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The following interview of Don Heath, President and CEO of the Internet Society, took place during Telecom Interactive in September 1997 in Geneva.

Internet self-governance

The Internet community was in an uproar when the the domain name system monopoly first charged for domain names. Several people wanted to propose systems to rectify that situation by breaking the monopoly. It started with Larry Landweber whose idea was picked up and modified by Jon Postel. When the Internet Society Board decided to take on the Postel proposal, very quickly it became obvious that it couldn't be implemented as it was written. The Internet Society decided to set up an international committee to look at the views of everybody. The questions were: Should we really do this? And if we are going to do it, how do we implement it? The idea was not to form the committee mentioned in John's plan, but to form an independent body with plenipotentiary powers to determine which way to go. That was essentially self-governance.

As the process went along, we produced a system of self-governance that has inadvertently become somewhat closed, because those who can participate are those who have signed on. Whereas there are people who would like to support the evolution of the initiative, but don't feel comfortable signing this memorandum of understanding. I think it is time to stand back and evaluate the entire system:

  1. Is it accomplishing the will of the larger Internet community?
  2. Is it solving the problems it was intended to solve?

I believe we've made a good shot at creating a mechanism for Internet self-governance. If we don't do a good job on this, the Internet community as a whole will probably not get another chance, as governments may step in. So it is important to do this correctly.

What is interesting about this example is that, contrary to what often happens with most other associations and organisations, the Internet Society has not simply said what it thought about a particular subject in a position paper, but has actually gone on to act on those ideas. To what extent can this procedurer be used elsewhere where self-governance of the Internet is necessary?

We can and we should. But we took action with the intent of extracting ourselves from the process. The mechanism should continue in a form that is true Internet self-governance where perhaps the operational parties would be elected by the stake-holders. The Internet Society should take a leadership role in creating the process by which true self-governance can take place but not necessarily controlling or even operating the process once it is going.

The domain name system was a fairly well contained problem. If we look at a subject like privacy, it is multifaceted. It can include issues of content, spaming, censorship, encryption, ... and each of these have many facets to them. So the situation gets very complex. The key is the process. No matter which issue you take, if you can find a way to involve the legitimate and broad-based stake-holders and can have an open process to air and discuss the issues, you can form action plans that can be implemented. It would be wrong if any one actor was a primary controller. I don't think any one entity should have the power to veto or have too much control.

So although the Internet Society has been a prime mover in the question of solving the domain name problem, the resulting organisation is not the property of the Internet Society.

Precisely. When we wrote the documents for the domain name system, the Internet Society and IANA actually had considerable control. The document was written in such a way that we had the authority to begin it and execute it. If anything changed we had to agree to it, giving us veto power. IANA and ISOC believe that was good for boot-strapping. Some form of control was needed to get started. The intent must be, however, to pull out and find a democratic process by which it can continue. It needs to be based on principles that are democratic whether by election or some form that is acceptable to the wider community.

There is clearly a problem to elections as there is no notion of constituency.

Involving the whole Internet is clearly difficult. We have the electronic capability to do that with a slate of candidates nominated by the public of Internet users. It isn't impossible. To accomplish the impossible, first you have to believe that it isn't. To accomplish anything, you first have to start and then you can learn the way if you know where you are trying to get to. We may try some things and find they don't work. But if we start, we can ultimately evolve and perfect a system of self-governance that is in fact more democratic than certain institutions who happen to be responsible or well endowed with power. Rather than them having the control we have got to find ways of keeping it down amongst the stake-holders.

What you call the "people endowed with power" have a vested interest. What's more, their "power"comes from the legitimacy they get from a representative democratic structure. The Internet Society however does not represent the people on the Internet. Seen from that point of view, there is a problem of legitimacy.

I agree. One could argue that the governments' right is their might from the 18th century as the only entities that can legally muster arms and raise armies and therefore enforce their views. They are clearly legitimate authorities and are generally democratically constituted. However, in the Internet, the power doesn't come from any legal right. Rather it is more a meritocracy based on credibility over time and a track record of good judgement and doing good for the Internet itself.

The Internet Society with the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force), the IAB (Internet Architecture Board) and IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) qualify from a long history within the Internet. There is some credibility and authority that comes from that experience and know-how. But responsible use of that authority says we should find ways to proffer power down to the real users even though we may take a leadership role to get there.

There are multiple forms of legitimacy. What we have to worry about is the so-called legal entities constituted by governments if they have too much control. There is the fear on the part of the Internet community that control becomes the key concern of such entities and issues of privacy, censorship or infringement on human rights arise.

One of the problems with many representative bodies is that they no longer have a satisfactory connection with those who have elected them. You talk of getting "down to the base". One of the things the Internet Society could do more of is providing and developing the know-how about such issues...

You are quite right. The development of proposals to be debated and modified is a good procedure, as long as you don't assert too much ownership over the ideas and allow them to be modified to better fit everybody. Something is not going to magically appear from the mass of users. Some organisations in a "leadership" role will probably put forth concepts and ideas for resolving issues or for operating parts of the Internet or establishing guidelines for the use of the Internet. But they have to be put forth in a way that can be debated, discussed, modified and evolved by the larger Internet community. If they are not but everybody accepts them, that is fine too. As long as propositions are always open to be evolved for the use of the Internet community we are going to have a flourishing Internet.

The work on the domain name question involved a great deal of awareness work on the part of those involved in relation to certain key government people and organisations. One could imagine this being another key role of the Internet Society.

In fact, much more than was ever known, we did reach out to government agencies both in the US and elsewhere as well as corporations, businesses and groups around the world, letting them know what was going on, to try and involve them. The reach of ISOC throughout the world - with over 60% of membership now outside the US - provides an increasing ability to involve, to reach and to spread the word. Education after all is one of our primary tenets. It isn't just lobbying, it is educating with the intent of enriching the ultimate views and results of the effort.

Interview by Alan McCluskey, Telecom Interactive, Geneva, September 1997

Related Articles

Models of governance? The example of IAHC as an indication of how the Internet could be run. - 28 Feb 97

What's in a name? Changes in the domain name system. - 23 Jan 97

Legitimacy and pertinence The future role of the Internet Society - 21 Jan 97

Internet meets society About the role of the Internet Society - 4 July 96

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