, Episode

Esther Dyson on being ICANN's first board chair

Interview by
May 19, 2021

In this episode...

In 1993, Wired magazine described Esther Dyson as "the most powerful woman in computing". She was chair of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN, from 1998 to 2000 and is now a prominent angel investor. In this interview with POWER PLAY's Ayden Férdeline she recalls how she got roped into ICANN and how, 20 years later, she thinks the organization fares.

Esther Dyson

Esther Dyson is a prominent angel investor.


Intro [00:00:04] You're listening to POWER PLAYS, the podcast charting how important decisions about the Internet - its infrastructure and its institutions - have been made. And here's your host, Ayden Férdeline.  

Ayden Férdeline [00:00:29] Welcome to POWER PLAYS, I'm Ayden Férdeline. Today on the show, we're joined by Esther Dyson, an angel investor, philanthropist and former journalist who two decades ago served as the first chair of the board of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. Esther, thank you so much for your time today. Before we dive in, one question I always ask guests on POWER PLAYS is an icebreaker and that is, what is a contrarian thought that you have about business or culture that others might disagree with you on?

Esther Dyson [00:01:02] I like to think that if they understood what I was really saying, they would agree with me, because everything I think is smart and rational. It depends on who they are. There's lots of different things. I mostly think we should think long term and invest in health as an asset and people always agree, but they don't really understand what that means, because health it's an asset, it's it's not health care is a cost that you spend to try to recover that asset. But health is an asset. That's kind of how it's spending my time now.

Ayden Férdeline [00:01:35] I want to go back in time to 20 years ago, Esther, as you chaired the ICANN board from 1998 to 2000. I'm wondering, how did you get involved with ICANN in the first place?  

Esther Dyson [00:01:48] So it happened kind of the spring in the summer before ICANN was officially created. If you were spending time in the Internet community, you knew there was something brewing, but it was kind of vague, the, in a sense ICANN was conceived not so much in original sin, but in original fake purity. The people who wanted to create ICANN did not want to appear to be creating it because they wanted it to be something that the internet community created for itself. But the two big players were the US government and the European Union, so they kind of created this fiction that the Internet community was asking for this thing and so forth and so on. And the Internet community was asking for it, but not with a unified voice. So some time in the summer, Ira Magaziner I think it was, came to me and said, "Esther, suppose, suppose this thing were created and suppose you were asked to be on the board. Would you be interested in joining the board?" And I thought, you know, that would be amazing. I'd learn a ton. Sure. And then I heard nothing for a month or two, then some lawyer I'd never heard of called me, I think that was in August. And I went back and got in touch with Ira Magaziner and said, who is this guy? Is he for real? And that was Joe Sims. Joe Sims was for real. So I said, yes. And that's kind of how I got into it, I think. The history books would certainly have this, but I think in September. We had our first meeting, not of the board, but of a group of people who were invited to be on the board and it was just around then that John Postel went into have I think some kind of heart surgery, which ultimately he died from. And so from something where John Postel was going to be the founding saint and the figure and the person and whose religion we worshiped, the thing ended up getting set up by a corporate litigator, which was really unfortunate. I like Joe personally a lot, but he had the instincts of a corporate lawyer, not of an Internet visionary. And so it ended up being way too regulation bound, way too careful, and I'm sure we'll get into that more. But that was how it got started.

Ayden Férdeline [00:04:54] Just a few notes for our listeners. The names you mentioned, John Postel, he was involved in the early work of ARPANET and oversaw the Internet Assigned Names Authority, or IANA, the organization that handles the Internet's naming system from late '80s through to the late '90s. The other name was Joe Sims, an antitrust attorney with Jones Day. He retired back in 2016. So, Esther, how then did you become the chairwoman?

Esther Dyson [00:05:27] Nobody else volunteered. Vint Cerf was the obvious one and he later became chairman. But I thought, you know, I have to go to meetings anyway. I might as well be chairperson. So I said yes. And Vint and Jun Murai really understood the Internet. There were quite a few people on the board. I mean, what they wanted was people who were fresh, who were not part of the battle under the rug between the different factions of the Internet community. So what that meant was they mostly had to get people who were innocent, but also ignorant, and there was the head of Radcliffe, there was a Dutch politician, there are a bunch of people who were very well-meaning but really didn't understand much about what it was we're supposed to be. The whole thing that we were trying to set the rules for. How the domain name system worked. How the Internet addresses worked, and of course they studied hard and they were all well-meaning people, but it was not, you know, for better or worse, it was people who came in fresh.

Ayden Férdeline [00:06:43] Would you say that was one of the biggest challenges that you had to tackle during your tenure on the board?

