Los Angeles by Fight: ICANN in the 21st century

Travel notes from a weary traveller who attended the ICANN annual meeting in Marina Del Rey, Los Angeles, USA, November 13-16, 2000.

Background and stage setting

As the end of the first year of the new millenium drew near (or the end of the old one, depending on which horologers you believe), ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) seemed at last to come to a point where it was going to make decisions.
For more years than the combatants care to count, the question of where, when, how and by whom new domain names not bound to a country could be added to the DNS root had been unresolved.
Now, ICANN, the envisioned democratic, open and rational technical coordination body entrusted with the management of the root zone, was finally going to pass judgment.
It had financed a quick review process by USD 50.000 fees on applicants; it had gotten an At Large election out of the way despite a tenfold increase in the number of voters over expected figures, it had not yet been seriously challenged in any court system.

So the sky was clear? Don't bet on it.

ICANN had managed to alienate the administrators of the world's country-specific domains by sending them bills rather than asking for contributions.
It had managed to alienate the people who just learned about ICANN through the At Large election process by projecting an image of fighting tooth and nail against granting the At Large-elected members influence over ICANN decisions, and delaying the implementation of such influence whenever possible.
It had managed to alienate most of the individuals wanting to contribute in the Domain Names Supporting Organization through a convoluted "interest group" structure that seems designed to produce deadlocks rather than consensus.
It has managed to leave itself without any certain source of income, meaning that it has to depend on "emergency" gifts from donors who think the alternative of seeing ICANN go down in flames would be worse than the status quo.

And what's more, it has managed to convey the impression that all these problems have taken them by surprise.

Nevertheless, a few hundred diehard ICANN friends, enemies and onlookers descended on the Marina Del Rey these days in November to see the process move somewhat forward. Or at least move somewhat.

Monday: Fronts hardening

It was clear that the meeting did not start on a cordial note.
Michael Froomkin, the Florida lawyer and ICANN critic, was there, handing out his "Stop the ICANN BoardSquatting" buttons. His excellently formulated critique of the Yokohama decision to delay the seating of 4 of the proposed 9 "at large directors" indefinitely has served as a rallying point for many who think that ICANN is embarked on a course set towards its own destruction.

Quite different were the concerns of the well-groomed propagandists for the various new gTLD proposals, handing out invitations to receptions, free T-shirts and pamphlets extolling their particular brand of salvation for the Internet.

And the national registrars - from the "let me sell and don't bother me" attitude of  .TV (originally the country code of Tuvalu, a small Pacific island) to the "we know how to run regulation - don't come here and mess it up" attitude of .DE (Germany), they were united in the opinion that ICANN was interfering entirely too much into their affairs, and in particular they did not feel like paying large sums of money for services not even loosely defined, and likely to be partially irrelevant if they had been.

Not to mention the Government Advisory Council - you could smell the miffed attitude of officials who still did not understand why regulation should be allowed to escape the well established rulesets governing international negotiations since time immemorial.

Worthy of note, too, was the "internationalization of domain names" workshop - not that it did any work, but the problems surrounding the use of non-ASCII in domain names were relatively clearly presented.
The sharp point of the day prize shoud probably go to Tan Tin Wee's presentation where he threw up a picture of a Web browser window where the URL had been written in Thai characters: "If the Web had  been invented in Thailand, would you have been able to remember this URL?".
Point taken. But anyone who left the room feeling that introducing internationalized URLs will be simple and painless must have been present with their ears completely closed.

Tuesday: The groups talk

The structure of an ICANN meeting consists of lots of meetings.
The number of people in MDR was apparently a new record, so things were (naturally) crowded.
My personal contribution to this event was co-chairing the meeting of the DNSO General Assembly, together with Roberto Gaetano.
Highlights of the discussion and the (interminable) opinion polls aka vote counts: The mood of the group was clear: "This process needs to be done more carefully than it has been - but it also needs VERY MUCH to come to a conclusion!"
The group also considered, and rejected, a motion calling for the immediate resignation of the 4 remaining "initial" board members, opting instead for a resolution calling for the process of replacing them to go as fast as possible. "Hurry - but carefully".

This was, in its own way, indicative of many of the discussions and opinions being bandied around.
Nobody was really happy with how ICANN had behaved, how issues had been handled and so forth.
But everyone was anxious to see forward progress on the real issues, even at the expense of delaying the accounting and reform of the process itself.
Dangerous. But not unreasonable.

Wednesday: Talking at the Board

The open meeting of the Board was a fascinating exercise.
Reports were given from the constituencies, some sharply critical, some supportive of one or the other viewpoint.
Questions were raised and reports were made.
One issue mentioned was the problem of getting international staff members for ICANN; apparently, even when they are available, it is hard to get them into the US. The idea of not having all of the ICANN staff in Marina Del Rey had apparently been rejected without serious consideration......a most parochal mentality.

The "at large study" commissioned by the Board also came under heavy fire - in public, from people who thought ICANN was trying to renege on promises of democratic representation; in private, from people who thought the At Large process was so obviously broken that it should be put out of its misery as soon as possible.

The funniest event of the evening (if your taste runs to the tragicomic) was the beauty pageant of the 44 new-TLD applicants, at 3 minutes each + questions from the Board. With the prize for best entertainment probably going to the one who spent his 3 minutes railing at the unfairness of the process for selection, and hearing Esther Dyson's dry "Thank you for wasting your time".
Best video: SRI, presenters of a scheme for creating coordinate systems using the DNS (.geo).
Most shameless self-promotion: Nokia (.mobile, "if we get the name we can find something to use it for"), whose representative waved her phone in the air and said "if there are any issues, we can call <guy in charge> and ask him" (she didn't, in the end).
Entertainment, of a slightly perverse sort.

Thursday: Decision Day

The Open Board meeting is one of the stranger spectacles I've seen.
Here you have the 19 board members sitting on the dais, discussing matters ranging from budgets to .biz.
You have the room full of people, listening, wandering in and out, sometimes laughing, never allowed to participate.
And you have the decisions.
It was quite plain from the discussion that the board had not made up its mind before the meeting. Opinions were stated, refuted, retracted, reflected and refined. Criteria were proposed, evaluated, applied, changed and retracted.
And through it all, you could hear the undercurrent: "we are getting somewhere at last".

.web was removed from considerations because the best-liked applicant had changed its approach after submission.
.coop was liked because it was clear that the guys applying had self-interest in policing its criteria.
.geo died because it was unclear why it needed to be in the root, and because several questions about the technology ideas appeared to be not sufficiently worked out.
The application for "either .air or .aero" got pointed at ".aero" because the board members felt that ".air" was related to stuff we breathe, and not particularly to large metal objects moving through it.

And so it went. The list of final recommendations is public now.
Note: These are not go-aheads. These are recommendations that the staff enter negotiations with the applicants. It could easily be many months before any of these domains are in fact added to the root zone.
But the process is one step further.

The aftermath....

It's been surprisingly quiet.
Of course, the losers have stated intent to pursue "irregularities" using the court system.
Of course, there are gripes about "highly subjective criteria".
Of course, the At Large discussion won't go away. And the people who think they are being oppressed and disenfranchised by the ICANN system will continue to think so.

But the world has not come to an end.
And we might get to see what happens when you add new domains to the root zone.