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November 2, 1999

ICANN Elections Get $500,000 Cash Boost and Oversight

By CBR Staff Writer

By Nick Patience in Los Angeles

In an indication that the management of internet domain names a numbers is having a very broad effect not only on business, but on all sorts of communications and social policy issues, the New York-based philanthropic organization the Markle Foundation has agreed to put give $500,000 to a group of non-profit bodies in order to facilitate elections for ICANN board members next year.

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) had reached out to Markle a few weeks back asking for $100,000 or $200,000, and Markle is donating the latter directly to ICANN, with the rest being distributed among other groups in the US and around the world. Markle has earmarked another $500,000 for other internet governance improvements yet to be outlined.

ICANN currently has 19 board members, 10 of which were chosen in fairly mysterious circumstances last year, and nine that were selected by ICANN’s three supporting organizations in the past couple of weeks. The plan is to replace nine of the 19 with board members elected by an at-large membership, the formation of which is the proposed use of the Markle money. The other board member is the president, who is currently Mike Roberts, but who is likely to be replaced sometime next year.

In announcing the donation, Markle president Zoe Baird issued something of a disclaimer by saying that the donation should not be taken as an endorsement of the current at-large structure ands voting plans. The ICANN board is in the process of adopting a new membership structure whereby members don’t vote for the board members directly, rather they vote for an at-large council of nine people, who will then select the nine board members. The reason cited for this inserted level of indirection is so that ICANN cannot, under Californian law be subjected to derivative lawsuits, whereby the resources of the corporation are used against it by its members – a move that caused a great deal of controversy in the internet community.

Esther Dyson, interim chair of ICANN portrayed it in a different light, however. Speaking at the Markle event in Los Angeles yesterday, Dyson said the idea is for the at-large council members to be very active in the outreach to their community. They should be involved in the grass roots, she said, before they ever get to picking ICANN board members. She said that the electoral college-like system is experimental but it’s not an experiment. She also said that it makes sense for more than simply legal reasons. Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) said that although many up here are new to this process, we know that there is a game underway.

Other groups involved in the plan include the former US President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center, which monitors elections all over the world, most recently in East Timor, and will check to insure that the ICANN elections are free and fair. The American Library Association will work to educate internet users all over the world about the need to get involved in these elections and educate about internet governance in general. The CDT will try and educate the public in a similar manner and Common Cause will create a group of experts to advise ICANN about how to build the membership and voting process Finally, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society will explore mechanisms for open government and deliberations online.

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However, despite this line-up – all of which will get some of the Markle cash – none present were under any illusions that the world’s first global election will be relatively simple to set up and execute. Dyson warned about getting too bogged down with the idea that simply the act of voting signals a democratic process. She said talking about voting in terms of democracy is like talking about sex in terms of marriage; there’s a lot more involved. Dyson welcomed the injection of what she called non- commercial and non-profit money into ICANN, which is moot point given the make up of bodies such as the CDT that comprises a lot of large companies and said that anyone concerned about Markle having too much influence now should offer their own funding. There is no timetable for the Markle work to get underway, but as soon as possible would seem to be the line from those attending yesterday’s event, ICANN has said that it would like the newly- elected board members seated by summer 2000 at the latest. á

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