The blessing and the curse of public attention

I have written two stories this week about the NTIA’s public consultation in an effort to get people enthused about their one and only chance to get their voices heard by government.

The first, on The Register was a sort-of call to arms, encouraging people to email the NTIA with their views and/or go through ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC). The second, in The Times was a straighter news story but again with a link to the NTIA’s posting email address (I also added the ALAC and Internet Governance Project addresses but they were cut out by Times sub-editors).

The impact of this has been two-found. One, loads of people have emailed the NTIA to say what they think. I count 88 comments in the four weeks before my article and 288 after – although this is going to be far more as so far (as of 6pm GMT on Friday7 July) the NTIA has only posted up to 3 July.

This is terrific. On one level. It demonstrates that people care about this, about how the Internet is run. And it also means that thousands of people that previously weren’t aware of the consultation process (it has been kept depressingly low-key) now are and many of them will hopefully follow the process and learn more about Net governance in the meantime. I am a very strong believer in public awareness.

The downside is that a large number of the posters clearly haven’t got a clue what they’re talking about. For example, what possible use is this email to anyone: “Leave it the way it is! Dont fix something thats not broken, shouldnt you congress be debating on something more important than this stuff?”

Net neutrality no-good

Alot of people also confused the NTIA’s review of ICANN with the Net neutrality debate that is raging in the US at the moment, and so took the opportunity to simply repeat all the simplified propaganda that US companies and groups have been throwing around for the past month or so. These emails are also worthless in the NTIA Inquiry context.

I do feel slightly responsible for that because my Reg article was clearly encouraging people to send in emails. And fellow journo and ICANN watcher, Kevin Murphy has rightly had a bit of a go at me for mildly misrepresenting the role of ICANN. But, I don’t apologise for it because of two big saving graces. One, loads of people visited the ALAC website – making them aware for possible the first time that there is a (very hard-working) group of people out there trying to put across the average Net user’s opinion in the corridors of power.

Even though people had to register to post comments on ALAC’s site, lots of them went to the trouble and there were some very interesting points made (I really hope the ALAC crew find a way to encourage this people to come back and remain involved). It appears to have been enough for the ALAC to create a second page with a draft of the ALAC’s response to the NTIA inquiry.

There were also some very interesting and intelligent points made in the main NTIA comment page. Many said that same thing that the Internet Governance Project’s boilerplate response had: that the US government write itself out of its all-powerful role and hand over to a shared organisation.

Some raised real-world examples that have so far been missing from the stuffy world of Net governance discussions.

  • US student Joe Plante is annoyed at the way the domain name system works that can see websites disappear.
  • Bruno Wolff III knows a bit about ICANN. He says: “Initially I had much hope for ICANN, as Network Solutions was not doing avery good job as a registry. While there has been some improvement in registry operations since then, things could be better. And the indications are currently that for .com things will be getting worse.” And he concludes that: “The current management of ICANN has a terrible track record extending back to its creation and you should strongly consider not giving them any more chances and instead give a new group a chance to provide its functions.”
  • J Austin Hughey suggests keeping ICANN under US government control but form a new unit within the NTIA “that is essentially a miniature UN”, where countries that have at least 10 percent of their citizens with home Net access get to send a representative. The unit would “vote on all issues pertaining to ICANN, as well as draft legislation to be voted on”. I don’t think this would work exactly as suggested – but then this is the first time I’ve heard someone come up with a pragmatic solution to the current impasse.
  • eWeek editor Larry Seltzer makes a good point: “The interests of domain owners whose property is taken through registrar abuse and fraud by third parties are ignored by ICANN.”
  • Bill Ross has another important point to make: “It’s important to remember that the Internet is not a corporate product. It was not created for or by corporations and it’s purpose is not to make money for corporations. It’s also important to remember how quickly commercial interests can spoil a good thing and how greedy American corporations have become.”
  • Some bloke called Narratu provides food for thought. Accepting that he is “not an expert in these matters, nor involved in the direct decision making process of the US Government or ICANN”, he philosphises, “ICANN may not be outdated but it will become outdated, just as its replacement will become outdated, and the one after that, and so on. I believe this is the one true fact of the Internet: Change. This change must not be feared it must be embraced and encouraged.”
  • I like Adrien Wild seemingly ridiculous but pleasingly satirical idea: “Split the internet into two zones. One zone would be individualist, and the other collectivist. On one side, anything goes in the service of legal capitalism. On the other side, absolute freedom in the service of common goals. Allow these realms to compete.”

And so on and so forth. Why not have a dip in and review some yourself? I think overall then that the addition of large number of useless comments is more than adequately paid for by some interesting and intelligent commentary from people that would have never appeared if I hadn’t done my best to stick a spotlight on the NTIA Inquiry.

I will do a review of the more official response of people once the deadline is closed and all the comments are in. I have read both ALAC’s and the IGP’s comments, but I’m sure there will be more.

I really should have written a response myself. I wonder if I still have time…

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