Interview: Esther Dyson in the hot seat

Heading ICANN has been more 'vicious' than Esther Dyson expected. But she doesn't regret it.

If there's one thing you can say about the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), it's that it's managed to tick off just about everybody.

Everybody, that is, who's actually paying attention to the messy and arcane process of transferring the administration of Internet domain names from one company, Network Solutions Inc., to the private non-profit ICANN -- a process that could determine how much consumers and businesses pay for domain names, and which names they're allowed to own.

ICANN interim chairman Esther Dyson is the woman in the hot seat. She's in charge of overseeing the new organization, then turning over power to an elected board later this year. Under her direction, ICANN has capitulated on some of its more unpopular policies. On Monday it promised to open up meetings for the first time in August in Santiago, Chile, and let a task force reconsider its $1 per-domain-name fee.

ZDNet's Lisa Bowman interviewed ICANN interim Chairwoman Esther Dyson the day before the changes were announced. Here is an edited transcript of the conversation.

'I care about these things'
ZDNN: What appealed to you about the role of interim chairman?

DYSON: It seemed interesting and important, and frankly, I thought I was one of the few people from the community who would be willing to spend the time. I care about these things, and I thought there was an opportunity to try to do it right.

ZDNN: There's been a lot of backlash a lot of criticism of the way ICANN is doing things. Did you expect that it would reach this level?

Dyson: I didn't think it would be quite this vicious. On the other hand, I've also been asked, "Do you regret it?" And I don't.

ZDNN: Why not?

Dyson: It's worthwhile. I still think we're going to succeed in doing it right. I don't think we've done it perfectly so far, but that's the whole point -- to get better, and to learn. ICANN is not a steady state. It's a process to find consensus, and it takes a little time to do that.

ZDNN: Are there some things you would've done differently?,

Dyson: For starters, we would've started with different bylaws. I personally think it would make more sense to have open meetings. But again, I'm chairman of the board but I'm not making the decision. That's why we have a board. That's not what the board felt. If everything I wanted was what happened, there'd be no point in having a board. They'd just have a chairman.

ZDNN: What's the reasoning behind the closed-door meetings, and do you expect ICANN will open its meeting anytime soon?

Dyson: The reasoning behind it is that people talk more frankly and find it easier to come to consensus without having their every word watched when they're in the middle of arguing these things. Especially for the non-Americans, the notion of conducting such business in public is simply shocking, to be honest. And there wasn't a sense of "My God, we're closing the meetings." It was "My God, they want us to open our meetings." What is openness about? Aside from the formality of whether your board meetings are opened or closed, there are really two things: One, people want to see that their opinions and points of view are being considered, so they want to have the opportunity to see us listen to them, and, two, they want to understand why we make the decisions we make. They want the ability to see us think to see us respond to their points of view or argue among ourselves. We've tried to give that as much as possible by having these open meetings beforehand and having a press conference afterward explaining what we did and why.

ZDNN: Do you think the meetings will ever be entirely open?

Dyson: That depends on the board. There's a certain amount of pressure, and clearly the practical thing would be to open them because it's become such an issue that it's counter-productive.

'The plumbing of the Internet'
ZDNN: The whole ICANN process, it might seem kind of abstract to the average Joe. Why should the average consumer pay attention?

Dyson: If we do our job nobody ever needs to worry about it. We deal with the plumbing of the Internet. We deal with individual privacy. We do deal with issues of intellectual property vis-a-vis the domain registry. We're really not about politics, in the sense of freedom of speech -- other than the freedom to call your domain name what you want. We're not about privacy or content control or anything like that. From the point of view of the average person, it should be easier to get a name, or to know whether you can't and why. It should be cheaper. You should get better service from whomever it is you want to register your name with. You should have a choice. The Internet should keep working. There should be enough addresses out there so you can an address from your machine or your server. What we need in some sense is an informed enough public, so that ICANN can have on its board people who do represent the public -- individuals, small business people, whatever.

ZDNN: What's the status of that process, the process of electing board members?

Dyson: The ones from the more technical, legal commercial side -- the supporting organizations -- are coming into being. And there probably will be nine of those directors by November, which is good. The broader membership representing the broader public is somewhat more complicated because you don't want just 100 people who say they represent the masses, and they may or may not. You need to reach out and educate people because you don't want either AOL or NSI or anybody else getting all their customers to sign up and having a very skewed membership. At the same time, you don't want people in there voting for directors who don't really know what the hell they're doing or voting for. So we're trying to figure out how to create a membership that's reasonably broad, and not incredibly expensive to reach because we don't have the funds. Then an election process that's both fair and seems to be fair in terms of representing a broad spectrum of interests and also representing a much broader geography than we now have.

'We don't want people to be scared'
ZDNN: Some people are worried that ICANN's scope might become too broad, that the organization might get into other policy issues. Are there plans for a charter that would limit that role?