Esther Dyson [00:06:48] No, the biggest challenge was Network Solutions. And so basically we were brought into break up a monopoly and the monopolists didn't like that at all. So they were the biggest challenge and they were threatening to sue us every way. And Joe Sims was very conscious of that. The second thing was the government. The USG did not want to appear too involved, so we basically had a teeny budget. It was kind of a charity event rather than a gee, this is. We should have gotten money the way ARPA did, and then DARPA did, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but instead we were supposed to live off a very small amount of money from basically from the domain name registrations.

Ayden Férdeline [00:07:48] So this dispute with Network Solutions, how did it come to an end?

Esther Dyson [00:07:53] We were called to testify. Not before Congress itself, but in a committee. And so Jim Rutt, who was the president or the CEO, came and testified, and he was. I remember saying he dug a hole and he filled it with mud and then he jumped in, he just came on very aggressively and I guess said that we were trying to destroy the culture and the community and the ecosystem and he basically way overplayed his game and he sort of said, I don't know, I'll get back to you on that. He was not deferential the way Joe Sims put us all in a room and told us how to be deferential and say, yes, Mr. Senator, no, Mr. Senator, and so forth. And so it didn't go well for him. And that actually helped, though we still were underfunded. And Network Solutions basically paid a bunch of people to be trolls and just keep popping up and saying obnoxious things and kind of creating this feeling of discontent, and then there was a guy whose name I'll probably remember by the end of the podcast who was totally crazy who, how shall I say, it was perhaps not as bad as today, because it was a much smaller community, but we had our share of trolls and conspiracy theories and misinformation and stuff like that, just a prefiguring of what's happening now around the world.

Ayden Férdeline [00:09:43] I'm wondering, when you speak about being underfunded relative to other more dominant actors in the public and private sectors, what were the debates that you were having at the board level? Were you having conversations at the board level? I mean, it's the early days of ICANN, perhaps there were debates about legitimacy?

Esther Dyson [00:10:03] No. At the board level, we all knew that we were right. Of course. We were being attacked and we felt, and I believe we were, legitimate, though, again, we were not transparent at all, it took, that was the biggest problem in some sense. It took three or four tries and  

Ayden Férdeline [00:10:24] What do you mean that the Board wasn't transparent? Do you mean that the board meetings were closed?

Esther Dyson [00:10:29] We kept our meetings private. As secret. We didn't do them openly. I was a former journalist. And so I believe in transparency and accountability and so forth, but again, it was this sort of. Basically, it was the lawyer's advice keep them closed. I argued, not very successfully, the European. Put it this way, I was the only person on the board that was a former journalist, as far as I can remember. And anyway, so we kept them closed and then Hans Kraaijenbrink, to his credit, who was one of the Europeans who thought closed board meetings were totally appropriate, said, you know, if we have open board meetings, we'll just make all the decisions the night before dinner and then we'll have an open board meeting. And what's the point? Unfortunately, he said that in public, which I mean, how shall I say it, what he said was totally true, but it certainly didn't help our case. So we were created in this atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust, some of which was being. Basically a fire, we were being inflamed. This atmosphere is being inflamed by Network Solutions and the people it had hired to go around and complain loudly and talk about the takeover and so forth.

Ayden Férdeline [00:11:57] I want to jump forward to 2019 and the Internet Society wanted to sell off the Public Interest Registry to Ethos Capital. You very publicly opposed the sale. Why was that?

Esther Dyson [00:12:08] I opposed it because .ORG and the Public Internet Registry were public assets, they were not to be for sale and they certainly were not to be sold by ISOC, which didn't own them. It was simply the host that was basically taking care of them on behalf of the public. And I just, I mean, it's just not moral to take something that is not yours, that's a public trust and then sell it and you keep the money. And I mean, we were obviously, as you can imagine, not only that, I mean, that just offended us. We also were concerned that .ORG would be turned into some kind of moneymaking machine. And we kept asking Ethos about, well, what's your business model? And they were sort of vague. Well, maybe it's we'll sell data, but we won't sell anybody's private data. But will you start? It just, the way you make money off things is very different from the way you hold a public trust and they were unclear about who their investors were and the whole thing just smelled bad.  

Ayden Férdeline [00:13:32] What do you think is happening now with .ORG, because Ethos Capital never went away, it's buying up Donuts, other players in the domain name ecosystem

