Two Birds, One Stone

I want to tell you about a terrible scandal. Democracy is being undermined, its intentions thwarted. The expressed will of the majority is being openly defied.

I speak, of course, of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN has the power to bind and loose the names we all use for our web sites and email addresses. ICANN can take away your business’s name, its very online existence, and give it to someone else. This makes ICANN the closest thing we have to a world government because its rulings, unlike those of the United Nations, actually have some force.

ICANN said it wanted to become more democratic. It set an election for five at-large board members, admittedly a small minority within the 19-member board, but a start. The areas where the bulk of Internet users live — Europe and North America — voted overwhelmingly for ICANN critics.

But this rigged system didn’t satisfy ICANN. The board has changed its rules so that the new members won’t be seated until a key decision, on new top-level domains (TLDs), has been made. Please note that Karl Auerbach, the North American member affected by this, has written eloquently on how anyone should be able to create a TLD. His voice, however, won’t be heard.

The real problem is more basic. To become democratic, ICANN must have a way to verify and authenticate the identity of all electors. Netizens would have to register and in such a way that they couldn’t vote twice. One user, one vote.

This is a technical challenge, true, but one that can be met. We have biometrics, chip-based smart cards, and all sorts of great options for creating an Internet identity card. Then, when it’s time to vote, we just use these cards to verify our identities, and the results are available as soon as the polls close.

Proving who you are so that you can participate in a fraud-proof election, in other words, is an essential step in making ICANN the democratic world government we want it to be, as opposed to the self-perpetuating autocracy it has become. ICANN directors should embrace this technical challenge, solve the problem, and give netizens the democratic government we deserve.

Of course, it also occurred to me that there’s a rather large country in North America, mainly situated between Mexico and Canada, that could benefit from ICANN’s efforts. The United States chooses its national officers through local election boards that are governed in turn by state laws. Most states use punch cards (the foundation of IBM’s first success), although my original home state, New York, uses machines. Some places still use paper ballots.

A uniform process, using authentication technology and supporting online elections whose results can be known immediately, is what ICANN needs to become legitimate. The solution (whatever it is) would probably be bulletproof enough for any other democracy to use, such as the one in which I live.

So a word to ICANN: Hold a competition, choose a technology, do it in the open, prove it in electing a new board, put it in the public domain, and let any democracy use it to make your elections fair. This is a great task outgoing ICANN Chair Esther Dyson can lead for her organization, her country, and the world.

Kill two birds with one stone. Give us a technology that can make Internet elections free and fair. No matter which candidates are Gored in the process and what problems might lurk in the Bushes, this should be her legacy.

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