Joi Ito about ICANN

My friend and colleague Joi Ito has wrote a good piece about ICANN. Read it at his blog or here.

What used to think ICANN was like…

Apologies for the delay in writing the post. I’ve been trying to think about what to say and have just decided that I better write it before my thoughts get old…

I joined the ICANN board during the December 2004 ICANN meeting in Cape Town. I served for a three year term and stepped down at this last meeting in Los Angeles and didn’t run for another term. My apologies to all of the ICANN community and the people who helped me learn about and participate in the complex but important process that is ICANN.

Before joining ICANN, I thought that ICANN was the only part of the Internet that wasn’t really working. I knew that there must be a better way to do what ICANN does, but I couldn’t be bothered to figure it out. I’d agree with people who said things like, “it should just be distributed” or “it should just be first come first serve” or “we should just get rid of it.” People from ICANN would say, “it’s more complicated than that” or “at this point that would be impossible.”

After being part of the process for three years, I find myself saying those same things and feeling a sense of exasperation at the people who take pot shots at ICANN from the peanut gallery without really trying to help or change things. I also have gained a huge respect for most of the people who participate in ICANN, many as volunteers, trying to improve the process and keep the Internet running.

With all of it’s tumultuous history and bumps and warts, ICANN, in my opinion, is the best way that we can manage names and numbers on the Internet and any new thing to try to do what it does would be less fair and probably wouldn’t work.

There are some technical architectures and ideas that might make ICANN less relevant, which would be a good thing. However, even relatively obvious things like IPv6, IDNs and DNSEC are having a hard time getting traction. I think that it would be nearly impossible to “redesign the DNS” and get people to use it. It would be like trying to redesign a flying airplane. On the other hand, their might be some evolutionary changes that make domain names less relevant.

The ICANN process as it is currently working involves a number of supporting organizations that feed into a consensus and policy development process. The board is 15 people, 8 who are “neutral” and nominated from the public through the nomcom process and 7 who are elected from the supporting organizations. It is geographically and otherwise fairly well distributed and balanced. It is nearly impossible to “capture” the process. If any stakeholder wants to participate, they just have to show up.

The problem that ICANN has is not one of being unfair, the problem that ICANN has is the difficulty and time required in trying to reach consensus on difficult issues. The other problem is that most of the people who are affected by the decisions, the average users, don’t know or care about ICANN. Trying to figure out an better way to get their input has always been an issue, but is one that is not unique for ICANN. All of politics and collective action share the difficulty in getting the public to care about issues that affect them.

When I was urged by a number of people to join the board, I thought of my term on the board as a kind of “jury duty”. I had been benefiting from the Internet running properly for the last decade, building businesses and my social network on the Internet. I felt that three years would be a kind of “community service” to give back some of what I had received. The board work included nearly monthly conference calls, probably several thousand pages of reading, two face-to-face board retreats and three meetings per year. The meetings are a week long. This adds up to nearly two months or more of work a year.

As the new chairman of Creative Commons and my portfolio of companies requiring more and more of my time, I just couldn’t justify serving another term. I calculated that I spent more time reading about and discussion whether we should allow .xxx than I spent on any one portfolio company this year… and at the end of it, I voted in the minority and .xxx was shot down and I ended up as just a voting statistic.

Having said that, I have no regrets. I met amazing people, learned a lot about how the Internet works and have gained a great respect for the people and the organizations that make up and contribute to ICANN. Many thanks to the ICANN staff, board and various constituents who have made my term a fruitful and exciting one.

I think his points are quite relevant.
In May 2006 I calculated the time spent on ICANN issues as 50 %.
People are generally not interested in the way the Internet is working, as long as it works. I will be blogging more on that in the next coming weeks.

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