My big 'ol hat's all the way off to Dennis Tito.
You remember him. Tito is the world's first space tourist. He put up twenty of his personal megabucks for the privilege of visiting the space station, spent six months training for the mission, accepted the risk of being blown to hell if something went wrong -- and thereby rekindled major public interest in space travel.
For all his effort, NASA treated him like Typhoid Larry. They threatened to keep his Soyuz capsule from docking with "their" space station, insisted he was somehow endangering the station's crew simply by his presence and subjected him to the coldest official shoulder any space traveler has ever experienced.
If they'd had any sense, they'd've welcomed Tito with glad cries and served up the fatted calf. But no, desperate as they are for public attention -- and the funding that comes with it -- they treated the guy like a leper at a hot tub party.
That's darned near as clue-resistant as the folks at ICANN.
Those of you with long enough memories will recall my May, 1997 Boardwatch piece about the failed IAHC attempt to expand the top-level domain name space. The IAHC itself was slapped together in November, 1996 by essentially the same group of self-appointed "Internet insiders" that saddled us with ICANN two years later -- and the late Jon Postel submitted his intial proposal on the matter in May, 1996.
Which is to say that it's been five years since the process officially began and we're STILL stuck with the same old overcrowded DNS namespace we had before the shouting started.
The Little Engine That Couldn't
The IAHC process failed for three major reasons: its membership lacked legitimate standing to represent the Internet's users, its decisions were not made in an open and accountable process and it put entirely too much emphasis on the concerns of trademark attorneys, instead of on practical, engineering issues.
ICANN has repeated all three sins -- adding to them the cardinal transgression of both perpetuating Network Solutions' existing monopoly on the .com namespace and creating new monopolies that have the effect of legitimizing the NSI precedent.
ICANN was incorporated as a non-profit organization in October, 1998 in response to the Commerce Department's so-called "Green Paper" -- which was itself a product of Federal frustration with the inability of the Internet greybeards to get their namespace expansion act together. Unfortunately, the new corporation chose not to open its executive committee meetings to the public until August, 1999. Nor did it permit the public to vote in elections for members of its Board of Directors until October, 2000 -- two years after its creation -- and it did so then only because of a firestorm of criticism directed at its original, indirect mechanism for the selection of nominally "at-large" Board members (a strategem that would have virtually guaranteed that only those candidates the existing Board members found unobjectionable would ever be picked.)
When, at long last, ICANN finally did open its doors to "at-large" members, it was deluged with applications -- before it re-barred the portal, some 178,000 flooded in -- and its executives and Board professed amazement at the inundation. The first real opportunity for users to participate in Internet governance; the first opportunity for them meaningfully to exercise actual power -- and their eagerness took ICANN by surprize?
Green Eggs and Ham
As of this writing, ICANN has yet to re-open its rolls to new members. Likewise, ICANN has yet to hold open elections for the four remaining "at-large" seats on its Board. On the other hand, there are a few things it has managed to do:
It has concluded an agreement with VeriSign, the new corporate master of NSI, that essentially blesses NSI's claim that it "owns" the .com registry database, in exchange for VeriSign agreeing to give up the much-less-profitable .org registry next year and to relinquish .net -- in 2005. It has also granted similar monopolies to Afilias for the .info gTLD and to NeuLevel for .biz.
And it has managed to generate a revolt by the ISO 3166 country code registrars against its foolish attempts to husband, rather than to share, its power over the namespace.
Remember the first time NASA attempted to orbit a tourist of its own? It managed to kill her and six professional astronauts, destroy a billion-dollar shuttle and interrupt the U.S. space program for years. As a monument to arrogance and stupidity, that's going to be hard to beat -- but I think ICANN is on track to pull it off.
(Copyright© 2001 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)