Esther Dyson [00:13:41] God bless them. You know, it is a business. It's a pretty sleazy business. But, you know, that's fine, that's sort of the way it works, but I did not want .ORG, again, to be sold and dismembered and transformed into something else. I mean, when you look around. This whole thing has become a protection racket, and if you look around and you find all these. There's fake news and then there's fake TLDs, things like Microsoft M 1 C R O, and if you own a domain name and you're large, you need to buy two or three hundred other ones just for protection so that no one else will use them to spook you. And it's like any 10-year old could see what's going on. And so it's like first you buy the domain name and they say to you, OK, you'd better buy this domain name to protect your restaurant. And now we're going to make you buy the domain name for each chair in your restaurant and each table. And you're going to have to buy it in .RESTAURANT and .EATERY and .CAFE, because if you don't, someone else is going to come and either spoof you or compete with you. And it's like the shortage is not really of domain names. It's a space in people's minds. Now, long run, most people start typing stuff into the address bar anyway, just and it goes to Google Search or somebody, because it is much easier to find stuff than by remembering one of these long, complicated domain names that you might misspell and again, end up somewhere you really didn't intend to. So they're polluting their own namespace, ultimately, but it will take a while for that transition to happen to people simply saying we don't use URLs anymore except for very long addresses and so forth. But the value of having the unique domain name will diminish. I mean, you're saying to Alexa, I want a Coca-Cola or I want to go to the IBM website and Alexa will figure it out.

Ayden Férdeline [00:16:03] That's already happening.

Esther Dyson [00:16:04] It is to some extent, obviously, but not enough. I mean, the domain name business is still a profitable. I mean, that's why Ethos is getting into it.  

Ayden Férdeline [00:16:15] You spoke before about the Internet community, the group of stakeholders from different interests that have come together to govern ICANN. Do you think that this has happened successfully over the past 20 years? What do you think about ICANN today?

Esther Dyson [00:16:31] Well, I mean, it's the problem we have in governance in general. There are people with special interests which usually have money of some kind. And so they can afford to send people to meetings, they can hire lawyers, they can zip around the world, and they pay people to represent their interests. The broad public. You know, the billions of people on this planet. Collectively have a much bigger interest, but as individuals, none of them has the time or the money to pay much attention to it, it's I mean, it's similar to the environment. Everybody has an interest in clean skies, but only some subsets have an interest in. They're not interested in polluting the atmosphere, but they're interested in making money, doing things that do pollute the atmosphere. And again, they can send lawyers to argue in front of Congress or Parliament or what have you, they can go to the meetings, they can publish papers of dubious scientific validity and so forth. So you have this large but this disenfranchized interest group that doesn't get heard and it ends up being controlled primarily by the business interests, which is basically the registries, the lawyers, trademark people. And we did have the At-Large community, but it couldn't afford to send people who couldn't afford to have lawyers, it was much less powerful and visible, so. The ultimate purpose of ICANN was to kind of create and protect a vacuum of power, in other words, that nobody should really control it and the good news is we kept the government from controlling it. We did not keep the business community from doing that, and I'd rather I'd rather lose my money than my voice. So net net I think it's a pretty good tradeoff. Now, of course, you find a lot of governments. You don't need to control ICANN to control your bit of the Internet. And what a lot of Internet freedom types forget is that you may be on the Internet, but you live wherever it is you live and someone can come and knock on your door, whether they're from the police or from the neighbor that you slandered online. So this notion of we're online, we're free. Your words are free, but your body is still in the real world and vulnerable.

Ayden Férdeline [00:19:22] Maybe this is a ridiculous question, but what can we do about all this? If at ICANN, for example, commercial interests are overly dominating the decision making processes, how can we fix it?

Esther Dyson [00:19:33] Well, we can do things like CCOR [the Cooperative Corporation of .ORG Registrants] and fight back and make a noise. And again, we can be happy that it's only money not. Silence governing the people governing the voices on the Internet is a very different thing from governing the infrastructure. And that's its own problem. But again, it's misleading because you can't govern the Internet. You can govern the people on the Internet and we're seeing how difficult that is, because who's we? We, of course, is all the people who agree with me, but everybody's got a different we. So in a sense, that's the challenge for the human race. How does it ensure individuals freedom? How does it give us power to people that do things, but not power over other people? Aand I would argue, as a journalist, that one of the most important things is transparency. The more power you have, the less privacy you should have.

Ayden Férdeline [00:20:47] Let's move to your career post-ICANN. I read a profile of you in Wired from 1993 and in it you were called the "most powerful woman in computing" and you were described as a "master of assimilating new ideas and retelling them to those who can turn them into wealth." Do you think that still describes you well?

Esther Dyson [00:21:07] Well, I always disliked the most X woman in the first place. It's sort of like the most powerful person with brown eyes. Big deal. I was visible, but I wasn't affiliated with an institution, which I think was one reason I was able to do what I did. I mean. It's much easier not to be competing with men in a corporate structure because you're very much at a disadvantage as a woman, and especially back then, I called myself the court jester, which is someone who has no institutional power yet can speak to the king and knows a lot of secrets, but speaks the truth and says things that may be inconvenient but are true, and I'm now doing that in a very different way in the field of health and human well-being, which is mostly. The big problem is that health or illness, which are mostly a result of poverty and poor social conditions and so forth and so on, so I'm trying to get us, again as a society, to focus more on that, and that's not something that can be solved by a nice central organization, it can be solved by changing culture, by changing what we pay for collectively. And I'm trying to show what it looks like if you pay attention to some of these things. Right now, working in five small communities in the US.

