Geeks and Greeks
Posted: 15 Jul 2001
People on both sides of the debate over a membership structure for ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) have referred to ICANN's at-large membership as a "democratic" mechanism. This way of framing the issues invites the question whether it's worth analyzing ICANN's structure from a political-philosophy perspective. Some argue that political philosophy is inapposite to questions of ICANN structure because ICANN is engaged in mere technical management or technical coordination rather than political governance. This paper rejects that argument. ICANN's decisions are not purely -- or even primarily -- technical. For the most part, they turn on value choices and claims of right rather than on technical considerations. They require hard judgments on such issues as trademark protection and competition policy; their technical components, by contrast, are straightforward. ICANN, in sum, makes public-policy choices affecting Net users worldwide, and it does so in a top-down manner.
The paper, accordingly, offers some thoughts about ICANN structure drawn from a work of political philosophy. It focuses not on an Enlightenment thinker, or a modern one, but rather on the "Politics" of Aristotle. Aristotle was no democrat. He envisioned an ideal state in which only the virtuous elite could participate in government (much as some argue that Internet governance should be reserved to a technical elite). Yet Aristotle understood that ideal forms of government are not sustainable in the real world. He was acutely aware that even deserving elites may fall prey to narrow self-interest, and therefore commended mixed structures based in part on broad representation. The applicability of Aristotle's thought to ICANN's at-large membership is straightforward. It's easy to imagine that Ira Magaziner was an Aristotelian: Drawing ICANN's board of directors one-half from the Supporting Organizations, representing technical expertise and business influence, and one-half from an at-large membership, representing a broad democratic base, is just the sort of mixed government that the Politics champions. Aristotle is not often brought forward to justify modern democratic structures, and for good reason. Yet even he saw representative structures as an important check on elite and economic power, and as a source of valuable competing perspectives. That is advice ICANN would do well to heed.
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