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Consensus-based Governance

Fourteen years ago, a noble experiment was launched – an effort to govern the Internet by way of a “consensus” model. Sadly, this visionary notion ultimately withered on the vine. This project seeks to re-animate the consensus governance concept.

As it relates to governance models, most people have a somewhat limited understanding of the term “consensus”.  It does not mean a majority vote, nor does it mean a super-majority vote, nor does it necessarily mean unanimity – it is actually a rather different kind of beast.  In Internet circles, the term first came to prominence within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) where it was popularized through the saying "rough consensus and running code" – a way to make it clear that the IETF’s primary interest was focused on practical, working systems that engineers collectively could agree upon. 

When the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) became a reality in 1998, the engineers involved in that effort logically chose to use the notion of rough consensus as the basis for an Internet governance system.  Over time however, this form of consensus-based decision-making came to be replaced by standard vote-based decision-making processes and sadly, the notion of governance by consensus within ICANN disappeared (even though ICANN today still actively touts itself as a consensus-based organization). 

In the early days of this experiment, the term “consensus” took shape through the work of authors Susan P. Crawford and David R. Johnson who penned a series of well-publicized articles such as “Why Consensus Matters” and “A Commentary on the ICANN Blueprint for Evolution and Reform”.  These articles made it clear that inasmuch as consensus could not be claimed in the face of any reasoned opposition, the benefit of this particular governance model lay in its requirement that parties with opposing views find a mutually acceptable path forward – one party could not merely maneuver to “outvote” another. 

Unfortunately with the passage of time and the establishment of internal governance bodies (with their requisite Charters and Rules of Procedure), the notion of what consensus really meant was ultimately lost in the power struggles that gave birth to voting mechanisms.  In this “evolved” ICANN, consensus could be claimed (and often was claimed) for any policy that succeeded in garnering enough votes to trample the opposition.  As such, neither consensus nor rough consensus (having been displaced by voting protocols) now serve as the basis for ICANN’s present-day Internet governance model. 

The aim of this project is to revitalize the concept of consensus governance by thoroughly examining and reporting upon ICANN’s current policy-formulating efforts so that determinations may be made as to whether consensus between the parties on any given issue truly exists or not.  A focus on consensus (and re-educating the public on the value of consensus) could potentially lead to the re-adoption of a true consensus-based regime, and this would have one primary benefit – certain groups would no longer automatically be relegated to minority status by the political process, a laudable goal.

To accomplish this objective a non-profit Foundation needs to be established that would draw its global membership from the ICANN cognizati that no longer have a vested stake in the ICANN game.  These participants would likely include former ICANN Board Members, former members of ICANN Staff as well as noted individuals and organizational representatives that have dropped out of the ICANN process and are no longer active therein.

The Foundation would establish a website that would track and explain ICANN activities (no small feat), explain the concept of consensus, and monitor the degree to which policies are either formulated by consensus, or not.  These activities will require interaction at the grass roots level at ICANN plenaries around the globe on an ongoing basis.   

So why is this a good idea and worthy of significant funding?  In short, most democratic governance models suffer from a phenomenon known as the “tyranny of the majority” while a consensus-based governance model has no such flaw -- this is important to us as we place a high value on minority views.  If a consensus-based model can successfully demonstrate that differences in majority and minority views can be amicably resolved through this governance process, then benefits could accrue to all. 

We only have one extant model (the ICANN multi-stakeholder model) wherein a true consensus regime has the potential to be fully established and evaluated.  True, ICANN’s original consensus-based model has suffered its setbacks and has almost disappeared from view, but it is certainly within the realm of possibility to re-vitalize this consensus-based governance concept and see it successfully reintroduced.  I am of the view that we will all be better off if we can make this concept work and then see it applied throughout numerous polities – it is certainly worth the effort.

What is your project? [1 sentence max]

This project entails the establishment of a charitable foundation to monitor and report upon the evolving nature of “consensus” within ICANN's internet governance model.

Where are you located?

East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania U.S.A.

How did you hear about the contest?

  1. Facebook
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entry submitted by: Danny Younger
March 16, 2013, 08:24PM
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