The Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN) called the meeting to get input on its plan, but many Netizens came here simply looking for answers--primarily to find out exactly who hand-picked the initial ten board members. A notable fraction of the approximately 300 attendees charged that the process of selection was too secretive and that the board was accountable to no one.
"The problem we have is a lack of trust," said Einar Stefferud, founder of the Open Root Server Confederation, which submitted an opposing proposal to ICANN. "We don't care who is sitting up there at the table. If your bylaws make [it impossible to sue] you and [you are] unaccountable, the community will not trust you."
ICANN's formation was just one point of contention during the day-long meeting that unofficially moves forward the plan to transfer control of the Net addressing system and protocol development from the government to the private sector.
Despite the criticism, ICANN also heard from supporters who want it to get on with its job once it gets final clearance from the Commerce Department to manage the technical underpinnings of the Net, giving it an unprecedented role.
ICANN was created by the two main forces in the Net's addressing system: Jon Postel, who before he died suddenly in October headed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), and domain name registrar Network Solutions. Both now have the exclusive contracts to run the Net's directory.
For the most part, board members were prepared to face skeptics and the meeting made clear that to be effective, ICANN has to win over Net users and businesses.
"[The board] is going to have to get its legitimacy by people acknowledging its legitimacy," said Esther Dyson, chairwoman of ICANN. "We're trying to build something organic that has feedback loops and checks and balances."
Netizens want a watchdog
The eight board members who were present represent countries including Australia, Netherlands, Spain, and the United States. No decisions were made at the town hall meeting, which served more as ICANN's "coming out" event. Broadcast live on the Net, the meeting was a chance for the board to send a message about whether or not it was comfortable operating under a microscope.
The meeting brimmed with pent-up frustration about the closed-door appointment of ICANN's board as well as about its evolving bylaws and other concerns. One of the top complaints was that ICANN, whose decisions will have global implications, is technically only legally accountable to the California attorney general's office because that is the state where the board is incorporated.
"To be accountable, whoever you're accountable to has to have the power to remove you," Jay Fenello, long-time domain name participant who runs an active listserve about the governance debate, told the board. "We still don't know the details of how you're making decisions."
Most of the inherent distrust stems from cryptic explanations about how the board was founded, which one attendee likened to a "virgin birth from a deity." The majority of the members made a point yesterday that they were invited to join by Joe Sims, of the firm Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue, who is legal counsel to IANA.
"The decision was made by Jon [Postel], and then I formally asked them," Sims stated during the meeting.
In an interview with CNET News.com, Sims added that an adequate announcement was made to the world that IANA was looking for nominees. "I told everyone I talked to that we were looking and I'm sure Jon put it online--we got hundreds of suggestions," he said.
But Postel, while widely respected, also had been criticized for being too insular.
Switching control to a nonprofit such as ICANN was suggested in a White House "white paper" that aimed to be a blueprint to privatize oversight of the Net.
At stake is the stability of the entire Internet, as well as a lot of money. The lucrative registrations for ".com" and other top-level domains are up for grabs, and the board has to deal with complicated business issues such as whether the domain name "Amazon.com" can be trademarked or whether new top-level domains should be created, such as ".firm."
With all these critical decisions in its hands, the board faced tough questions about its nature: Will it operate like a traditional nonprofit such as the Red Cross, or more like a government agency? Now it seems to lean toward the former. Unlike a government agency that has to comply with open-meeting laws, ICANN's meetings will be closed with minutes released 21 days later.
"We have to have a learning process so we can be reasonable?if you're speaking in public you have to watch every word," said Hans Kraaijenbrink, a board member who is chairman of the European Telecommunications Network Operators Association.
However, many see the board as much more than a typical nonprofit and are calling for more openness to ensure that commercial interests take don't precedent over the rights of Net users.
"They are like a public utilities commission--they will be managing public resources, so a higher degree of accountability is necessary," Chris Ambler, long-time domain name activist and would-be registrar, said in an interview.
For example, some suggested that the meetings minutes be detailed and made available with board members' voting records. Others want the meetings to be Webcast, but that idea was rejected because the board said it would stifle efficiency and hamper their ability to speak frankly so they could come to a consensus on issues.
However, the board also recognized that it will be closely watched and cautiously listened to concerns and suggestions.
Dyson, for one, encouraged openness about any possible conflicts of interest as the board is supposed to be made up of neutral parties who have no prior involvement in the debate.
For example, board member Frank Fitzsimmons who is a senior vice president at Dun & Bradstreet, was asked about the significance of a deal his company has with Network Solutions that allows customers to sign up for a Dun & Bradstreet business ID number when they register a domain name. Fitzsimmons said the deal just gave customers some convenience and was not a revenue stream. Don Telage, a senior vice president for Network Solutions, said it "was not a big deal."
Michael Roberts, interim president of ICANN, also has consulted companies about Net policy, but he would not name them. He said he did not see it as a conflict and has now cut off all those contracts.
The next step
With its first public encounter behind it, the board will now try to set its bylaws into motion.
Once given the green light by the government, the interim board will serve until next September and then a 19-member board will be elected by a membership base that is not structured yet.
Roberts said ICANN will draft a business plan and will set up another public meeting in February to vote on issues such as its membership structure, assuming it gets official authority to move forward.
Taking in comments from the meeting and submitted via the Net, the board will begin creating an international membership base that includes specific supporting organizations, such as those that develop Net standards and the growing community of domain name registrars.
The board also will set up an advisory council to help it form an at-large membership delegation that would ideally represent the interests of all stakeholders in the Net from e-commerce companies and access providers to the millions of people who use the medium to communicate every day.
The membership base will be a crucial component to the Net governance system.
"If the supporting organizations get to nominate board members, then they will have the power," Richard Forman, president of Register.com, said in an interview.
"So whatever company can afford to fly employees to meetings gets more say," he added. "If they can dictate who can be on the board, you've lost all accountability."
As ICANN moves forward to tackle this issue and others, it knows the online world will be watching.
Still, not all are critics.
"From this stage, we need to look at efficient forward movement," said Jonathan Robinson, who represented CORE, a budding group of international registries that proposed an competing plan to ICANN. "In spite of ongoing reservations, we must move forward."
The tension about ICANN's formation is valid, Dyson added, but it shouldn't dominate the process. "At some point we are dealing with a given reality. We hope we use our authority wisely," she noted.