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Vittorio vb Bertola
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A Proposal for an Open and Bottom-Up Self-Organization of the Membership

(Inglese, meeting ICANN di Marina Del Rey, 13 Novembre 2000)

by Vittorio Bertola - vb (at) vitaminic.net
(originally hosted by the now-defunct Interim Coordinating Committee at www.icannmembers.org)

General principles

The following proposal is being made starting from a very generic point of view, so that it can be applied to ICANN At Large, but can also serve as a model for a more generic type of political and social Internet self-governance structure. ICANN's role has often been overestimated if compared to the actual technical functions it has to perform, but it cannot be neglected that ICANN is the first experiment of democratic self-governance of the Internet open to the general public. The attention and the visibility that ICANN and its model, especially in some countries, has gained, is a highly valuable asset for those who believe in an open and fair management of the Internet. So the ideas exposed herein, even if applied to specific ICANN concepts, try to establish a system for the Internet self-governance as a whole, independently from the specific issues that must be dealt with.

On one hand, it is clear that a couple of Directors cannot, in any way, be able to represent democratically a whole continent with thousands (and possibly, in future, millions) of members without a structure behind them. Moreover, most Regions are constituted by a high number of countries with very different languages, laws, Internet penetration, and political attitudes. It is quite hard to believe that a single person can speak all the languages spoken in his continent and know the needs and ideas of all the Internet communities in his continent. All countries and communities that cannot get a Director (that is, all but one or two per Region) will possibly not feel enough represented in ICANN, and this could easily lower the credibility and acceptance of ICANN in many parts of the world.

While it is true that a Director should have the freedom of deciding by himself his positions and then to be held responsible for them by the membership at the following elections, it is also true that he must have a way to obtain a clear input from his basis. Many of the issues that Directors will have to solve are controversial and tied to specific and contrasting interests of many parties. This is why, while reaching general "rough consensus" should be the best way to go, it is utopian to think that there will never be the need to cast votes to define which is the prevailing opinion in the membership, and to take deliberations with which significant parts of the membership do not agree. This is a fundamental part of democracy: when no voting is involved, no democracy exists.

All democracies in the world have a President or Prime Minister with great operational powers, but also have an elective and formally structured Parliament in which policies are defined by voting. Decision-making processes who cannot count on formal structures and quantitative checks are much more open to distortions and impositions from the top, especially if, as in this case, big economical and political interests are involved. Without such formal intermediate structure, a malicious party could easily settle a "claque" in any At Large forum or mailing list and then claim that its opinion is widely supported by the membership even if this is not true.

On the other hand, each individual should be allowed to express his opinion in an environment small enough to give it at least some chance to be heard and considered. Direct democracy is fine and must be kept for fundamental decisions - i.e. the election of the Directors, or the approval of membership by-laws - but it cannot be applied to day by day decisions on complex questions that require in depth analysis before being solved. Moreover, discussing in a forum with 1000 persons - let alone millions - is like not discussing at all; if the only way to consider issues and take decisions is to discuss them in a similar environment, the only possible result is either that no decision is taken, or that decisions are taken somewhere else and then imposed loudly over the noise. Generic At Large forums would also raise language issues, and would possibly cut off from active participation all members who do not speak English well - and in most countries of the world they are the majority of the members. This is why some intermediate levels of aggregation in the membership are necessary to maintain its democracy - and they would also be an incentive for local questions related to Internet self-governance to be treated at local level in a democratic way.

So, resuming:

1. An intermediate At Large Council, with elected members representing all different Internet communities, must be created to support Directors and host high level discussions inside the membership; it could be worldwide, regional, or both.

2. Reasonably small communities should exist inside the membership, to give everyone a place in which, be it at a very local or very global level, he can express his opinion and be active; these communities should express members of the At Large Council.

So, the Membership should be constituted by a set of different "communities", and so on, with a level of depth that may vary over time and space to keep the system manageable, and that can be decided from the bottom, rather than from the top.

I am quite sure that many will come up with the proposal to divide the At Large community into smaller communities according to a given principle; there will be people proposing to create communities and choose representatives by country, others that would do it by occupation or business affiliation, or by delegating it to existing intermediate organizations. Each possible criterion has its advantages and disadvantages, and we could discuss for months about which one is the best.

An answer, in my opinion, comes from the Internet itself. The Internet has grown from the bottom as a network of independent networks. This approach has proven in the last years to be a winning one, and to be able to maintain a high level of freedom, flexibility, and suitability to very different needs while making the overall system work.

