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The Idea of ICANN

By David R. Johnson and Susan P. Crawford[i]

The idea of ICANN was the same as the idea of the internet. ICANN was to be open, voluntary, standards-based, decentralized and built on cooperation. These core ideas prefigure the solutions to the organizational issues now being debated in the DNSO working group, the issues to be covered by the At Large Study over the next few months, and questions being raised about ICANN's structure and function in many other contexts.

None of the following is meant as an attack on ICANN or any participant in ICANN. Indeed, many of the ideas advanced in this piece are drawn from ICANN's contracts and its constitutional documents.We believe the current debate about ICANN's structure has confused personal attacks on today's ICANN participants with discussion of possible structural reforms.In our view, this confused discussion is not as constructive as it should be.We hope and expect that many who have contributed to the ICANN experiment will endorse the proposition that ICANN's institutional strength will grow in proportion to the extent ICANN remains true to its core ideals.We have attempted to set forth these principles below.

What it means to be Open

The internet is open in the sense that you do not need permission to join. You just need a connection with a neighbor and willingness to follow the standards that make interconnections work. ICANN should also be open, in the sense that anyone willing to work constructively towards development of consensus-based standards should be allowed to join its activity.[ii] There may be different categories of individuals and groups that play somewhat different roles in ICANN. But because the work product of ICANN is required to be policy standards that registries and registrars agree to follow because they are supported by a broad, demonstrable consensus among impacted parties, the exact composition and admission criteria for particular subgroups within ICANN should not matter very much. No one can claim the right to exclude from ICANN's work processes any voice that offers constructive contributions to the collective work of developing consensus-based policy standards. 

What it means to be Voluntary

No one is required to join the internet. Anyone can form their own private network, without penalty, using any protocol they want. ICANN should also be voluntary, in the sense that participation in the policy standards it sets is a matter of contract, not governmental decree. 

What it means to be Standards-Based

The internet is not a single system. It isn't owned by anyone. It can't be shut off from any single point. Participation in it doesn't subject the participants to rules made by a global governing body. While ICANN is technically a California not-for-profit corporation (with bylaws that require an internationally representative Board), it doesn't "own" the authoritative root system, and it isn't "owned by" any group of shareholders or members. The only thing that makes any root "authoritative" is the fact that ISPs and others running name resolution software point at it.

What it means to be Decentralized

The internet emerges from the combination of vast numbers of decisions taken at its edge. No one has to ask permission to put up a web site. ICANN, in taking decisions regarding policy standards for the domain name system, must continue to recognize that most of the actions that affect the functionality and value of the domain name system are taken by independent parties, acting on their own, without any need for permission. 

What it means to be built on Cooperation

The internet arose from the self-interest of various network operators seeking to share communications via standard protocols. It represents a major victory for decentralized collective action -- a form of social ordering we ignore at our peril. Its construction required a lot of hard work.To succeed, ICANN needs to inspire and catalyze the same kind of sharing and much more hard work than has been performed to date. Articulating, exploring, and discussing the details of policies likely to attract consensus support requires patience and precision -- not just open listservs and occasional meetings in places most impacted parties find it hard to get to. Reaching consensus requires compromise, and may require better-structured online meetings. 

In short, ICANN should be as non-exclusionary, non-coercive, non-governmental, non-hierarchical, non-adversarial and decentralized as the internet itself.If we can agree on this central idea of ICANN, inspired by the ideas that gave rise to the net, then perhaps we can reach consensus on changes that will help ICANN serve the purposes for which it was established:

ICANN has demonstrated admirable self-restraint by not seeking to establish policies in areas outside its scope and (at least following the adoption of the UDRP) by not seeking to impose new "consensus policies" in the absence of adequately-documented consensus.On the other hand, ICANN at all levels could do much more to (i) facilitate the development of consensus, (ii) articulate the differences between the consensus-building process and other governance models, and (iii) provide concrete reasons for stakeholders to participate fully in and support its operations.We hope that a renewed focus on the core principles outlined above will drive the ongoing discussion towards structural solutions that bolster ICANN's credibility.


[i] David R. Johnson heads the EGroup of the international law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.Susan P. Crawford is also a partner with Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering.This article reflects their own views and not those of any client of the firm.
[ii] For background on the consensus process, see our earlier articles:"How To Fix ICANN" (http://www.icannwatch.org/archives/how2fixicann.htm); "Why Consensus Matters" (http://www.icannwatch.org/archives/essays/967072831.shtml); and "What a Consensus Report Should Look Like" (http://www.icannwatch.org/archives/consensusmodel.htm).