There was something extremely heartening about seeing all the kids lining up for Harry Potter. After hearing for so long how Pokémon and ADHD were destroying the ability and desire of the under-12 set to appreciate the mental exercise of a good book, we finally heard from the children, who retorted resoundingly, “No, you just have to give us something worth paying attention to.”
I scooped up my copy first night, figuring that 734 pages of Potter would be a good counterbalance to the latest news on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and numbers (a.k.a. ICANN), those folks theoretically running the Net. Both readings describe strange folk with mysterious powers and a seeming inability to understand how the average Muggle — er, Internet user — functions.
The ICANN board doesn’t act so much like the amusing witches and wizards of Potter’s Hogwarts magic academy, however, as like Lords of the Internet. A lot of people think ICANN is a bad idea, or at least badly implemented — working not for the good of the rank-and-file user but for big-business interests, which, by pouring money into ICANN, can buy the kind of Internet that’s really good at enhancing sales and marketing, and really bad at enhancing freedom and democracy.
Unfortunately, a lot of people (including me) try to tune out ICANN as much as possible, because much of the important stuff ICANN does is obscured by great wafting clouds of bureaucracy emanating from the meetings. That’s how democracy gets killed, you know: Toxic gas clouds of bureaucracy obscure what’s really going on. A whiff of that stuff and most of us don’t care about anything other than getting some fresh air.
The leaders of ICANN are pretty cynical about Internet democracy. And you know what? They’re right. Ten, even five, years ago, folks online were pretty passionate about the growth and development of the Net. Today, most of those folks treat the Net’s development as something that happens separate from them — something that comes in through the phone line and just is. Where do domain names come from? Why are there “.com” domains but not “.activist” domains? “Why ask why?” says the average user. (That is in fact one of the things ICANN decided at this month’s Tokyo meeting — they’ll give us some new domains, only they won’t say what or how many.)
Okay, so we’re not a democracy anymore. Neither is America, whatever you heard on the Fourth of July. True democracies — one person, one vote — are hard with a group of any size, because some people are more susceptible to the effects of those wafting gas clouds, and because putting every blessed issue to every blessed person for a vote is a damned slow way of doing business.
Instead, America is a representative democracy, in which we periodically vote for people to represent our interests in the halls of power. The Internet is also on the verge of becoming a representative democracy, and you (yes, you) are a citizen — eligible, if you’re over 16 and have both an e-mail and a postal address, to vote on five at-large memberships on the ICANN board.
Just like that! No shots were fired, no T1 lines dumped into Boston Harbor, but still, it happened: The Internet, which has for so long claimed to be practically a separate nation, is actually operating like one.
Problem is, ICANN is running these elections. ICANN, as I said, is a terribly problematic entity — subservient to big business and to various governments. I said ICANN is operating like a democracy in opening these five spots for voting. However, the nominating process is not open for your input. There are only five spots, not a majority of the 19-member board, and nine of those 19 spots are reserved for business interests. And some observers — including some “close to the ICANN board,” as the papers say when a board member says something but won’t go on the record with it — think that the Net population isn’t capable of discerning what’s important in such elections, and that elected positions are quite probably wasted on us sheeplike rank and file.
Assert your right to be considered smarter than a sheep. First, get yourself registered to vote at www.cdt.org/action/icann — you have until the end of July, but hurry; I registered at the beginning of the month and I’m still waiting for the snail-mail portion of my reg form to turn up. Next, spend 15 minutes — come on, less time than I spent writing this column! — catching up on the issues. The Internet Democracy Project has some good information, as does ICANNwatch. It’s never been easier to be at the forefront of a democratic revolution — and you won’t have to fight traffic (or Harry’s nemesis, Voldemort) to do it, either.