Candidate for the (Net) people

Barbara Simons wants to make ICANN, the Internet's ultimate domain-name authority, less of a corporate lap dog.

Published October 6, 2000 7:30PM (EDT)

Computer scientist Barbara Simons decided to run for a seat on the board of ICANN -- the controlling authority for managing the Internet's domain-name system -- because 50 women asked her to do it.

"I was just finishing a talk at SFWoW" (San Francisco Women on the Web, a Bay Area networking group), says the 60-year-old Simons. "Then I mentioned the ICANN board and they all shouted out, 'You should run.' And so I did."

Yet even though she admits that her candidacy was inspired by a feminist-bred "unhappiness with the lack of women at ICANN," Simons' campaign has become progressively less focused on gender issues. When the former senior technology advisor at IBM spoke Tuesday at another SFWoW function, she concentrated primarily on policy.

Simons admits she's still quite frustrated that ICANN's entire 18-member board could end up without a female voice after present chair Esther Dyson steps down next month. But she also says the issue lacks heft when compared to a far more important cause -- saving the Net from corporate interests.

"I'm very much afraid of what ICANN will do to the Internet," she says in an interview after the SFWoW event. "I'm afraid it will become like radio -- tamed and commercial."

Some of ICANN's more persistent critics agree. "She's right about all the important issues," says Jamie Love, director of the Consumer Project for Technology, who has known Simons for a decade. And, he adds, she has the qualifications to back it up: a Ph.D. from Berkeley in 1981 and more than 10 years of public service, initially as an organizer of debates about Ronald Reagan's Star Wars campaign, and then as president of the educational computing society, the Association of Computing Machinery.

If ICANN continues to kowtow to corporate interests, the Internet could suffer from a consolidation similar to the ongoing stifling of radio's diversity, contends Simons. And when ICANN admits that the issue of protecting trademark-holders' rights is the reason it has delayed for years the release of new domain names like .kids or .arts, something is seriously wrong, says Simons.

"ICANN shouldn't be worrying about trademark policy," she says. "There should be thousands of new domain names. They've allowed an artificial scarcity when there is no technical reason to support that stance."

Simons believes the public needs more power over ICANN. But she's not satisfied with ICANN's steps to accommodate the public so far. In February, ICANN launched an at-large membership campaign that encouraged everyday Net users to register for the board election. But with the voting period for election to the board due to end Tuesday, only 158,000 people signed up and only half of those completed the registration process and are actually eligible to vote. Plus, ICANN nominated its own candidates, limiting public input before the elections even started; and with only five seats up for grabs, the at-large public's seats will still remain a minority on the board.

The basic problem, says Simons, is that because ICANN lacks "well-defined policies and procedures," those with the most money will find ways to control the system.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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