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Dyson addresses new domain plan

The technology pundit, who will sit on the board of the new domain group, discusses the issues the organization will face.

    Now that the U.S. government has decided to create a new nonprofit corporation to govern the way the Internet is technically run from here on out, the remaining question is how the organization will tackle that Herculean task.

    The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will take over for the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and Network Solutions, which has an extended contract with the government to run the world's largest domain name registry until 2000, although its power will now be phased out and other competitors will likely emerge to hand out ".com" and other popular domains.

    The board of the ICANN is supposed to be neutral in the ongoing, heated debate over the future of the domain name system. At stake is the power over the underpinnings of the Net as well as millions of dollars in the form of domain name fees and the business value of domain names.

    The ICANN is to be run by 19 people. But the board will be chosen by an initial group of nine people, including technology pundit Esther Dyson; Frank Fitzsimmons, senior vice president at Dun & Bradstreet; Gregory Crew, chairman of Australian Communications Industry Forum Limited; Hans Kraaijenbrink, chairman of the Association of European Public Telecommunications Network Operators; and Linda S. Wilson, president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

    The initial group will be charged with solving a number of complex issues, such as international trademark disputes over domain names. The group also will have to oversee technical details for opening up Network Solutions' domain name registration business to competition, without disrupting the stability of the domain name "root" servers.

    Dyson, who is well-known for her influential newsletter Release 1.0 and her book Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, spoke with CNET about the new board, its power, and whether the IANA and Network Solutions will still be pulling the strings.

    NEWS.COM: How will the board make decisions about the domain naming system, and what are some of the big issues you face?
    DYSON: That is the biggest challenge. It starts abstractly--how does this board actually meet? It's going to need leadership and some administrative types. We'll have to become coherent pretty quickly.

    The bylaws give a framework--this is what we need to deal with over the next few months. Trademarks are clearly a big issue--this is the essence of the privatization question. There are so many similar questions of how you make the transition. One thing that is clear is that you need more than rules--you need culture.

    When I went on jury duty two or three years ago, I was amazed at how impressive the people were, and they weren't hand-picked like this board. I'm going to try to meet them physically. We need to establish a good working relationship.

    How will the ICANN be held accountable for its actions?
    The accountability of the first board is to the world. Our job is to set up accountability systems for the permanent board. We've been picked because we are the kind of people who will be good.

    The one thing I have learned is that the worst thing is if you have people with power who are not checked either by an honest government or the free marketplace. What we're trying to do is use a sanitary mechanism to set up a long-term system that is clean and accountable so no one can get in a rigid position of power for a long time.

    How will you try to be more open to public input?
    [We'll] read all the lists and meet with people. It means being open and listening and then being open to valid points of view.

    Is the global community being properly represented by the ICANN board?
    There are a few billion people in the world and they can't all be involved in the process.

    How do you think your personal lack of involvement will affect the job you do as a board member?
    I have consciously avoided reading [the myriad domain name papers] and getting involved in the politics so I could come in fresh and not be poisoned.

    They want to find people who don't have a vested interest. They want people who don't represent power blocks.

    How do you transfer to something that is decentralized and privatized, from a situation that comes from a specific set of vested interests? Someone has to create the cocoon from which you hope a nice clean butterfly will emerge. At some point you just have to pick people you trust.

    But who is picking? It looks like the people who chose the initial board members are the same folks who have been in power up until now--the IANA and Network Solutions (NSI). How do people know for sure that board members are acting independently and aren't puppets?
    Personally, I'm more interested in the welfare of the world than screwing NSI. I'm less concerned with the impact this has on NSI--positive or negative. They need to be dealt with fairly. This is not a plum job. I'm paying my own expenses. But I see it as a serious responsibility. I don't feel beholden to NSI.

    I'm sure that they were involved in the political discussion, but I don't know who picked me.

    You sit on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has criticized this ICANN plan. Is this a conflict of interest?
    I'm not sure it's appropriate to be on the EFF board while I'm doing this. If people thought it was inappropriate I would step down. I'm not representing EFF--I got picked because of my history.