This is why the winning approach, IMHO, is to apply this "bottom-up network of networks" model also when structuring the Internet socially, and leave the choice of his affiliation to every single member. Any number of At Large members should be able to start an "At Large Community" (ALC) according to any principle they want: so you could have the German ALC, but also the Linux Users ALC, or the Rock Music Lovers ALC, or the People Who'd Like To Marry Esther Dyson ALC. You could have very small ALCs, i.e. just a handful of friends in the same town, but also very big ALCs, with thousands of members all over the world and an elaborate internal organization, maybe with further subdivisions and groups; some ALCs could try to act as parties, aggregating members around some principles and proposals, while some others could try to represent all parties in a specific country or environment and mediate their different opinions. Everyone would be able to choose the community whose principles he likes more, or even to start a new one, if he is not satisfied with any existing ALC. Each ALC should be free to self-organize itself, and to decide in turn how to manage itself and gather consensus among its members, and its internal rules in general.

This would create some sort of competition at a very distributed level between ALCs to gather the highest number of members, which could hugely raise the ability of the At Large Membership in its totality to grow, and would be a warranty for a level of democracy and personal freedom in the system that forced affiliation choices (i.e. national At Large chapters through which At Large Council is elected) would not grant. On the other hand, members could get a very near and practical way to be involved in ICANN's matters, without getting lost in a generic forum with thousands of other members.

Then, each ALC should have a weight in the process of reaching consensus and gathering input for the Directors, related to its number of subscribers. In other words, each ALC would elect a number of representatives in the At Large Council, proportional to the number of its members, and with any system it likes. Also ICANN's organizational burden would be very small: it would just need to keep a registry of all existing ALCs, with no special requirements for any member to create a new entry inside it, and to let each member choose and change its community of affiliation via a Web form. And affiliations should not necessarily be public, to preserve one's privacy - something that could be more difficult if the only instrument a member had to express a position was to post a message in a forum, rather than to choose and support a community that shares his views.

The beauty of this model to me is that an exact, democratic and "glocal" way of discussing, measuring consensus and taking decisions is established, but no specific rules are imposed to the membership as a whole, leaving every member free to self-organize himself and to defend his ideas simply by aggregating with others who share it and thus gaining a weight in the Council.

Moreover, issues like how to create effective forums and discussions among the membership are on one hand simplified by subdividing the members in smaller groups, and on the other delegated to local distributed decisions, so that each community can find the instruments most suitable for itself to discuss, including the choice of the language(s) and media. Trying to define and adopt centrally a single approach to Web and e-mail communication with and among members is not only incredibly hard, but is certainly less democratic and effective than letting every group choose the way it likes.

To conclude, a word must be spent about the issue of membership fees. At Large membership must be free: otherwise only persons and entities with a direct economical interest will be keen to pay-per-vote. If we agree that everyone should cast a vote to elect ICANN's Board, then this possibility should not be subordinated to one's economical wealth. So it should be funded via a percentage on domain registrations, or by private and public efforts. The same should happen to support activities of Directors and ALC representatives in the Council: again, if no source of funding is given to those who want to be engaged in such activities and can show adequate support by the membership, the only active persons in ICANN At Large will be those who have partial economical interests behind them. It is also important that membership applications are reopened in year 2001 to allow for new people to get in, including those who tried to do it in year 2000 but were stopped by various technical problems on ICANN's site.

Operational steps

I don't really mind, right now, if you like or don't like my proposal. The important step is to move forward and establish a legitimate and effective process through which my proposal and the others can be reviewed, discussed, and eventually adopted.

There is clearly an egg-and-chicken problem: it is impossible to establish a truly legitimate At Large Council without a set of rules to define its structure and composition, and it is impossible to write such rules in a democratic and open way without a Council to do it. The only possible way to overcome this problem in my opinion is to establish a temporary At Large Organizing Committee with a membership wide enough to be representative (20-40 members plus the At Large Directors) and composed by people who:
- have already shown some level of support among the membership in this year's election process;
- have already proven their willingness to devote time and energy to this process;
- can contribute to the Committee geographical, social and political diversification.

My practical proposal to move forward is to have a public call for participation; responses to this call will be reviewed by the Directors, who are at the moment the only formally legitimate representatives of the membership, and who should try to respect a plurality of opinions and to form a Committee reflecting the geographical and social proportions existing in the At Large membership.

Being a self-nominated council, the ALOC should have a mandate very limited in time and purpose: to choose a principle for membership self-organization, write a set of rules to apply it in practice, and have them approved by the membership with a direct and general vote, to be held no later than March 31, 2000. For this to happen, either the vote will have to be managed directly by ICANN, or a list of the member should be provided to the ALOC under a non-disclosure agreement. A very limited number of alternative proposals, rather than a single one, could be submitted to the members' vote.

As one may notice, there is no direct ICANN involvement in this process, except for technical issues such as validating the members' list. While it would be great to have ICANN Board's support to this process, I want once again stress the point that this must be a bottom-up process, so that internal rules of the At Large membership are defined and approved by the membership itself.

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