None of this would be a big deal if we were talking about an international organization whose policymaking machinery was responsive to the needs of Internet users. But that’s not the case: ICANN, a private corporation, is chartered by the state of California and answerable to no one. It is an outgrowth of the Clinton administration’s attempts to privatize control of the Internet; ICANN’s authority comes from a “memorandum of understanding” with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Handed a letter of agreement and a board of directors, the corporation was told to go forth and make policy.
The one attribute the U.S. government couldn’t confer on this outfit was legitimacy. The Internet is supposed to be a global resource, so ICANN’s original plan called for Internet users worldwide to elect nine at-large directors. Those directors, together with nine other directors appointed by important Internet interest groups, would ultimately craft the policy of the global information infrastructure.
ICANN was designed to have the efficiency of private enterprise, but it was somehow supposed to acquire the legitimacy of an elected government. Alas, this proved to be an impossible task. The election was a flop. Voter registration took place in the summer of 2000. ICANN says 158,000 Internet users-far more than had been expected-tried to register. Only 75,000 of them completed the elaborate verification process, which entailed getting a personal identification number by e-mail and then typing it into a Web site. And in the end, only 34,000 people voted in October 2000. But those numbers actually overstate the level of user participation: in North America, according to Election.com, the company hired to run the election, a mere 3,449 votes were cast. Karl Auerbach, the candidate elected to represent the United States and Canada, received 1,725 of those votes. Although that’s a majority, it’s an exceedingly tiny fraction of the Internet’s user population.
But ICANN need not worry about more sham elections. When the company’s board of directors amended its bylaws last December, it eliminated elections and instituted an advisory committee-at-large whose members-chosen by other committees-lack real power. Maybe that’s okay. “ICANN is not an experiment in global online democracy,” says Stuart Lynn, ICANN’s president and CEO. “So the board decided that, at least for now, elections were not to go on.”
Perhaps ICANN serves as a model for systematically shutting the public out of messy policy debates and letting the appointed representatives of global business take over.
Perhaps democracy is overrated.