Major overhaul of ICANN needed, says president

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the much maligned nonprofit group charged with overseeing basic technical matters related to addressing on the Internet, is in need of fundamental reform, according to a frank assessment of the organization written by its president and presented to board members over the weekend.

“I have concluded that ICANN needs reform: deep, meaningful, structural reform, based on a clearheaded understanding of the successes and failures of the last three years,” wrote Stuart Lynn of the organization for which he has served as president for the last year.

Lynn blames a flawed structure and excursion away from core technical issues for stalling the organization, and calls, in the report, for sweeping changes that will give governments a seat at the table and create a new governing structure that will do away with an election system that gave every Internet user the chance to vote on some of the directors.

The proposals are sure to be spark debate among the many groups and individuals that have a part in ICANN and will likely dominate discussion at ICANN’s next meeting, which is scheduled to take place in Accra, Ghana, from March 10 to 14.

Under the proposed structure, the group’s governors will be trimmed from its current 19 members to 15. Of those, 10 will be nominated to their posts, five by governments and five by an open nominating committee, four will come from three policy councils and a technical advisory committee and the final member will be the president.

The structure Lynn envisages would put an end to ICANN’s attempt to connect with average Internet users through its At Large elections. The elections, which have taken place only once, resulted in the appointment to the ICANN board of directors of five people, each representing one of five regions. Just over 34,000 of the 76,000 people who registered and became eligible to vote took part in the elections, which took place in 2000.

In a conference call Monday afternoon, Lynn rebuffed the wave of criticism that had already been produced by his proposal to cut out the At Large elections.

“It is absolutely not the case that we are just trying to deal with the At Large (issue),” Lynn said. “These are very deep and substantial reforms and if we don’t change things, ICANN is not going to work.”

Still, the removal of the public from the ICANN process is central to Lynn’s argument that ICANN’s mission should be much narrower than it has become, focusing on technical discussion, and not attempting to tackle other issues and embrace the entire Internet community.

“The core ICANN mission includes no mandate to innovate new institutions of global democracy, nor to achieve mathematically equal representation of all affected individuals and organizations, nor to regulate content, nor to solve the problems of the digital divide, nor to embody some idealized (and never-before realized) model of process or procedure,” he wrote. Lynn said ICANN has allowed itself to be diverted from core technical goals and, should the organization not refocus, such diversions will be a “significant impediment to accomplishing ICANN’s core mission.”

He also calls for a change in the basic structure supporting the organization, which has always struggled for funding since it was created by the U.S. government in 1998. Lynn says governments need to be brought into the picture as part of a public-private partnership, something that is likely to be just as controversial among ICANN members and watchers as his proposal to end public elections. Lynn said the initial exclusion of governments from the process was an “overreaction” to fears of a government takeover of key Internet functions.

At present, a government advisory committee funnels opinions from national governments and governmental organizations into ICANN, but it does not have a strong hand in ICANN’s affairs. Lynn called this unworkable. He recognized he may need to fight for governments’ right to participate but said it is “simply unrealistic to believe that global coordination of the DNS (Domain Name System) can succeed without more active involvement of governments.”

During the call, Lynn emphasized that the group was running on empty, saying that the budget was inadequate and that the group relies on the work of a few key people.

“This is not the way to run and fund a railroad on which so many countries and economies have become dependent,” he said.

The report did not just focus on ICANN’s perceived failures but also highlighted several areas where the organization has had success, including the introduction of a competitive domain registrar and registration market, the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) and the creation of seven new top-level domains.

However, one ICANN watcher said these successes and Lynn’s plans for the future seem to be at odds.

“The successes he mentions in the report have all been outside of technical areas,” said Adam Peake, a senior research fellow at the International University of Japan’s Center for Global Communications. “He is arguing for a more technical focus but there is nothing technical in dispute resolution and the UDRP.”

Peake argues that if ICANN is to be refocused on technical issues and dispose of some of the baggage that has slowed work down, it must separate off to other groups its work on issues such as those where it has scored success.

“If he has a mechanism for taking out those issues, you will remove much of the public influence from ICANN and, he will probably be surprised to see many of the public interest groups will not pay so much attention. If he is able to move the UDRP and competitive registration role from ICANN, I could agree with him,” said Peake, who has followed ICANN closely since its formation.

On the issue of funding, Lynn suggested a new structure under which government and private sources would provide the cash needed to run ICANN. The report names several areas where funding is needed: overheads of between US$8 million and $10 million, root-name server operations at around $10 million, support to IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) at between $2 million and $3 million, and building up of reserves at around $10 million.

Lynn conceded during the conference call that his plan had already received a lot of negative responses “from predictable sources” but he added that he had also received positive feedback.

Hot and heavy discussion of the proposal will most likely span beyond the group’s meeting in Ghana, given the scope of the plan, Lynn said.

(Scarlet Pruitt contributed to this report.)

ICANN, in Marina del Rey, Calif., is at