June 25, 2002

Why the Internet Society is important

- By Robin "Roblimo" Miller -
I spent part of last week at INET 2002, billed as "The Internet Society's 12th Annual INET Conference:
'Internet Crossroads: Where Technology and Policy Intersect.'" I came away wondering where, if anywhere, the Internet Society (ISOC) is going. I was not the only one who came away from INET 2000 with questions about ISOC's future, either.

Let's get this straight from the start: I think something like ISOC should -- even must -- exist. ICANN does nothing to represent ordinary Internet users. As near as I can tell, ICANN regards us as an imposition, a whiny bunch who just screw things up and should leave all decisions about how the Internet runs to the ICANN experts, who know more than we do. ICANN openly admits that us schlumps ain't welcome. As it says on its site, it is "... critical that ICANN have and be seen to have a Board of Directors composed of individuals of the highest caliber, expertise, and integrity, acting cohesively as a group, able to act promptly and effectively as necessary."

Well, shucks. Nobody I know is all that, and the highest-caliber, biggest-expertise, most integral people of my acquaintance would probably have trouble with the "acting cohesively as a group" thing. Heck, most members of the U.S. Congress probably wouldn't qualify on all those counts either. Maybe that's why they're so miffed at ICANN these days, eh?

I'd like to see the Internet Society or something like it -- an open, democratic group -- with enough political clout not just in the United States but all over the world that it can serve as a counterweight to ICANN's cohesive group of high-caliber individuals, who I don't think have done a very good job of managing the Internet's names and numbers, let alone managing their budget.

Is the Internet Society any better than ICANN?

The last session I attended at INET 2002 was a small, soul-searching roundtable discussion about the future of INET as an annual event and, to a lesser extent, about the future of ISOC itself. I did not take notes, because I was in the room as an interested party, not as a reporter. Even though I wore a badge that clearly identified me as "media" I do not feel it is fair to quote participants directly, but the general sense of the discussion was:

  • This year's INET was not well-attended, nor did it draw as many corporate sponsors as expected, possibly because there was some doubt as to whether it was worth holding at all after 9/11, so it was thrown together in a hurry.
  • Publicity for the event was handled poorly. Hardly any attempts were made to get "local" people to attend until the last minute, and even then only one volunteer made the bulk of the effort, acting on his own with hardly any support from the organization.
  • Because it's hard to get companies and government agencies to pay employees' ways to a conference that is partly about technology and partly about social policy, maybe the "Where Technology and Policy Intersect" concept is a bad idea, and INET should focus more clearly on either technology or policy instead of trying to do both.
  • But there are almost no other conferences where technology and social policy discussions are held under the same roof; where techies and policy wonks meet each other face to face, and talk things out in the hallways and after hours, even if they go to separate seminars, with techies thrashing out IPv6 issues in one room while the policy crowd discusses digital divide and developing world issues in another.

In a way, ISOC's big problem is that it is fragmented and unregimented and composed of too many people with too many agendas. This is, to some ways of thinking, the basic problem with the Internet itself. Although ISOC talks of being "a professional membership society," almost any individual can become a member for free, although donations are certainly welcome. Organizational memberships cost money, but not necessarily a lot; non-profits can join for as little as $1,250 per year; small businesses for as little as $2,500. Individual donations and organizational members' dues help support the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), both of which are part of ISOC.

"Show up and be interested" seems to be the main qualification for ISOC membership. This is how it was in the early days of the Internet, and there's no reason it shouldn't still be that way, as long as the right people show up and display enough interest. Democracy sucks, and majority decisions always leave some parties feeling screwed, but I think open is better than closed, and having a public vote is better than no public representation at all.

Who are the "right people?"

I think I'm one of the "right people" to help make weighty decisions about how the Internet is run. I'm an Internet user, and I make most of my living on the Internet. You seem to be an Internet user, too, since you're reading this story, and chances are, based on email I get from NewsForge readers, you either make your living in some computer field that is dependent on the Internet in some way or you're a student who will one day earn a living in some field that requires a functioning Internet. This makes you as suited for ISOC membership as I am.

So join already!

ISOC claims around 8,600 individual members. That's not a lot, considering that the worldwide number of Internet users is in the hundreds of millions. If there's no ISOC chapter near you, consider starting one. This is a truly worldwide group; I found one of the greatest benefits of attending INET 2002 the chance it gave me to meet interesting people who are doing interesting things on the Internet everywhere (literally) from Nantucket to Nepal. Just getting on email lists with this crowd, and perhaps meeting a few local people interested in online policy issues, ought to make the effort of joining ISOC itself and either joining or forming a local chapter worthwhile. The lobbying possibilities are even more important, though. The free and open Internet, as opposed to the glorified shopping network so many corporate types apparently want the 'Net to become, needs a strong and organized voice to speak up on its behalf, and right now the group I believe best personifies that voice is ISOC.

Will there be an INET 2003? If so, where? And does it really matter?

As INET 2002 wound down there was some worry that it might be the last event of its kind for the foreseeable future. About 600 people registered to attend, according to unofficial estimates I heard, but my personal feeling, shared by several other journalists who attend enough conferences to be good at estimating attendances, was that between 400 and 450 actually showed up. The meeting rooms were far from full. It looked like ISOC had anticipated more like 1,000 than 400 attendees. You can't really blame the organizing committee for this. Almost all tech-type conferences and conventions have gotten smaller since 2000, and 9/11 didn't exactly help boost business travel.

The question is, assuming the group has enough energy to go on holding annual conferences, would ISOC be better off holding the next one in or near Washington D.C., where the 2002 version was held, or continuing to move the event around the world as it has been doing in recent years? A stable location makes it easier to get corporate sponsors, some feel, while others point out that if this is to be a truly global group, it shouldn't always meet in the same place.

I don't really care, myself. On one hand, I like having things in the Washington area because I'm close by much of the year. On the other hand, it's true that the right thing to do is hold events in places that are not convenient for me, but are convenient for Internet users in other parts of the world, especially as they become an ever-higher percentage of the Internet population.

Meanwhile, when you think about it, shouldn't the main global activities of something called the Internet Society really be online? As in email discussion lists? Shouldn't the "Think globally, act locally" dictum also apply here, and make local ISOC chapters, rather than annual conferences that cost at least $800 to attend (plus airfare and lodging), the heart of the organization? Shouldn't there be more outreach activities, including presentations to local Linux and other computer user groups?

Here's the beauty of an open organization like ISOC: You can join, and you can make your voice heard, and if you want to start that local chapter, assuming there's not already one near you, no one is stopping you.

This article is shameless ISOC boosterism. Advocacy. A sales pitch. Promotion. I want to see ISOC filled with people like you, who understand Open Source and open standards; who will help steer the Internet in healthy directions instead of letting the Forces of Evil take it over and chop it up into proprietary chunks.

Someone needs to fight against this dark vision. Right now, it looks like ISOC is the best bet to do it, especially if allied with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and other like-minded groups.

So join ISOC already!


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