Meet your representative

An interview with Karl Auerbach, ICANN at-large representative for the United States and Canada. Mr. Aeurbach was elected on 11 October 2000; this interview took place via email on 15 October 2000. An abbreviated version ran in the print edition of Seattle Weekly (19-25 October 2000). Angela Gunn conducted the interview.

Seattle Weekly Why did you decide to run for the ICANN spot?

Karl Auerbach Oh, the tough question! The background is that my family tree is full of people who man the barricades and work against the social injustices of the day. I've personally always been interested in how governments work and ever since I came across the topic of trans-national data flows and privacy in the mid 1970's I've been interested in how networks are eroding nation states.

But as for ICANN — I kind of drifted into the DNS issues via the IETF [Internet Engineering Task Force]. And when the IFWP [International Forum on the White Paper, the organization that laid the groundwork for ICANN] came around I jumped in with both feet and saw, first hand, how some closed interests joined with some — let me euphemistically say "naive" — members of the government and came up with an initial ICANN structure that was obviously a disaster.

I was a reluctant candidate. I felt that it was one of those situations in which the social potential of the biggest invention of the last 50 years was being usurped by those who want to turn the net into nothing but a big shopping mall. I felt that I had to do something.

SW What's your impression of ICANN's current effectiveness as a Net-governance body?

KA I'm glad that you see that it is a net-governance body. ICANN itself has refused to admit that it is involved in governance.

Well, if I were evaluating governance based on a Louis XIV style of government, I'd say that ICANN is doing a bang up job — it's working in secret, it grants favors to its favorites (i.e. intellectual property interests, registry/registrar interests, and to its own law firm), and it excludes the bulk of the internet community.

But I'm not a fan of Louis XIV governments. Rather I tend to prefer something that adheres to at least a modicum of democratic ideals. In that sense, ICANN has been an abysmal failure. As I've mentioned to others, we know more about how the College of Cardinals selects a Pope than we do about how ICANN makes its decisions.

SW Did you expect this level of effectiveness from ICANN as it was set up, or have things changed as the body has developed?

KA ICANN started with a septic conception and has gone downhill ever since. We have only to witness that several members of the initial board — people who attested that they would not stay longer than their initial term — have extended their own terms as a way of preventing the at-large [membership] from electing its full slate of 9 seats. (The election we just had filled only 5 seats.)

SW What are your goals for your ICANN term?

KA Primarily, to reform ICANN so that it operates according to the fundamental notions of open access, transparent procedures, and accountable decision-making.

But also there is an unreality of decision-making within ICANN. For instance, there are those who seem mesmerized by the word "stability" without having any ability to articulate what that word might mean in the Internet in general (which we must remember was initially designed to survive a nuclear holocaust) and DNS in particular. This unreality has turned ICANN into a body that seems more preoccupied with the business plans of those who want to run new top level domains than with the fact that the domain name system root lost the .com domain for several hours last month.

SW Are there members or sensibilities on the board of directors with whom you particularly look forward to working?

KA I've known Vint Cerf for many years (25 years!) and have always enjoyed found working with him to be both productive and enjoyable. I've chatted with Alejandro Pisanty on several occasions and also with Ken Fockler and Nii Quaynor [the at-large representative from Africa] — I'm feeling confident that we'll be able to work together well.

SW Anyone or anything you're dreading?

KA My platform calls for the removal of ICANN's temporary president as well as some senior "staff" and of ICANN's law firm. Let's just say that it will be a bumpy ride.

SW What does Cisco think of all this? [Eds. Note: Auerbach is employed by Cisco.]

KA It really isn't my place to answer on behalf of Cisco.

SW In some ways the new ICANN members seem to reflect concerns of their regions, but four of the five (all but Andy Mueller-Maguhn) have either business or education ties to the US. How does that affect ICANN's workings and positions?

KA When you say "members" do you mean the board members? I don't quite see that the elected folks have such narrow points of view as you suggest. If one looks at the Internet as it has evolved to this point in time, a person has almost necessarily had to have had some ties to the US in order to be involved. Presumably that will change with the passage of time.

SW What is the most significant issue you see ICANN taking up in the next five years?

KA In a word: legitimacy. ICANN is something new under the sun (although I see some parallels with the overlapping sovereignties that used to exist in renaissance Europe.) And in order for ICANN to obtain legitimacy in the eyes of those who are affected by ICANN's decisions, ICANN is going to have to gain the trust of those who are affected by those decisions. This means that ICANN must set aside its current primary goal of creating substantive supranational laws and, instead, opening itself up so that everyone who wants to participate can do so to the degree that those people will feel satisfied that they views have been honestly heard and considered.

SW What's the most significant thing on their plate right now?

