Thursday, March 21, 2002

In Your Face, Cyberspace!
It's been awhile since I've been interested in or followed the policy debates of ICANN, the IETF, and the EFF, but a recent Nettime transmission struck my fancy. I reprint the following statement with the permission of its author, John Perry Barlow.

The Accra Manifesto
Accra, Ghana
Tuesday, March 12, 2002
(revised Wednesday, March 13, 2002)

Since its beginnings, Cyberspace has provided new approaches for the benign ordering of human affairs. As we begin to develop institutions to govern the digital world, we must avoid returning to industrial models that have generally failed in the analog world to assure equity, liberty, and human inclusion. Instead, let us build upon the promise of what has already proven effective in this social experiment.

The paramount governing values that have so far emerged in this grand collective enterprise are openness, inclusion, technical practicality, emergent form, decentralization, transparency, tolerance, diversity, and a fierce willingness to defend free expression and the preservation of identity. These are appropriate values. They are working.

They should be allowed to go on working, both in the eventual systems for allocating domain names and numbers and in all other matters of Cyberspace governance. Neither the current operations of ICANN nor the current proposal put forward by its president appear to place much faith in them.

Cyberspace has thus far been an environment where architecture is politics. ICANN has turned this practical formulation on its head by attempting to make politics architecture.

To assist in designing a governing process that will promote these values and thus direct us toward the future and away from the past the undersigned propose the following to the ICANN meeting in Accra:

  1. It appears to us that ICANN has so far failed to generate the moral authority necessary to govern an environment where authority must be based on the general respect of the governed rather than its ability to impose solutions by fiat.

  2. It has failed for a variety of reasons. Chief among these are its impulse to adapt existing and mechanical models of government to a social space that cannot easily be coerced into submission. It attempts to impose government instead of proposing governance.

  3. ICANN is overly centralized and, by virtue of its incorporation in the United States and its practical dependency on American contractors, perpetuates the dangerous belief that the Internet is an American environment. We believe that root should not be based in the U.S.

  4. ICANN was established in a gray area of institutional reality that makes it nearly invulnerable to legal or political rebuke. If ICANN were a function of the U.S. Government, at least it could be brought into court and held accountable for unconstitutional behavior. The current structure provides almost no opportunity for redress in the area of domain names and none at all in the area of domain numbering. It's power is vast and growing. Its accountability is small and shrinking.

  5. By abandoning the simple and fair system of "first come, first served" domain name allocation that served the Internet well from the beginning, ICANN has created a quagmire of unnecessary disputes and suppressed expression, and has irrationally conflated trademark law with domain assignment.

  6. Efforts to turn Cyberspace into a traditional democracy, however laudable in principle, may never work well in a social space where it is extremely difficult to define either the electorate or a credible system whereby the people might express their will. Nonetheless, public representation on the board is so important that we can't afford to give up on it. It would be well to remember that democracy is more than a mechanical process of providing that every single member of a constituency has a say. Rather it is a system of governance that seeks the consent of the governed, however that assent is conveyed. To assure that ICANN is democratic in this sense, there must be a low entry barrier to unofficial involvement its decision-making processes, and, possibly, a decentralized, community based system for selecting "at large" board members.

  7. The current proposal before ICANN would fix this problem by inserting existing nation states into a space where they have no natural sovereignty. While this might, at first pass, lend the popular accountability of governments to its processes, it's likely to result in a system as ineffectual as the ITU or the United Nations. Further, given the wave of negative reaction to the Lynn proposal, its adoption would likely further reduce ICANN's credibility.

  8. ICANN, by its cumbersome deliberative processes, already slows the adoption of new technology and might prevent the timely alteration of the technical underpinnings of the Internet in the event of an impending collapse of the system. The addition of even more ponderous governments to the stew of authority would only exacerbate the potential for failure.

  9. The current structure of the root servers, as documented in the MDR meeting, has the servers distributed between government, commercial, academic, and non-profit organizations distributed around the world. Such a structure is highly resistant to capture and leads to the robustness and diversity of the Internet. One possible outcome of the Lynn proposal is that the root servers are contractually bound to a single organization. This inherently is less stable and more susceptible to capture than the current structure which should be protected as a fundamental architectural principle.

  10. The best way to assure inclusion is to derive systems that are easy for those governed to understand. ICANN is already too complex in its practices to admit informed participation. The Lynn proposal would only add to this complexity.

  11. The IETF once provided a good model for governing processes that are well-suited to Cyberspace. It was a system for governance by ideas, rather than by people, laws, or "stake-holders," in that the most elegant solutions were adopted by the consensus of a self-defining community, regardless of the standing of those who proposed them. That the IETF has become less successful in solving problems results less from a flaw in this model than its having been high-jacked by corporate interests. ICANN, in its original design and current state, ignores the value of these proven approaches.

  12. To address these failures, we propose that ICANN decentralize and convey operational authority to the communities that naturally define themselves around the top-level domains, restricting its duties to the resolution of disputes that cannot be resolved within the communities. In other words, we believe that ICANN should become a loose confederation of autonomous domains, rather like the federal government of the United States during Jefferson's time.

  13. Prior to delegating its operational functions to the domains, we believe that ICANN might demonstrate its understanding of these principles by defining at least two new public domains. Among these we suggest .lib (for libraries) and .pub (for entities, whether organizations or individuals, working for the common good). It is our belief that the systems of self-governance such communities are likely to develop might serve to instruct other domains in the ordering of their own affairs.

  14. One of the areas where existing systems of government have worked, to varying degrees of effectiveness, has been in conveying and preserving such human rights as free expression and protection from unchecked corporate self-interest. ICANN might have a continued role in directing itself to the assurance of such rights in Cyberspace. A reformed ICANN might also propose broad policies and technical solutions, but would do so as respected leaders and not as a junta.

  15. The previously existing systems for governance in Cyberspace have shown the practical efficiency of fixing only that which is broken. This is a principle ICANN would do well to emulate.

Cyberspace is not a place. It is a dialog of cultures. We believe that if ICANN were to adopt the above principles, it might, through light-handed arbitration of real, rather than projected, problems, acquire the moral authority that has so far evaded it. We fear that if it fails to consider the concerns that have driven us to make this declaration, it will find itself in the unenviable position of trying to impose its will on a global community with neither a mandate nor force of arms. At best, it will become irrelevant as the citizens of Cyberspace develop methods to work around it. At worst, it will be directly dangerous to the health of the Internet. The chaos that might follow either development will not serve our descendents well.

While many of the undersigned do not accept every single one of the above statements, we are in sufficient agreement with the spirit of this statement that we hereby attach our names and hope that the governing board of ICANN will make a sincere effort to incorporate its beliefs and adopt its recommendations.

John Perry Barlow, co-founder and vice chairman, Electronic Frontier Foundation

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