The End of the Experiment: How ICANN’s Foray Into Global Internet Democracy Failed

January 9, 2004

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ICANN’s experimentation in running a representative and open corporate decision-making process to manage the domain name system has largely failed. This failure has manifested itself most explicitly by ICANN’s retreat from its effort to enable the direct election of a subset of its Board members and, less explicitly, by the extent to which other efforts to engage the Internet user community in the decision-making process have proven ineffective. A systematic review of over 100,000 comments by public participants in ICANN, other inputs that the Board considered, and the Election of 2000 for five ICANN Board members, reveal that ICANN has never fully succeeded in integrating users into the governance model in other than an ad-hoc fashion. Instead, the Board appears largely to have based its decisions upon the recommendations of professional staff and of the powerful Supporting Organizations (SOs), in which users can participate. An Internet user approaching the ICANN process from the outside would have little way to determine how to participate meaningfully in the decision-making process.

Three lessons emerge from this study. First, ICANN’s failure shines further light upon the need for an overhaul of its governance structure. Second, ICANN should clarify the way in which users can involve themselves in the decision-making process for managing the domain name system, arguably through the Supporting Organization process. Third, we should look beyond the ICANN model, which has never been the appropriate venue for experimentation in global decision-making, toward new ways to govern the technical architecture of the Internet in an increasingly networked, less clearly bordered world.

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April 16, 2015