From Putney to ICANN: Going global with the struggle for democracy

This guest blog post is by Dr Paul White, Lecturer in International Relations in the Politics and International Relations Group at Leeds Beckett University

In the first of the research seminar series for this academic year, I introduced a paper entitled “From Putney to ICANN: Going global with the struggle for democracy”. This paper makes the case that the struggle for democracy against powerful vested interests, which in previous centuries found expression at the nation-state level, can today be extended into the emerging political sphere of public-private global governance institutions.

In exploring this argument, I focused on the case study example presented by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).  ICANN is a global public-private organisation that oversees, at top level, the Internet’s core IP addressing and domain name systems. ICANN is of considerable interest in discussions around the democratisation of global governance institutions because, in the past, it has experimented with a unique electoral system that allowed a proportion of its Board of Directors to be elected by the global Internet-using public. This electoral mechanism was scrapped in 2002, with the Board citing concerns over “…the fairness, representativeness, validity and affordability of global online elections among an easily captureable pool of self-selected and largely unverifiable voters” (ICANN 2002). However, the public voice theoretically remains a part of ICANN’s multistakeholder model. There are a number of channels for public input into ICANN, including a public comments facility as well as the ICANN At-Large organisation, which claims to represent Internet users through a structure of Regional At-Large Organisations underpinning an At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), which provides policy advice to the Board.


The veracity of the claim that ICANN policymaking involves meaningful public input was a key theme explored by my PhD research, upon which this paper is based. The PhD project used a predominantly qualitative methodology, which included an in-depth empirical study of ICANN and its policymaking processes in action. This research suggested that, in practice, public input has little or no real influence on ICANN policy decisions. My study of three key ICANN policy areas (new gTLDs, Internationalised Domain Names and the Uniform Domain Name Disputes Resolution policy) revealed little evidence of any significant incorporation of public input into the policymaking process. This conclusion was reached after study of all public comments submitted on these policy areas, and comparison of the views expressed by public commentators to the final policy outcomes. Minutes of meetings of the relevant  policymaking committees were also studied, and some members of those committees were interviewed. Again, these investigations revealed little evidence that public comments had any significant impact on policy discussions and decisions. The ALAC also does not appear to have played a very significant role in any of these policy areas, and the ALAC was in fact heavily critical of many of the decisions made regarding New gTLDs policy (ICANN 2010).

Given this situation, I argued that a revival of ICANN’s electoral mechanism was desirable, since it would give the global Internet-using public a voice that could not be ignored. The other option for enhanced representation of the public interest might be to give governments a strengthened oversight role, either by strengthening the powers of ICANN’s existing Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) or by transferring ICANN’s functions to the ITU. However, I argued that such a move would not produce meaningful accountability to the public, for several reasons. First, some of the governments represented in the GAC and / or ITU are not themselves democratically elected. Second, even where they represent democratic states, the governmental delegates to these bodies are civil servants. Though they may be in theory accountable to elected bodies, they are themselves unelected appointees. For example, the UK GAC member is an employee of the Foreign Office, which is accountable to the Foreign Secretary, who is accountable to the elected House of Commons. In such a case, I argued, the chain of accountability between official and electorate is too long to be meaningful.

The paper compared the situation in ICANN today to the situation at national level in pre-democratic England, and particularly to the arguments raised at the famous Putney Debates of 1647, regarding the future of England’s constitutional arrangements following the Civil War. At Putney, the argument for popular sovereignty was summed up by the Leveller spokesman Thomas Rainsborough, who argued that legitimate government ought to be by the consent of the governed, and that “…that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under” (Woodhouse 1951: 11). The counter-argument, expressed by army leader Henry Ireton, reflected the dominant elite viewpoint of the time, which was that a voice in the government of the realm should be restricted to those who had a ‘permanent fixed interest’ in the kingdom (Woodhouse 1951: 112).This principle was reflected in the electoral franchise of the time, which was based on a property qualification. Parallels can readily be drawn between Ireton’s version of republican government, and ICANN’s present multistakeholder model. While ICANN retains some gestures towards public participation, the reality is of a policymaking process dominated by powerful stakeholders in the industry. Effectively, this amounts to a ‘property qualification’ for meaningful participation. Yet Rainsborough’s principle that legitimate government should be accountable to the governed is arguably just as applicable to global Internet governance today, as it was at the national level in seventeenth-century England. The principle has become accepted (at least in the West) as the basis for all legitimate government. As decisionmaking moves away from the national and towards the global level, I argued, the same principle should continue to apply.


I went on to argue that the issues explored in this case study have implications far beyond the single case of ICANN.  The legitimacy questions highlighted here reflect broader questions of a democratic or accountability deficit at the global level. Such questions have become increasingly pertinent as a consequence of globalisation and the emergence of new types of political and economic organisation distinct from the traditional ‘inter-national’ model, including private or mixed public-private forms of policymaking authority. This has been a cause for concern among numerous scholars, given that such organisations tend to lack mechanisms to ensure democratic accountability, transparency and representation (Lipschutz and Fogel 2007: 124; Matthews 1997: 165; Cutler 2007: 24).  The principle expressed by Rainsborough at Putney – that decisionmakers should be accountable to those affected by their decisions – is all too often absent with regards to this emerging global public policy sphere.

With the reintroduction of an electoral system for Directors, ICANN could be the proving-ground for the feasibility of democratisation of global governance institutions. It could provide a powerful demonstration effect which could open the way for democratic reform of many other organisations across a range of issue-areas.  There would, of course, be a need to address the issues identified in the previous experiment, in order to ensure that any revived Board elections would be reasonably fair, free from fraud or capture, and returned Directors that could be said to be meaningfully representative of the global public. It is my view, however, that these issues are largely surmountable, and that even if the resulting system were not perfect, it would be much more legitimate than the present ICANN model. Given the very real public policy authority wielded by ICANN, this would be highly desirable for its own sake, and could be even more valuable in terms of the example it would set for other public-private global governance institutions.

From a wider perspective, the ICANN case serves as a demonstration that the ancient struggle between democratic principles and vested interests, which can be traced back to ancient Greece and Rome, and which was expressed in the seventeenth century Putney Debates, is continuing today at the global level. Those who are prepared to take up this challenge would, in a very real sense, be the latter-day successors to the spirit of the Levellers and their representatives at Putney.


Cutler, A. C. (2007). Private international regimes and interfirm cooperation. In: The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance. Edited by R. B. Hall and T. J. Biersteker. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 24-41

ICANN (2002). Minutes of Regular Meeting of the Board, 14th March 2002. Retrieved 20 November 2016, from

ICANN (2010). ‘ALAC Statement on Draft Final Guidebook ‘Comment posted to ICANN public comments forum on Draft Applicant Guidebook v.5. 8 December 2010. Retrieved 25 July 2011, from

Lipschutz, R. D. and C. Fogel (2007). Regulation for the rest of us? Global civil society and the privatization of transnational regulation. In: The Emergence of Private Authority in Global Governance. Edited by R. B. Hall and T. J. Biersteker. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 115-139

Mathews, J. T. (1997). “Power Shift.” Foreign Affairs 76(1): 50-66

Woodhouse, A.S.P. (1951). Puritanism and Liberty, being the Army Debates (1647-9) from the Clarke Manuscripts with Supplementary Documents, selected and edited with an Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.




One thought on “From Putney to ICANN: Going global with the struggle for democracy

  1. Pingback: The New Politics of Inequality at the World Economic Forum (again) | alexnunnblog

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