By Joi Ito
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. —Winston Churchill
I was on the board of the International Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2004 to 2007. This was a thankless task that I viewed as something like being on jury duty in exchange for being permitted to use the internet, upon which much of my life was built. Maybe people hate ICANN because it seems so bureaucratic, slow, and political, but I will always defend it as the best possible solution to something that is really hard—resolving the problem of allocating names and numbers for the internet when every country and every sector in the world has reasons for believing that they deserve a particular range of IP addresses or the rights to a domain name.
I view the early architecture of the internet as the most successful experiment in decentralized governance. The internet service providers and the people who ran the servers didn’t need to know how the whole thing ran, they just needed to make sure that their corner of the internet was working properly and that people’s email and packets magically found their way around the internet to the right places. Almost everything was decentralized except one piece—the determination of the unique names and numbers that identified every single unique thing connected to the internet. So it makes sense that this is the thing that was the hardest thing to do for the open and decentralized idealists there.
After Reuters picked up the news on May 20 that ICANN handed over the top level domain (TLD) .amazon to Jeff Bezos’ Amazon.com, pending a 30 day comment period, Twitter and the broader internet turned into a flurry of conversations criticizing the ICANN process. It brought out all of the usual conspiracy theorists and internet governance pundits, which brought back old memories and reminded me how some things are still the same, even though much on the internet is barely recognizable from the early days. And while it made me cringe and wish that the people of the Amazon basin had gotten control of that TLD, I agree with ICANN’s decision. I remembered my time at ICANN and how hard it was to make the right decisions in the face of what, to the public, appeared to be obviously wrong.
Originally, early internet pioneer Jon Postel ran the root servers that managed the names and numbers, and he decided who got what. Generally speaking, the rule was first come first serve, but be reasonable about the names you ask for. A move to design a more formal governance process for managing these resources began as the internet became more important and included institutions such as the Berkman Center, where I am a faculty associate. The death of Jon Postel accelerated the process and triggered a somewhat contentious move by the US Commerce Department and others to step in to create ICANN.
ICANN is a multi-stakeholder nonprofit organization originally created under the US Department of Commerce that has since transitioned to become a global multi-stakeholder community. Its complicated organizational structure includes various supporting organizations to represent country-level TLD organizations, the public, businesses, governments, the domain name registrars and registries, network security, etc. These constituencies are represented on the board of directors that deliberates on and makes many of the key decisions that deal with names and numbers on the internet. One of the keys to the success of ICANN was that it wasn’t controlled by governments like the United Nations or the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), but that the governments were just part of an advisory function—the Government Advisory Council (GAC). This allowed many more voices at the table as peers than traditional intergovernmental organizations.
The difficulty of the process is that business and intellectual property interests believe international trademark laws should govern who gets to control the domain names. The “At Large” community, which represented users, has other views, and the GAC represents governments who have completely different views on how things should be decided. It’s like playing with a Rubik's cube that actually doesn’t have a solution.
The important thing was that everyone was in the room when we made decisions and got to say their say and the board, which represented all of the various constituents, would vote and ultimately make decisions after each of the week-long deliberation sessions. Everyone walked away feeling that they had their say and that in the end, they were somehow committed to adhere to the consensus-like process.
When I joined the board, my view was to be extremely transparent about the process and to stick to our commitments and focus on good governance, even if some of the decisions made us feel uncomfortable.
During my tenure, we had two very controversial votes. One was the approval of the .xxx TLD. Some governments, such as Brazil, thought that it would be a kind of “sex pavilion” that would increase pornography on the internet. The US conservative Christian community engaged in a letter-writing campaign to ICANN and to politicians to block the approval. The ICM Registry, the company proposing the domain, suggested that .xxx would allow them to create best practices including preventing copyright infringement and other illegal activity and create a way to enforce responsible adult entertainment.
It was first proposed in 2000 by the ICM Registry and resubmitted in 2004. They received a great deal of pushback and continued to fight for approval. In 2008, ICM filed an application with the International Centre for Dispute Resolution and the domain came up for vote again in 2009, when I was on the board. The proposal was struck down in a 9 to 5 vote against the domain—I voted in the minority, in favor of the proposal, because I didn’t feel that we should deviate from our process and allow political pressure to sway us. Eventually, in 2011, ICANN approved the .xxx generic top-level domain.
In 2005 we approved .cat for Catalan, which also received a great deal of criticism and pushback because the community worried that it would be the beginning of a politicization of TLDs by various separatist movements and that ICANN would become the battleground for these disputes. But this concern never really manifested.
Then, on March 10, 2019, the board of ICANN approved the TLD .amazon, against the protests of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization and the governments of South America representing the Amazon Basin. The vote was the result of seven years of deliberations and process, with governments arguing that a company shouldn’t get the name of geographic region and Jeff Bezos’ Amazon arguing that it had complied with all of the required processes.
When I first joined MIT, we owned what was called net 18. In other words, any IP address that started with 18. The IP addresses 188.8.131.52 through 184.108.40.206 were all owned by MIT. You could recognize any MIT computer because its IP address started with 18. MIT, one of the early users of the internet, was allocated a whole “class A” segment of the internet which adds up to 2,147,483,646 IP addresses—more than most countries. Clearly this wasn’t “fair,” but it was consistent with the “first come first serve” style of early internet resource allocation. In April 2017, MIT sold 8 million of these addresses to Amazon and broke up our net 18, to the sorrow of many of us who so cherished this privilege and status. This also required us to renumber many things at MIT and turn our network into a much more “normal” one.
Although I shook my fist at Amazon and capitalism when I heard this, in hindsight the elitist notion that MIT should have 2 billion IP addresses was also wrong and Amazon probably needed the addresses more.
So it was with similar ire that I read the tweet that said that Amazon got .amazon. I’ve been particularly involved in the protection of the rights of indigenous people through my conservation and cultural activities and my first reaction was that, yet again, Western capitalism and colonialism were treading on the rights of the vulnerable.
But then I remembered those hours and hours of deliberation and fighting over .xxx and the crazy arguments about why we couldn’t let this happen. I also remember fighting until I was red in the face about how we needed to stick to our principles and our self-declared guidelines and not allow pressure from US politicians and their constituents to sway us.
While I am not close to the ICANN process these days, I can imagine the pressure that they must have come under. You can see the foot-dragging and years of struggle just reading the board resolution approving .amazon.
So while it annoys me, and I wish that .amazon went to the people of the Amazon basin, I also feel like ICANN is probably working and doing its job. The job of ICANN is to govern the name space in an open and inclusive process and to steward this process in the best, but never perfect, way possible. And if you really care, we are in that 30 day public comment period so speak up!