Female voice weak in Net policy group, expert says

Tuesday, July 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Women are not ensuring that they are adequately represented when it comes to deciding important Internet specifications and policies, a University of Texas professor asserts.

Internet policies and technical specifications, including the allocation of domain names such as .com and .org, are set by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. Created in 1998 by President Clinton, ICANN is based in Los Angeles but is composed of 19 board members from around the world.

Currently, the board members are appointed, but ICANN is preparing to become a partially elected body in October, when anyone registered with ICANN before July 31 will be eligible to vote for five board members. Whether ICANN will eventually become a completely elected body has not been decided.

The problem, says Dr. Emerson Tiller, co-director of the Center for Business, Technology and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, is that men far outnumber women in terms of registered voters so far. "The decisions ICANN makes will affect everyone who uses the Internet," Dr. Tiller says. "Given that the Internet usage rate of women and men is roughly equal, it seems a bit odd that we see such a big gap between men and women in ICANN registrations." According to statistics recently released by ICANN, 76.6 percent of Americans who have registered with the organization and are eligible to vote are male, while only 11.4 percent are female, with 12 percent not reporting their gender. Overall, slightly more than 10,000 Americans were registered with ICANN as of July 13.

Dr. Tiller is chairman of icannvote. com, a Web site devoted to tracking and encouraging ICANN voter registration. He says that the percentage of women registering to vote as reported by ICANN basically matches the percentage of women who visit icannvote. com. "It's a worldwide trend," Dr. Tiller says. "It's not just the U.S. - it's global." Dr. Tiller says that while some countries, notably Asian countries such as Korea, have a higher proportion of female registration, the number of total registered voters in those countries is small enough to reduce the statistical significance. "The problem is that ICANN tends to bill itself as a technical organization," Dr. Tiller says. "As such, its main appeal is to people who are involved in more technical areas, and those people tend to be men."

Dr. Tiller declines to speculate as to why men gravitate toward technical issues more than women, but he says that ICANN's role in the Internet is so far-reaching that women will soon realize the value of participating in the upcoming election. "I think it's just an information problem," he says. "Once the broader public is aware of what ICANN really does, more women are going to be encouraged to vote." For example, Dr. Tiller said, ICANN met in Japan this past weekend to determine whether it should expand the number of available domain names beyond the current offerings such as .com, .org., .edu and .net.

At the meeting, ICANN agreed to expand the number of domains but didn't say what the new domain names will be or how many will be created. The organization said it hopes to have a final list of new domain names by Dec. 31.

Among the possible domain names being speculated about is one called .xxx or .sex, devoted to online pornography. While ICANN itself has not proposed such a domain or even said it is considering it, Dr. Tiller says that women are likely to become more involved in the decision-making process once they realize the social and moral questions that ICANN may address.

In an attempt to jump-start this awareness, icannvote.com has signed an agreement with a women's advocacy organization, Women in Technology International, or WITI. "The future for women is going to be impacted by technology," says WITI founder and chairwoman Carolyn Leighton. "We need to be fully represented. It doesn't mean that we need to make the decisions, but all people who have an investment in this process need to be fully represented." Ms. Leighton says WITI plans to promote awareness of what ICANN does and encourage voter registration through promotion on icannvote.com, in WITI's electronic newsletter and on WITI's Web site. "We are going through a business revolution," Ms. Leighton says. "The Internet is going to be central to all businesses in the future, so we're at a critical stage." "My ultimate goal," Dr. Tiller says, "is to have a coalition of a major women's organization, a major seniors' organization and a major minority-owned-business or minority organization."

As a result of more registered women voters, Dr. Tiller says, there could also be many more women board members than there are now. "Of the 19 board members, only three are women," he says. "On the upside, the chairperson of ICANN is a woman [Esther Dyson] and one of the other female board members [Linda Wilson] is an American." Ms. Dyson is also a member of the advisory board of WITI.

For now, ICANN plans to only allow voters to elect board members, who will then decide policy. But letting voters themselves decide policy is not out of the question, Dr. Tiller says. "I don't see any reason why ICANN couldn't go to a direct vote," he says.