GNSO Reform: a Window into ICANN's Soul

ICANN claims incessantly to be an open, fair policy making venue based on “bottom up” participation. At the ICANN meeting in Paris, the organization came face to face with the prospect of making good that claim, and it….delayed. Over the next month, we will see how that issue is resolved. The results will be very revealing, a window into the organizations' soul.

It started out well. An impartial review of ICANN's Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), the part of ICANN that initiates domain name policies, by the London School of Economics said that ICANN needed to rebalance representation and improve GNSO processes. A Board Governance Committee followed up on its recommendations, issuing a detailed proposal for reform. At its Paris meeting, the ICANN Board passed most of those recommendations, but it could not resolve the most contentious issue, which centered on how many votes different interest groups get on the central Council that acts as a gatekeeper to the policy making process.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee set out a proposal for four constituencies (Registrars, Registries, Commercial Users and Noncommercial users) to get 4 votes each, with 3 additional Councilors appointed by a Nominating Committee to act as independent tiebreakers. Some Board members, however, did not want to give commercial and noncommercial interests the same amount of votes. Ignoring the roots of the Internet in educational and scientific institutions, they proposed giving Commercial users 5 votes and Noncommercial users only 3 votes. Apparently these Board members believe that only business interests such as trademark owners and multinational corporations have any interests and rights to protect in domain name policy. If their favored voting distribution was passed, it would guarantee that the two Board members sent to the Board by the GNSO would be domain name supply industry representatives, or possibly intellectual property advocates. It would continue to make policy successes impossible for civil liberties advocates, ordinary home users, small-scale domain name registrants, nonoprofit organizations, universities and researchers, as their representatives could always be ignored and outvoted by larger commercial interests.

However, an interesting counter-alliance developed. Reflecting longstanding frustrations that ICANN is dominated too much by the domain name registration industry it purports to self-govern, an unusual alliance of business users, noncommercial users and ALAC proposed a voting distribution weighted toward users. A “joint users proposal” proposed to give Commercial users 6 votes, Noncommercial users 6 votes and the Contracting Parties, combining registries and registrars, 6 votes as well.

In the end the Board refused to choose either of these alternatives. It threw the issue back to the constituencies themselves, creating yet another new Working Group and giving them a month to come to an agreement on the vote distribution. The WG has been dubbed the “Consensus Working Group by ICANN staff; one cannot tell whether this is meant to be optimistic, sarcastic, or insane.

User interests in ICANN, centered in NCUC and ALAC, have vowed that there must be parity between commercial and noncommercial representation on the Council. They are prepared to work the U.S. Congress to embarrass ICANN should it expose itself as a trade group detached from ordinary user interests. Some of the Board members who oppose commercial-noncommercial parity complain that there are not enough noncommercial organizations active in ICANN. That is true, but the reason should be obvious. Noncommercial organizations do not have special, concentrated economic interests in policy outcomes and therefore cannot justify spending tens of thousands of dollars per year on the time and travel it takes to lobby and participate in ICANN processes. Another reason is that when they do participate, noncommercial participants find themselves outvoted and outgunned by professional, full time lobbyists from the supply industry or trademark groups. The current GNSO representational scheme gives commercial users three times as many votes as noncommercial users, and commercial interests generally eight times as many votes as noncommercial interests. Only masochists would flock to such an arrangement. Board members against parity must believe that political representation schemes should favor special, powerful interests and penalize the general public interest, because special interests are always more likely to get involved than the general public. And please explain: How does telling noncommercial organizations that they are “less equal” than commercial organizations encourage more of them to get involved?

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