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The following text was written during the meeting of the ICANN Studienkreise which took place in Zurch on February 2nd and 3rd, 2001. My thanks to Marc Holitscher for inviting me to speak and to all those whose passionate conversation contibuted to this article. See also a related article written in Zurich "Ways and means of governance - questioning representative government"

Must groups oppose individuals
Thoughts about the ICANN at-large membership

If we look at the ICANN "model", we see that it defines a series of circles of people who, by virtue of their degree of implication, are seen as being those who can decide on the activities of ICANN. Or at least vote for those who will decide.

The initial circles of people that the architects of ICANN included - the so-called support organisations - were the readily identifiable groups of people who through their work directly influenced the very system ICANN was seeking to handle.

In this context, the "at-large" group bringing together so-called Internet users is the odd-one-out! It sounds a strident note compared with the rest of the circles involved. Maybe if we concentrate on that dissonance, we can learn something important from it.

One major problem with the "at-large" constituency concerns how we define who belongs to it. It would be easy enough to decide that the group should include only those people who are domain name owners. This idea is currently under discussion within the Domain Name Support Organisation (DNSO). However, this exclusive definition apparently leaves some dissatisfaction as the "at-large" group remains on the cards. One person asked me, "What about those people who are interested and willing to participate in the process but who do not own a domain name?" You could of course define membership in terms of interest. Tacitly, this is what ICANN has done. If you show interest by applying to join the at-large membership and you have access to the Internet because the process is only accessible via the Internet, then you can belong and vote.

The at-large membership, that is to say the Internet users, is unstructured both within ICANN but also in the world at large. There is no satisfactory global organisation of users of the Internet. Potential candidates for bringing together Internet users on a large scale like the Internet Society fall short of the mark. This may well be quite natural. Maybe the notion of "Internet user" is no longer a sufficiently strong criterion for people to identify with it. Would you join an electricity users' or a water users' organisation? As someone said during the Zurich meeting, maybe the term Internet user ceases to be meaningful when it includes everybody. Of course, that does not imply that we should not have a say about how water, electricity and, possibly even more so, the Internet are managed

As the "at-large" community lacks any structural identity, those who are voted in by this amorphous group of people have no clear relationship with the people who gave then their voice. Representatives are then accountable only to themselves. If we consider that the probable motivation for including such representatives within the board of ICANN was to echo something of the inclusive wide-scale participation that is supposed to characterise democracy, and in so doing gain legitimacy, then the result has not met the expectations. In fact, the at-large representation accentuates one of the major failings of the current representative system in that the link between voters and the elected few becomes too weak.

I mentioned the absence of identity of the at-large group, yet for all its amorphism, the at-large representation within ICANN raises an enormous amount of passion. This passion motivates people to travel around the world to defend their cause. But what is that cause? What is the issue that drives people to so wholeheartedly participate in debates about ICANN and the domain name system? It is surely not just the hope of gain. It can no longer be indignation about the NSI monopoly. Something stronger and deeper is at play. Do we have any idea what that could be? Can we afford to make far-reaching decisions on the basis of subterranean forces that refuse to be named?

The answer may lie in the role of the individual. Individuals play a key role in the history and workings of ICANN. Yet individuals, outside parties and pressure groups, have little weight in the traditional representative form of government. I suspect that the answer to our enigma of the passion poured into the ICANN process has something to do with defending a place in which individuals can have their say.

This is not without difficulties. I have mentioned elsewhere the problem of what I then called "verbal terrorists" - those whose drive to be heard is so strong that it drowns out any consideration they might have for the common good and can sicken even the strongest democratic process. I have to add that in the Zurich meeting, at least, despite the ever-present passion, the tone of the debate has become considerably more civilised than in the early days.

And then there is the enormous difficulty of organising a group of individuals. Is there not a fundamental contradiction in wishing to "organise" people who seek to act in their own name as individuals, as free valences? I suspect that such a contradiction is not inherent in the nature of groups and individuals, but stems from our current approach to groups which is such that individuals cannot express their uniqueness without resorting to extremes. It would no doubt be naive to believe that all individual violence has its roots in social organisation, but is it not possible to imagine a way of organising the community as a coming together of individuals such that their uniqueness can be celebrated as a richness for all and at the same time the community be founded on a sense of common purpose and deep-felt communion.

Alan McCluskey, Zurich.

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Created: February 3rd, 2001 - Last up-dated: February 3rd, 2001