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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine

I was a Boy Scout once.

And I mean that literally.

I had just become eligible to move up from the much-less-exciting world of Cub Scouting by virtue of turning 11 and I was keenly anticipating what turned out to be the first, last and only Boy Scout meeting I ever attended. I'd been reading the handbook ahead of time -- I understood even then how important it is to Read The Funny Manual -- and I was really looking forward to my entry into this virtuous tribe.

Assuming they'd even have me, of course. I was a little worried about measuring myself against the kind of paragons who could live up to Scout Law on a day-to-day basis.

Imagine my surprise then..no, better yet, imagine my shock and disappointment, my sense of outraged betrayal, upon discovering that the highest-ranking Scouts in the room -- the ones with the most merit badges and the most exalted leadership positions -- included most of the worst bullies and thugs in the neighborhood.

At one time or another over the preceeding year, many of them had found occasion to trip me or steal my lunch box or book bag for a rousing game of "keep-away" on the way to or from school. Others had merely stood by and laughed. None had offered protection or help.

I had no friends in that room that night. Not one.

Now, I'm not saying I have reason to believe any modern Boy Scout troop would elect such unworthy chieftains, but that one, back in the early Sixties sure did. And that revelation completely extinguished my interest in Scouting.

That was partly due to unrealistically high expectations on my part, of course. Scouts are just kids, after all -- immature by definition -- and casual cruelty and a profound lack of empathy for or identification with others is a hallmark of immaturity. Compassion has to be learned -- and some folks take a very long time to acquire the knack.

Unfortunately, I still have never really learned how properly to lower my expectations. Because of that, over the years, there's been a steady procession of similarly-well-intentioned groups that have ended up marching out of my life on big, squishy clay feet.

Now it looks like the Internet Society has joined the parade, because, later on this month, when the time comes to fork over another $35 for another year's dues, I'm not going to renew my ISOC membership.

The Great White Hope

Back in the Eighties, the only real high-speed Internet backbone was NSFnet -- a network originally created to link together the five major supercomputing centers in the U.S. Since the National Science Foundation owned NSFnet, NSF became the de-facto "owner" of the Internet, both because virtually all domestic Internet traffic flowed across its circuits and because the Defense Department had stopped funding the administrative functions of the network when it put the Arpanet out of business.

Like the DoD, NSF eventually tired of paying the bills to run the Net and decided to experiment with privatizing them. That policy decision eventually led to the Network Solutions monopoly on the DNS root database, the defunding of NSFnet and the dot-com explosion that created the whole ISP marketplace.

But one of the first things the NSF's determination to get out of the Internet administration business did was to deprive the Internet Engineering Task Force of its liability insurance coverage. Thus orphaned by the government -- and with its own members unwilling to constitute the IETF itself as a non-profit corporation -- the determinedly-amorphous standards body needed a more formally organized and accountable legal sponsor in order to retain its liability coverage.

That's how ISOC was born.

Over the years since that time, the larger consequences of the NSF's privatization policy have slowly become apparent. One of them is that the Internet has become so ubiquitous so quickly that it is no longer possible for one government to control it, regardless of how powerful or authoritarian that government might be.

Not too long ago, that truth wasn't quite so self-evident. Back in the mid-Nineties there looked to be a real danger that government and quasi-goverment entities of all sizes and provenances would succeed in arrogating to themselves a piecemeal array of regulatory authority over the Net.

That would have been a Bad Thing.

ISOC's leadership saw that clearly. They decided that the only way to dodge that bullet was to pre-empt the assertion of various kinds of government authority over the Internet by creating a supra-national structure for Internet self-governance.

It seemed like a reasonable strategy to me, too, and I said so in print. Repeatedly.

Unfortunately, every body ISOC has created -- or participated in the creation of -- in its attempts to implement that otherwise-reasonable vision of a self-governing Internet has wound up doing all its actual decision-making behind closed doors and out of the public eye. That, to me, is a clear and present Bad Thing in several important ways.

For one thing, even as democracy has been breaking out all over the planet since the beginning of the Nineties, ISOC's leaders have chosen to exclude not only the general public, but most of ISOC's own members from any substantive role in the Internet's nascent self-government. Instead, they have treated ISOC's membership as little more than a source of funding and the public at large as an outright nuisance -- a distraction to be ignored, rather than a constituency to be served.

They did it in the IAHC fiasco and got slapped down by the U.S. Commerce Department for their efforts. Undeterred, they did it again in setting up ICANN -- and got slapped down for it again. And they show no signs of having learned from either experience.

I think the problem is that ISOC's leaders are stuck in the IETF decisionmaking mindset -- "rough consensus and running code." I think that they have failed entirely to understand the lessons of the global turn to democracy. I think they just don't "get" the fact that people around the world have stopped accepting on faith the good intentions of their would-be betters -- that they demand and deserve not just a voice, but a vote in determining their own future.

Worse, still, is the company ISOC's leadership has been keeping lately. They've been hanging around with bad influences like the International Trademark Association and the World Intellectual Property Organization.

Organizations infested with lawyers, both of them.

Not just any lawyers, either. Trademark and patent attorneys -- a particularly noisome breed.

Do the Right Thing

I'm not the only one who's unhappy. While the Internet population has soared into the hundreds of millions, ISOC has struggled to gain 6,000 individual members. Meanwhile, both the relative percentage and the absolute number of ISOC members who are U.S. residents has plunged over that time -- even as the total number of Americans on the Net hovers around 100 million.

Why is there such growing disillusionment with ISOC?

I think its because Americans have long since quit putting up with paternalistic organizational models -- moreso when the organizations behind them provide little direct benefit to their members. Add to that ISOC's propensity for holding INET -- its annual convention -- in such handily accesible spots as Kuala Lumpur and its adamant resistance to allowing local chapters any meaningful degree of autonomy and it gets harder and harder for me to justify remaining a part of the organization.

So, I'm going to quit. I've come to the conclusion that ISOC has become part of the problem, rather than the core of the solution, and I'm no longer willing to give it any more of my money or my time.

I'm sorry it's come to this. I'm sorriest, because I've invested an awful lot of time and effort in trying to start a Bay Area chapter of ISOC over the past few years and it's more than a little disheartening to realize how thoroughly I wasted that investment.

I guess it's all just a part of growing up. Disillusionment and maturity have always been bookends. They come as a set -- to get the one, you pretty much have to accept the other.

Luckily, I'm nowhere near mature enough to have given up entirely. I persist in believing that, sooner or later, the folks who lead the institutions I admire will come to understand that their place is to serve, not to command. I continue to trust that somehow, somewhere, they will acquire the wisdom to learn from their mistakes and to modify their behavior accordingly. I have faith that eventually they will come to understand that democracy is nothing to be afraid of and that accountability is something to be embraced, not shunned.

In the meantime, ISOC's misguided leadership simply illustrates for me the principle that good intentions, in and of themselves, merely qualify you to join Hell's paving contractors. Intending good is one thing and actually accomplishing it is quite another.

And I ought to know. After all, I was once a Boy Scout.

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)