WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- Civil rights and legal experts said Monday they oppose a suggested overhaul of the organization responsible for maintaining the Internet's address system.
M. Stuart Lynn, president and chief executive officer of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has drafted a plan to create a 15-member board of directors, largely made up of people nominated by governmental and technical groups. ICANN currently has a larger board, which includes representatives elected by general Web users.
The proposal would also rework the organization's advisory councils and create positions to handle complaints and public participation. Lynn's plan seeks additional funding, from both governmental and private sources, for the group's domain-name management functions.
Lynn's train of thought starts off fine, but quickly leaves the rails according to A. Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami and a longtime ICANN critic.
"We were hoping for a sort of 'ICANN Lite,' to focus on a few core technical tasks," Froomkin told United Press International. "The answer is not to try to bring in governments to force people to sign contracts with ICANN where they agree to pay it and do what it says."
Lynn, speaking to reporters via telephone Monday, said the plan would have governmental bodies (not necessarily nations) nominate five board members. An open nominating committee would select another five including ICANN's CEO and the chairs of four advisory councils. The final number of board members is open to discussion, he said.
The proposal, Froomkin said, is the equivalent of trying to regulate the software industry, forcing those companies to pay for participating in the process. The idea runs counter to the spirit of the Internet, which came up with its fundamental protocols in the absence of government intervention, he said.
ICANN is a private company created in 1998 to handle the technical aspects of Internet domain names and numerical addresses. It currently works under an agreement with the U.S. Commerce Department, but is expected to become fully autonomous in the next couple of years.
Barry Steinhardt, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said it's unfortunate the plan was unveiled at an ICANN board retreat this weekend.
"I would call that a retreat from democracy," Steinhardt told UPI. "Once again, ICANN is proposing to narrow the opportunity for Internet users at large to participate in the decision-making ... without focusing on the primary complaint of Internet users, which is that the (Web address) space is too restricted."
The only positive note in the reform plan is ICANN's acknowledgement of its government connections, Steinhardt said. The admission gives groups such as the ACLU a much better chance of forcing ICANN to accept applicable free speech and representation laws.
Lynn said the plan has nothing to do with replacing publicly elected board members, but that many of his critics have "hopelessly misused" the term "at-large" to distort the discussion. It's simply not possible to effectively poll hundreds of millions of Internet users to find out who they want to represent them -- that's a government function in any case, he said.
Lynn said ICANN shouldn't exert too much energy defining a selection process that satisfies everyone. Since the organization's success hinges on maintaining its credibility as a technical body, Lynn hopes the reforms will produces technically proficient nominees who can articulate the governmental point of view.
"ICANN's relationship to the public and the Commerce Department continues to be unclear and unaccountable," Markey said in a statement. "This proposal seems well-motivated by this concern, but internal proposals addressing such matters as length of terms and geographical distribution of board members are unlikely to make ICANN any less impervious to public scrutiny and accountability."
"We're pleased that ICANN realizes it's got problems and that it needs to clean up its act," Shimkus told UPI. "We'll be watching closely to see if their proposed changes are indeed how they need to move."
Increasing governmental participation would increase the organization's transparency and accountability, he said.