After 70,000 member loss, can Andrew Sullivan revive the Internet Society?

In my opinion, The Internet Society can and should be the most important advocate for a better Internet. It hasn’t been during the seven years I’ve been active. With US$30 million in annual subsidy from ICANN’s delegation of .org registrations, we have far more resources than any other independent organization. 

Instead, ISOC policies have been so uninspiring membership has fallen from 110,000 to the 40,000’s. The Internet in this period has more than doubled in size and ISOC has been spending US$millions each year on membership development, communication, etc. (The 110,000 figure is from the ISOC home page early in the year. It probably was inflated, which would be an even bigger problem.)

Sullivan is a respected technologist with experience at the IETF & in ICANN issues. I’ve had some back and forth over the years; he’s well informed on those topics. I’m sure he believes “The Internet is for everyone,” the old slogan of the Internet Society.

Former CEO Kathy Brown said ISOC must be, “Global, Independent, Democratic, Open, & Transparent.” and a “Bottom-up multistakeholder organization.” Kathy is extremely capable and a friend, but couldn’t find a way to deliver on her promises. We need strong, independent chapters. On policy, we need concrete proposals that will make a difference and inspire people to join. Here are some ways.

Some ideas that should be easy for everyone to accept. 

First, we should practice what we preach on openness, transparency, and bottom-up decision-making. I can’t even find out who our donors are, which should be basic for an advocacy group like ours. It’s on record that leaders tried to block the US IGF from discussing any domestic Internet issues because “donors” might object. (That’s improved.) There are other examples. The first step should be to disclose our funding sources. I’ve asked twice. Similarly, we should allow comments on our policy blogs, moderated if necessary. Opinions from Chapter Leaders and active members should be included on the website. The CEO should have regular press conferences.

The most important decision in the last five years in ISOC was made in a closed board meeting and never given a reasonable explanation. At the request of the Board, the Chapters Committee worked nine months on a proposal that chapters should have control of 3% of the ISOC budget for their activities. There were sensible provisions against financial abuse, etc. Currently, ISOC spends three to five dollars “administering” each dollar controlled by the chapters. This is wasteful and obviously discourages involved members. Most chapters have been bleeding members. I have a bridge to sell to anyone who doesn’t understand this as the staff retaining control.

Kathy did a good job being accessible in my experience, but all decisions were made top-down with total executive authority. Board oversight was essentially pro forma, spending only thirty minutes to approve the budget. If we can’t bring multi-stakeholder to our own procedures, we need to stop advocating it elsewhere.

Second, we should never claim we are “Global” or speak for global Internet users when we effectively exclude the majority of Internet users. ~60% of Internet users are now in the BRICs and the developing world; the gap is increasing by millions every month. Africa has more Internet users than the U.S. has people. India is larger. Yet we have never had a board member from China, now 35% of the Internet. Nixon went to China and I urged Kathy Brown to do likewise. We are forcing a split if China, India, and others don’t have reasonable representation. See The Color Of The Net Has Changed

Third, all policy positions should be backed by evidence and not contradict the facts. One circulating now suggests the Internet needs a hands-off government approach to grow and thrive. 60+% of Internet growth from 2012 to 2016 was in countries with strong government control. China, Egypt, and Vietnam have been among the fastest growing. China now has more successful Internet companies than any country other than the U.S. There certainly are viable arguments for backing down government, but anyone who thinks that an absolute priority is an ideologue. Ask Vint who funded the first two decades of the Internet. 

Fourth, we should focus our efforts where we can make a difference rather than just joining a large crowd already working effectively. We shouldn’t spend much effort on promoting Congress as the right body to set net neutrality rules; Verizon, AT&T and Comcast have that covered. 

By far the most important standards group affecting the cost of access is the corporate-dominated 3GPP. Many of their decisions have driven up the cost of access; the vendors often support complicated systems that drive up their revenues and everyone else’s costs. AT&T & Deutsche Telekom may prefer expensive systems that give them more services to sell. Their peers in Nigeria or Indonesia need lower cost gear, but aren’t heard in standards. Vint Cerf and Larry Strickling urged making 3GPP “multistakeholder” but Kathy refused.

We need a policy that brings down the cost of access for the 98% unlikely to be reached by community networks. I’ve volunteered in Community networks for over 20 years and support ISOC’s work. But I don’t know a single country where they represent more than 2% after decades. We need to find ways, like promoting Lifeline in the U.S. and opposing Indian telcos trying to take over the distribution of BharatNet. 

The ITU standards could be important and ITU is a  great place to meet people from around the world. But since 2011, we haven’t made an important policy proposal at ITU that wasn’t also supported by the U.S. government. The U.S. has an effective veto at ITU and has blocked just about everything ISOC has opposed. ITU policy meetings do almost nothing, deadlocked between the U.S. plus allies and the rest of the world. We’ve actually opposed important proposals from the less developed world, including taking action against cartel-like price of international transit and backhaul. Several African leaders told me that was the most important item keeping the cost of access high. Similarly, unreasonable royalties are driving up the cost of smartphones. Carlos Slim told me three years ago that inexpensive smartphones would connect two billion more people and he’s right. ISOC should be in the forefront.

ISOC has so much potential we shouldn’t let it stagnate.


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