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An outsider looks in on Icann

A German hacker lands a seat on the Icann board and promises to tear it down - from the bottom up
Written by Ben Charny, Contributor

In November, the ultimate Icann outsider will become one of its ultimate insiders.

When Andy Mueller-Maguhn of Germany takes his seat on the Icann (International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) board, he says he'll start tearing down the Internet governing body and rebuilding it from the bottom up.

Mueller-Maguhn, whose arrogance comes across even during a phone call, said Friday he wants to make sure all users -- not just corporations -- have access to top-level domains. He also wants every board member of Icann to be elected, as opposed to being appointed.

For good measure, Mueller-Maguhn wants Icann to move its Marina del Rey, California offices to Europe -- so the organisation can escape its US-centric views, he said. "What I'd like to do is enable users' participation," he said. "What I think is missing is the realisation that what [Icann] does is affecting not just ISPs but also a public space." What makes Mueller-Maguhn stand out among the freshmen class of at-large Icann board members is his past and present vocation. He's a hacker, and a proud hacker at that. He's perhaps the most visible member of the Hamburg-based group Chaos Computer Club.

The Chaos Computer Club is infamous. It once embarrassed Microsoft on German TV by demonstrating how hackers could use the Internet Explorer browser to make unauthorised bank transfers from computers using Quicken software. For all its public exploits during its 15 years, the club also has a dark side.

In 1998, Boris Floricic, 26, was found hanging by his own belt from a birch tree in a Berlin Park. The master hacker helped the club prove that, despite telephone company claims, a hacker could use mobile phones at the expense of another subscriber. Berlin police believe the death was suicide. But Mueller-Maguhn said he's "totally convinced" someone killed Floricic, who went by the nickname "Tron".

Mueller-Maguhn will take his seat during one of Icann's busiest and most controversial times. Icann is in the middle of choosing registrars for new top-level domains names in the first web expansion since .com was created.

There are about 44 applications so far, which Icann is expected to narrow down by the end of the year. But why just 44? Mueller-Maguhn thinks all users should be able to create their own top-level domains (TLDs). "There is no natural or technical reason to [limit] TLDs. Why shouldn't there be a possibility of smaller business to run their own TLDs," he said. "Icann always says: 'There is a reason, this a very complicated, blah-blah-blah.' But most of the time it sounds like 'We would lose control.'"

There's another thing, Mueller-Maguhn wants to know: why are some Icann board members appointed? He said they should all be elected, just like he was. "I see there is a need to vote the other directors publicly," he said. "What I'd like to do is enable users' participation."

The French are already on Mueller-Maguhn's radar screen. In France, he said, the government is letting only businesses and other governmental agencies have the rights to new country-code top-level domains. "But a French citizen can't get it," he said. "Icann needs a policy on such issues."

Mueller-Maguhn is at his most cantankerous when the subject turns to his background. "We are hackers, [some] of the oldest users and participants in the Web," he said.

In America, he said, a hacker has a shadowy, outlaw definition. Hackers break into systems and deface web pages. They rob banks. In Europe, "a hacker is someone driven by the motivation to learn".

"We have hacker ethics here," he said. "If someone takes a computer to rob a bank, someone like that isn't a hacker."

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