Dyson: The fact is, we have a pretty large number of restrictions on what we can do. We have a charter that says pretty plainly what we're supposed to do. We don't have any problems with saying that again and putting in some more restrictive language in our bylaws and elsewhere. If that's going to assuage people's fears, then good. We don't want people to be scared of us. Frankly, one thing you can say about us is there's a fair amount of opposition to us that's fairly visible. There's also support that's less visible because they see less need. The opposition comes from a number of directions. There are both people who think we're too powerful -- or we could be too powerful or we could do stuff that we're not supposed to be doing. And there are other people who wish we were and want themselves to be in charge. The board is volunteers. Everybody says 'we like you guys, or you guys may be okay but what about the people who come after you?' We're perfectly happy to limit the scope of what we and our successors can do. I kind of look forward to November of '99, at which point I will take a long vacation, but then after that I'm going to be an ICANN watcher myself.

ZDNN: NSI has clearly said it's not going to sign on as a registrar. Do you think there's any chance of an agreement?

Dyson: With my industry analyst hat on, as well as my ICANN one, you look at the whole situation, you look at the balance of power, you look at what the government is doing, you look at the contract they had. And I think the chances are that they will because in the long run, they are going to have to because they have a contract that's expiring. And otherwise they're going to lose. I just think reality says they're going to be better off signing the contract and becoming a registrar. That's what's going to benefit their shareholders, which means they should do it.

ZDNN: Any guesses when that's going to happen?

Dyson: The sooner the better. It's an economic problem. The government recognizes -- I recognize, ICANN recognizes -- they deserve a return on their investment. The argument is over how much that return should be. Yes, they invested in this business, they grew it. They had a government contract, which gave them certain rights, but it did not give them rights in perpetuity.

ZDNN: You have criticized NSI for trying to protect its monopoly power.

Dyson: I would really rather work with them than spend time criticizing them. We do not consider ourselves to have authority over NSI. We do hope that they will decide that they will become an accredited registrar like anybody else and sign the same agreement that all the other registrars find pretty reasonable.

ZDNN: What about the congressional hearings over the next two weeks. Do think anything will come out of them? Do you think they'll be productive?

Dyson: Yes. I think we have good answers to most of the questions that have been raised. For a long time people were just focusing on the questions and kept asking the questions without really noticing there actually were answers. And this is going to be a chance for us to make sure people hear the answers as well. We're trying to make it clear that we are not bad guys, that we are not charging a tax. But we also hope that this is going to be somewhat productive in clearing the air and making it clear that there is a need for what we're doing -- there are principles and there's a white paper on the basis of which we're acting. We're not trying to exert excessive authority. Basically, what this is all about is getting the community that's affected to come to consensus on what the rules should be, not about human behavior on the Net, but about the management of the resources -- basically the domain name system and the IP address system and the protocols and so forth -- and then to implement those rules by contract with the affected parties. If the rules that we come up with [are unfair], if we somehow misunderstand the consensus, people won't sign contracts with us. But what you're seeing right now is that it's basically NSI that doesn't want to sign the contract. The questions are reasonable, but they also have reasonable answers. Clearly it ain't over yet.

ZDNN: What about the money issue? People are upset that ICANN plans to charge a $1 per domain name fee.

Dyson: If we could see a better way of raising money to fund ourselves, we would gladly use it. But the fact is this fee is agreed on by the affected community, which is the registrars. They've signed the contracts with us, happily. For the consumer, of course, it's a drop in price from approximately $70 for two years to some smaller margin over $18 for two years, so the $1 per year per name fee is pretty small potatoes compared to the overall impact on the consumer. But nonetheless, it's clearly a controversial item. Commerce has suggested that we defer it at least until the new directors are in. We're looking at that, but we can't do it if we don't have any money because it costs money to do what we're doing. It costs money to have our next meeting in Santiago. It costs money to administer the program that's providing competition. And we're trying to raise money from corporate donors. Some of the registrars have volunteered to send in their fees even if we don't make them, which is pretty damn nice of them.

ZDNN: One of the worries is that if you can impose a one dollar per domain name fee you can impose a ten dollar per domain name fee, and where does it end?

Dyson: The registrars would say, "Hey, no dice." They are not stupid, and they are saying we think one dollar is reasonable. They could also say we think ten dollars is unreasonable -- they probably would. It's not a question of principle, it's a question of pricing. Does the market think it's a reasonable fee based on what we provide, based on what our costs are? Evidently it does. It's just like toothpaste. You can charge twenty dollars for a tube of toothpaste, but nobody's going to buy it from you.

ZDNN: But in the case of ICANN, since they have to go through you to become accredited, doesn't that change things?

Dyson: They can say, "This is a stupid business. We don't want to be in it." A lot of these people have not been in the business before, and they're saying, "We think these terms are reasonable. We want to do it." We posted these plans, and we didn't get any strong reaction. The reaction is calling it a "tax," the reaction isn't whether it should be one dollar or five dollars. We think on principal it is not a tax, and in practice, it's a reasonable fee. The amount makes sense.


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