In 1999, the organization responsible for the backbone of the public internet, ICANN, tried to build a democracy.
In theory it was utopian: Internet users from around the world would register as at-large members of ICANN, elect delegates to represent their continent, and these delegates would sit on the ICANN board of directors. The structure of internet would be governed by its users.
ICANN was in a position to do this because it’s in the business of determining how people are found on the World Wide Web. It governs the directory that every computer uses for directions to the right web page on the right server. If you register a web page, it gets registered by an ICANN-approved registrar. This proposal wasn’t just about who could register a .edu domain versus a .org, but instead who would be allowed to have a place on the web at all.
Turnout for registration was sizable by 1999 standards, when only 26% of Americans had the internet (pdf) in their home. More than 158,000 people around the world registered to vote.
But the representation of that turnout was less stellar; only 4% were women, and 69% of the internet users that signed up to be at-large members were from the US. African internet users accounted for just 1% of at-large members, while European voters made up 20% of the final tally.
“At this point, we don’t seek to represent the world community but rather the internet community,” then-ICANN chairwoman Esther Dyson said in 2000.
ICANN was officially founded in 1998, but its work started with its founder, the “god of the internet,” Jon Postel. Postel invented much of the networking software that allows the internet to function at all. At the beginning, Postel and his colleagues updated the internet’s directories themselves. When that became too large, they created the Domain Name System to standardize the process and allow it to scale. While Postel and his colleagues had help from the US government, the task became so crucial it couldn’t just be all on Postel’s shoulders. The Department of Commerce called to formally privatize the technology, and the result was ICANN, a non-profit non-governmental organization.
Despite early adopters of the internet flocking to the ranks of ICANN voters, Dyson and others were skeptical that the idea would elect people who actually knew the technical side of internet governance. Since internet users were to directly elect other internet users to the board without the existing board’s input, someone who didn’t know the technical side of the internet could have a voice on who is allowed to create websites on the web, and how they can be found if they are.
“I am concerned about capture [of votes] by people who don’t know what they are doing,” Dyson said, according to the New York Times. “People who are stupid, individually.”
Debates about electing potentially unqualified board members to ICANN were hostile, the Times reported, and later emails would describe ICANN president Mike Roberts as a fascist and authoritarian.
A nomination board appointed by ICANN eventually selected 27 nominees to represent five geographic areas around the world: Africa, Asia/Pacific, Europe, Latin America/Caribbean, and North America. Of the 158,000 registered voters, only 34,000 actually cast their ballots, narrowing the candidates to five, who were later appointed to board seats alongside 14 other board members.
Elections were not held again.
“Even with all of the outreach that [ICANN] did, there was no way that they could say that this was representative of all of the internet’s users,” said Wendy Seltzer, who assisted with the process as a student at Harvard’s Berkman Center, and later served on ICANN’s board as advisory committee liaison.
And with one representative for each continent, there was little connecting each person back to their entire constituency, which were vast and contained hundreds of millions of people.
The problems ICANN tackled were also esoteric, especially at a time when the internet wasn’t nearly as integral to the world as it is today. Privacy standards didn’t take into consideration that the personal information required for registering a domain could be accessed by billions of people. And there simply weren’t enough websites or people with websites to care about top level domains.
“We’re wrong to think the internet is ‘so important’ that we must somehow create a global democracy to run it,” David Jennings, a delegate from Ireland who called upon by ICANN to debate the pros and cons of the voting system, said in 2000.
But now it’s a different story. The internet isn’t just something for sending email, but the backbone of nearly every industry in the world. Companies built singularly around the internet like Google and Facebook have vast influence over decisions made in the real world, since they have become the default arbiters of information.
The increased importance and complexity of the internet has also brought new issues to light. What level of encryption should be standard on the internet, if any? Or what security practices must a company take to ensure customers’ data is safe? What kind of privacy can be expected when entrusting personal information to companies online? How can companies enforce digital rights management, or crack down on piracy?
Today, these decisions fall mainly to the large companies that run the internet, through trade organizations like the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C, founded in 1994 by World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, mainly derives its power from the large tech companies that are members, including Google, Amazon, Facebook, Intel, Huawei, and nearly every major tech company whose products live or interact with the internet.
Many of the decisions W3C makes are technical in nature, as these companies need to work together to make the web a relatively uniform experience, rather than a patchwork where you need different software for every website. Despite the organization’s membership of private companies, government bodies like the European Union have tried to mandate changes to how the internet is presented to users through legislation like GDPR. But for the most part these companies make the most important decisions concerning encryption, privacy, and security with little if any oversight.
Seltzer describes a recent W3C ruling over a suggestion to let web developers know how long it took images or scripts to load on users’ browsers. The idea was that websites could then adapt to slower connections. A privacy review of the proposed change found that developers would be able to use this new information to determine what other websites a person was on. That information was deemed to private and led some at W3C to push back, changing the final guidelines for the standard to give less granular data, according to Seltzer.
“We have the rule of few corporations and governments, a consolidated power, dictating how the rest of the world will use the internet, and impacting economies and democracies alike,” says Renata Avila, executive director of the Smart Citizenship Foundation Latin America. “There is a severe democratic deficit with regard to internet governance.”
Jerry Berman, founder of the Center for Democracy and Technology, says that some of the tactics that appear to make internet governance organizations like ICANN more accessible actually make it more difficult for those without funding to stay included.
“They move ICANN meetings around, to ostensibly to make it more representative. So it meets in New York and then it meets in Egypt, Paris, it goes all over the place, but the netizens of the world can’t go to all those places,” he said. “So the only people that show up are corporations who have a vested interest.”
Today ICANN is mainly concerned with expanding the kinds of websites that can connect to the internet, how developing countries can access and create their own domains, and privacy issues around its WHOIS database.
Berman says that status quo is unlikely to change. When issues like privacy or human rights are on the table, organizations who would lobby against the world’s largest tech companies would need enormous funding, and it’s hard to imagine a fund that large not dominated by corporate interests.
Seltzer says it might be time for some kind of organization that doesn’t govern, but at least makes an equal space for every voice to be heard and then form an amicable consensus.
“It’s not a vote because how do you weigh a government vote against the corporate vote, against an NGO vote, against an individual concern?” she said. “But can we build something were they all express their concerns and we collectively seek the solution that meets them?”
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