Democracy and the Net

Students and members of the Harvard community should pay close attention this week to an election that will have wide-ranging consequences worldwide--and it isn't the U.S. presidency. Instead, a select body of voters will have the chance to correct a serious problem affecting the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Haven't heard of it? That's the problem.

ICANN is a private, non-profit corporation which is charged with the oversight of domain name registration, the system by which Internet users are able to receive names such as or Formerly controlled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the domain-name registry was transferred several years ago to a for-profit corporation, Network Solutions, whose high profits and monopoly control prompted the government to transfer control once again to ICANN. In coming years, the group will decide on the creation of new, publicly available top-level domain names to augment the familiar .com, .net and .gov. However, it will do so with little public input.

Although ICANN exercises government-like powers over one of the foundational structures of the Internet, it is run by an unelected board of directors and is not accountable to the public in the same way that governmental bodies must be. The directors may be very qualified; they include former Radcliffe President Linda S. Wilson, and the board is led by Esther Dyson, a respected thinker on Internet issues. However, qualification is not the same as democratic choice. Although the corporation claims to exercise no governmental authority, given its position as a standards-setting organization in an area in which governments have abdicated control, the public interest demands that it become a representative and democratic body. ICANN has already been heavily criticized for adopting a dispute resolution policy that heavily favors the corporate owners of trademarks and weighs against individuals; others fear that ICANN could take steps to reduce the freedom of individuals to protect their privacy or to enforce a company-friendly vision of copyright law, and it would be much easier for special interests to capture a private body than a voter-approved one. Unfortunately, ICANN's undemocratic structure is unlikely to change after the first semi-public elections for board members end Oct. 10.


The severe lack of democratic participation in ICANN is obvious from the numbers. There are an estimated 370 million Internet users worldwide, of which 160 million are in the United States and Canada. Yet ICANN's ill-publicized membership drive from February 25 to July 31 garnered a meager 158,000 applications. Due in substantial part to ICANN's delays in mailing out passwords and PIN numbers, only 76,000 individuals worldwide, of whom 10,000 were from North America, were able to activate their memberships in time to gain voting rights. Thus, the body setting the standards for the world's Internet usage will have been elected by 0.02 percent of eligible individuals and 0.006 percent of eligible North Americans. Everyone else, as far as the Internet goes, has been disenfranchised.

We therefore implore members of the Harvard community who are at-large members of ICANN to vote for those who will work to make the organization more democratic. Lawrence Lessig, formerly of Harvard Law School and now a law professor at Stanford, has written eloquently of the need to defend the public interest online; one of the candidates for election in North America, Lessig would be an excellent choice for voters concerned about ICANN's exercise of public powers in a private system. Other promising candidates include Barbara Simons, former president of the Association of Computing Machinery and Karl Auerbach, a member of the Internet Engineering Task Force. A debate among six of the seven North American candidates will take place this evening, from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Harvard Law School's Ames Courtroom. It will be preceded by a town-hall-style dialogue from 4:20 to 6:00 p.m. in the same location. Those who have the ability to vote in this election must take it very seriously: A body whose decisions affect the many should not be elected by the few.

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