KA Open access, transparent procedures, and accountable decision-making. After that, opening up the DNS top-level domain space to many orders of magnitude more TLDs than are currently being considered. After that, IP address space allocation issues. (The regional address registries are doing an OK job in the meantime, but ICANN needs to establish its role there and to make sure that the policies enacted aren't based solely on technical considerations.)

SW What will the new position mean to your routine — lots of travel? Email discussions? How much more work does this put on your heavily-laden plate?

KA I hate to travel! I work best by e-mail. I plan to continue being active on public mailing lists, and I have some still-vague ideas how to best interact with the rest of the ICANN board.

SW What about Cavebear's Catalog? (Loved Cavebear's Catalog; the Armor Piercing Packet cracked me up.)

KA Oh, I have great plans for the catalogue. ;-) Wait until you see my "Trilateral Commission (Specializing in World Domination and Secret Governments since 1945)" crash jackets!

SW Speaking of the Catalog, there's a great quote in the privacy policy: " not look to protection of your privacy to come from the private sector - that sector's interests are not aligned with yours. The CaveBear site strongly urges that you support national legislation and international treaties that define and protect your privacy." How does that line up with your ICANN goals? Does the private sector exercise too much control over ICANN?

KA Yup, the private sector exercises too much control over ICANN. Despite the Reagan legacy, governments are good things. Indeed, governmental regulation is often a good thing. One only has to read the history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries to realize that there were good reasons for the regulatory bodies to arise. And those reasons still exist.

ICANN is government - except that it lacks the elements we have come to associate with good government - things like open procedures, things like due process, things like separation of powers, things like good accountability (i.e., failure to be re-elected).

SW I'm sure you saw the recent quote by Andrew McLaughlin about those who disagree with ICANN's methods: "We're just doing our jobs, and a pretty small one at that. We're not world government. That's basically just raw ignorance from people who don't have the foggiest notion of how the Internet works." (*Well.*) Any comment?

KA I like Andrew, but I disagree with him. ICANN is a world government. Just because it imposes its laws via contract makes no difference. Don't forget that the US Federal government never enacted a 55mph speed limit rather, it coerced the states into doing so by threatening to withhold funds if the states didn't do it.

And if anybody hasn't the foggiest notion of how the Internet works, it is the ICANN board of directors. And ICANN's rejection of technical input was made crystal clear when it eliminated the position of the Chief Technical Officer.

The whole brouhaha about TLDs is idiocy — all these people are out there FUDded (FUD = Fear Uncertainty Doubt) into clones of Chicken Little thinking that if they add new TLDs that the DNS sky will fall in a monsoon of "instability". Yet anybody who knows about DNS knows that we can add over a million TLDs without one whit of technical instability.

What is happening is that this lack of knowledge — in some cases it may be a case of intentional lobotomies — is been used to screen the fact that there are many who don't want new TLDs for business reasons.

The simple fact of the matter is that ICANN can't even articulate what they mean by "stability". Clearly they don't consider the loss of the .com TLD for a few hours to be "instability". But they do consider the issue of whether a domain name registrant ought to get his/her money back should he/she cancel the contract before its term is up to be a matter critical to net stability. And that is hogwash of the first order.

And the result of this is ICANN's unconscionable $50,000 TLD application fee, buttressed by its list of irrelevant criteria.

The result of this is that ICANN is damaging the ability of the Internet to be a space for innovation. ICANN's existence as a chamberlain, saying who can be a name service provider and who can not, will very quickly lead to one of two results — either the evolution of the Internet's naming mechanisms will ossify, much as did the telephone systems of the United States until the HushAPhone case in 1956 — or there will be so much pressure that innovators will realize that ICANN, or rather the Department of Commerce, really has no means to coerce people into using its version of DNS.

I might add that the Department of Commerce's representations to Congress's GAO that the Department of Commerce will retain control of both DNS and the IP address space kind of leaves ICANN, to borrow a phrase from another era, twisting in the wind. If the Department of Commerce is honest about the fact that it controls the DNS, the Department will not be able to slavishly pick up and adopt every decision that pops out of ICANN - rather the Department will have to exercise its independent judgment — and perhaps even open the door to suggestions from other parties.

SW I know you were highly critical of ICANN earlier this year for not doing a better job on the at-large campaigning/voting process. How do you hope to improve it?

KA I want ICANN to follow California law that gives members the right to nominate candidates (California law mandates a lower count on nominations), to allow the members to obtain the membership list so that they may organize among themselves outside of the potentially manipulative arm of corporate management, etc.

SW How can your constituents best communicate with you? How will you keep up with them?

KA I'll be active on e-mail and am busy setting up a better/faster web server.

For previous Weekly coverage of ICANN, including the at-large voting process, please see these archived columns:

comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow