February 22, 2005

The Other Side of the Coin

Steven Forrest's Free2Innovate blog is full of useful information and commentary.  And I often find myself in agreement with the opinions that are expressed, particularly with regard to the impairment of innovation through overly broad or mis-directed attempts at internet governance.

On February 21, Free2Innovate had an item entitled Today's Scary Headline in which, should the question come down to ICANN or the ITU, puts its support behind ICANN.

It seems that the core of Steven's concern is that the ITU is a large bureaucracy and that it is affiliated with the UN and the UN has put Tunisia, a country that has questionable credentials with respect to democracy and free speech, in a leadership role in the WSIS (of which WGIG - Working Group on Internet Governance) is a part.

Steven also mentions a pull towards ICANN based on its assertion that ICANN has ideals of freedom, openness, technological progress, and innovation.

Let me address these points:

As for bureaucracy - yes, the ITU is most certainly a bureaucracy.  But then again, so is ICANN.  In terms both of the number of pigeonholes and linkages between them ICANN's org chart rivals that of organizations far larger than the ITU.  And the ITU has had 150 years over which its bureaucracy has developed.  ICANN ramified into its Byzantine structure in a mere 7 years.

So if we are to decide on the grounds of which is the worse bureaucracy, I think that ICANN takes the prize both in complexity per unit of job-to-be-performed and in terms of speed of its growth.

And if we measure the competence of the ITU and ICANN bureaucracies we find that the ITU is a well oiled machine while ICANN sputters and smokes like a very old and tired automobile.  In addition, the ITU's bureaucracy seems to stay focused on the tasks set before it - the interoperation of the telephone networks - without getting too deeply enmeshed in social or economic engineering.  ICANN, on the other hand, has effectively abrogated any role in the technical operation of the DNS or IP address allocation systems, leaving those essential tasks to virtually independent bodies.  And at the same time ICANN has enthroned itself as the source of supranational policies that dictate trademark-domain-name policy that is law in all but name, has imposed a business system of domain name systems that is not only anti-innovative but is also highly consumer-unfriendly.

It has been aptly said that  ICANN recapitulates the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but badly.

As for Tunisia, I agree that this is somewhat of a fox-in-the-henhouse situation.  However, the UN has over the years established machinery that impartially ticks away installing and removing member states from committee and council positions.  Tunisia's turn simply came up.  And being in that role doesn't mean that Tunisia's policies dominate the debate or dictate the outcome; quite the contrary - from my observation it is the almost totally silent (silent in public, anyway) participant, the United States, that dominates the debate.

As for ICANN's ideals - I have seen again and again, both from the inside (remember I was a board member) and the outside that ICANN's adherence to ideals is no deeper than the stain of laser toner on paper.  I had to bring legal action (I won) to even take a look as a board member at ICANN's financial papers - that's "openness" that only an Enron mentality could love.  And ICANN has repudiated public participation in the making of policies that affect the public; ICANN's ALAC is just that: A-Lack of power.

The ITU is mainly driven by large telephone companies and governments.  But is that any different than ICANN which is driven by large telephone companies and the intellectual property industries?  (An interesting chart can be constructed by multiplying each telco-related or intellectual-property related board member by the number of years that he/she has been on the board.)

As the the linkage to governments - The ITU is most definitely the creation of governments acting through an explicit international agreement among nations.  ICANN carries the form of a private California Non-Profit/Public-Benefit corporation.  But that's only the shadow - the reality is that ICANN is a private arm, a secular arm, of the US Department of Commerce.  Sure, the Dept of Commerce likes to pretend that ICANN moves of its own accord, but sometimes the control is obvious - as when the US Dept of Commerce simply exempted the .us TLD from ICANN's control.

So, as between ICANN and the ITU, I don't agree with Steven that ICANN is automatically the preferred choice.

I like to think of the question of internet governance as a hiring decision: we are hiring some body to do some jobs.  As in the case of all such hiring decisions, it is rather important to figure out what jobs need to be done so that the right person or entity can be hired for each job.  The internet governance debates have not yet created adequate job definitions.  And until we know very clearly what we want done it is premature to pick or create entities do to those jobs.

Posted by karl at February 22, 2005 1:05 PM