The presidential election may amount to a celebration of the democratic process, but a group created by our elected leaders to run a critical portion of the Internet will soon do its best to run that process into the ground.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is a nonprofit group created by the United States government to oversee Web addresses.

ICANN decides things like who gets to sell addresses, which companies can claim them and what sorts of new names might be used in the future.

It was supposed to do all this under the leadership of a board of directors split between Internet industry insiders and people elected by ordinary Net users. But since the insiders got there first, they've made it clear they'd rather not have us around.

ICANN was launched in 1998 with an interim board of nine people hand-picked by government officials and late Internet pioneer Jon Postel. It wasn't exactly democracy in action, but the newly appointed board members assured us they'd only stick around long enough to come up with a way to replace themselves.

Alas, it seems these folks weren't chosen for their problem-solving skills. For while they quickly created a system for appointing nine board members to represent the industry, they still haven't figured out a way to elect the other nine public representatives.

Well, that's not exactly true. They do have a way they just don't want to do it.

Circling the wagons

Board members tried to avoid a direct election, but they were shouted down by cyber-rights groups and Internet activists. They finally agreed to hold a public vote, but only for five of the nine seats that should have been up for grabs.

The voting concluded in September, and two of the five winners are outspoken critics of ICANN. Cisco engineer Karl Auerbach and German hacker Andy Mueller-Maguhn, who will represent North America and Europe, have criticized the group's authoritarian tendencies, including its penchant for secret meetings.

So how did ICANN react? With another secret meeting, of course, during which it decided that four interim board members weren't going to be so interim after all. While all nine of those original appointees were supposed to step down at the upcoming annual meeting in Marina del Rey, four of them have now been awarded an extension to serve until November 2002.

This means Internet users will be in the minority as the group settles several critical issues, including the creation of new top-level domains that will be added to the likes of dot-com, dot-org and dot-net. When it comes time to balance the interests of corporations and copyright holders against the rights of ordinary people, the deck will be stacked against us.

For example, a consortium of 19 domain name registrars has proposed giving trademark owners an exclusive 90-day period to register new addresses before anyone else gets a shot. Since representatives of these groups have already claimed their seats on the board, they'll have a good chance of drowning out protests from those elected to represent the general public.

Pushing out the public

This might not seem like a big deal to ordinary Net users, most of whom will never register a Web address. But the group is helping along the Internet's transformation from a public playground to a corporate park, a trend that's nearly as troubling as dividing up the Grand Canyon among tract home developers.

And if ICANN continues to ignore the interests of programmers, scientists and other dedicated users, it might spark an insurrection that could bring the Net to its knees.

ICANN isn't a government, after all. Its claim to legitimacy exists only to the extent Internet stakeholders agree it represents their interests. If influential users and key companies rebelled against its abuses, they could split the Net into balkanized groups of people who couldn't reach each other.

Short of that, critics could convince some governments to reject ICANN and set up their own naming authorities, a move that might have the same effect.

Unlike most democracies, you see, the people really do run the Internet. And if ICANN doesn't give Net users an honest vote, the people have the power to pull the plug.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL, 60611.

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