth. That some members of the leadership had doctoral degrees was not so unusual - after all the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s was led by a Ph.D. holder. However, the fact that the entire movement consisted of well-educated individuals probably helped in collective action. There were many articulate, technically skilled, and politically savvy individuals participating.
With that in mind, we can consider how the Internet was used. The form of collaboration that developed in the pro-democracy movement can be described as a collective network. The Internet allowed many diverse groups to come together and form a collectivity in which participants shared a common concern with ICANN. However, the contact between participants was thin. Contact was largely by text communication and did not have much empathetic content. The movement was a network rather than a community. This arrangement worked well. The many voices in the collectivity were saying similar enough things that it was possible to discern a collective voice. And even as the network structure allowed for coordination, it prevented any one group from taking it over or bottling it up. Just as the Internet is often portrayed as a multi-centered communication network capable of surviving nuclear attack, the pro-democracy movement was a decentralized network capable of self-coordination among the many parts.
The mode of organization made possible by this collective network could be called non-hierarchical coordination. There was no top-down strategizing, no issuing of orders, and few official statements made on behalf of the community. For the most part, individuals and groups were able to stay informed of events and of the activities of others. With this information, they could make complementary plans and communicate them to the collective network. Even as coordination occurred, the disadvantages of hierarchy were avoided. Individual ambitions could not be satisfied by gaining top position in a hierarchy, for there was no hierarchy offering top positions. Status in the collectivity accrued to those individuals whose contributions earned them the recognition of others. The perverse incentives of hierarchical organization were avoided. The basic unit of action was the individual, yet overall collective action was achieved.
With no top-down control, the collectivity relied on voluntarism. As individuals or organizations recognized a task, they often stepped forward to perform it. One individual might draft a letter to the ICANN board and then circulate it around the globe for signatures. Another might compose a resolution to submit at the next ICANN meeting and ask for feedback from mailing list subscribers. Another might organize an Internet user conference to be held alongside an ICANN board meeting. The complementary skills of different individuals proved valuable, as different tasks demanded different abilities. Within the network there was usually someone both willing and able to step forward for pressing tasks. Often such effort left the individual exhausted, but once they had completed the work they could take time off and let others volunteer for the next task. Overall, many small sparks of initiative by numerous individuals linked in a collective network produced a recognizable social movement capable of influencing the policy process.
Underlying all these organizational features was the Internet's capability to allow people from around the world to communicate across time and space. The global nature of the movement was only visible in some participants' difficulties with the English language. The most visible indicator of global dispersion of participants was that Email traffic occurred at different times of the day depending on whether it originated in Asia or Australia, in Europe or Africa, or in North or South America. (Indeed, this author was resident in France for year 2000, a fact that remained unknown to many people with whom he communicated regularly.) Without the Internet global communication would have been impossible. Perhaps a few full-time staff employees of organizations in different continents might have coordinated with each other, but direct communication between many individuals would have been out of the question. The pro-democracy movement around ICANN would never have occurred without this communication capability.
When discussing the uses of the Internet, it is important not to fall into utopianism. Clearly the Internet does not guarantee the success of social movements. In the case study here, additional factors were at work, including the educational and economic resources of the members of the movement. Furthermore, the "success" of this movement is not yet decided, since user representation in ICANN is still the object of intense opposition by the e-commerce community.
Rather than thinking of the Internet as a means to ensure effectiveness, therefore, it is better to think of it as a means to overcome major barriers to effectiveness. It overcomes atomization of individuals. It reduces perverse incentives of hierarchies. It overcomes barriers to information sharing. It makes voluntarism possible. Thus it reduces the likelihood of a variety of failures. All that said, the Internet certainly does not guarantee that a social movement will succeed in achieving its aims.
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