Ayden Férdeline [00:22:40] And that's Wellville, am I correct?

Esther Dyson [00:22:42] Yes, yes. It's a 10-year nonprofit project. It's not a foundation. It doesn't hand out money. And its goal is not to live forever. Its goal is to spend 10 years helping these five communities become really wonderful places to grow up and then to use their stories to inspire other communities to do the same thing for themselves.

Ayden Férdeline [00:23:04] How did you choose the communities?

Esther Dyson [00:23:05] It was a nice white lady who came from New York, and. NO. It was. The first thing I did was to pay attention to what I'd learned in Silicon Valley, which was. CEOs, I knew, I saw how people would sometimes start something and then destroy it because they held it too tightly. You know, that wonderful story that if you love the flower, if you like the flower, pluck it. But if you love it, water it and leave it be. So I hired a CEO to keep reminding me that I wasn't infallible and that there was stuff I didn't know. And together we put together an application form to be one of the communities that we would work in. We posted that online and my CEO, Rick, who came out of health insurance and really knew his way around, which I mean, his character is the most important thing about him, but he also kind of knows the world we're trying to disrupt. So we posted this application. You had to be a community of under hundred thousand because we wanted to get critical density as opposed to a number of people who would. We wanted somewhere where our efforts would not be diluted by a large community. You had to be self-contained so that it was indeed a community, not a subset of something. And you had to have fewer than one hundred thousand people, sorry I mentioned that, and you needed a cross-sector collaborative that would be the entity applying. And to our amazement we got 42-such communities that applied. We spent the summer of 2014 visiting ten of them, which was. My whole life has been an education. And this is one of the best education summers I've had. And we picked five that with one switch over ultimately are the five communities we're working with now. It's all at WELLVILLE.NET, including obviously where the communities are and what they're up to and so forth.

Ayden Férdeline [00:25:25] Fascinating. So you're working on that full-time now?

Esther Dyson [00:25:29] Yeah, it's my full time job. And then with the other half of my time, I do angel investing and things like CCOR and other board seats and so forth and so on, but I work in one of the communities, I'm not on top of it. I call myself executive founder, which means I'm the founder. Someone else is the CEO and my community is Muskegon County, Michigan.

Ayden Férdeline [00:25:54] And sorry if this is too basic a question, but do you live in the community or you visit the community?

Esther Dyson [00:26:00] No. And if I did. So the whole point is, we applied for the MacArthur Hundred & Change, one hundred million and change grant. And one of the questions, naturally enough, was why is your team so wonderful? What's their history? Why are they worth one hundred million dollars and that was a very difficult question for us, because our thesis is the community doesn't need us. We want to help them do it for ourselves. If the community needed us, our entire model wouldn't work because we're not clonable or scalable. But all we do is sit on the sidelines and ask awkward questions, introduce them to sources of wisdom or funding, introduce them to one another. But we're coaches, we're not in the game. We don't own the ball. We don't own the court. And when we leave in 2024, they will have built something for themselves. We're not giving them something. We're not paying them to do something they don't want to do. We are helping them understand what they want to do and giving them advice on how to do it better. But we don't have a contract with them. We don't give them money and we don't want their jobs. So. Long answer no, I live in New York City and I go to Muskegon for a few days every month, so of course I haven't. The last time I was there was in September and I'm hoping to be back in May and then get started doing every month again.

Ayden Férdeline [00:27:32] I have one more question, Esther, and then I'm going to let you go. And that's just about the future. Are there any technologies at the moment that really excite you? Maybe not technologies, maybe companies or ideas or even, within the health space, what gives you hope?

Esther Dyson [00:27:50] OK, so there's. One is and I don't know enough about it, but Jack Dorsey at Twitter has this thing called Blue Sky, which is all I know is that the basic idea is, use your, buy your own algorithm or whatever, but instead of having Facebook or Twitter use algorithms to show you what you see, which is mostly catering to your short term self, you can pick your own algorithms that cater to your vision of what you want to be. So they'll show you stuff that is uplifting or makes you think long term or makes you eat better and doesn't make you want to buy sneakers to feel better about yourself. So that one is really, really exciting. The other is this whole I'm really interested in. So 3D printing is dramatically going to change logistics because you can you can manufacture things in much smaller batches, it's sort of the end of mass production, you know, for spoons and things, you don't need to, but manufacturing can become more decentralized and the same thing I think is going to happen with a controlled environment, agriculture or urban farming or whatever you want to call it. But vertical farming where you, again, you can grow plants and food locally without the big farms and this changes the logistics, it means your food is going to be fresh, it's going to be pesticide free, and it's one thing that I think actually long term will be very useful for the underserved neighborhoods we work in and in short, it's this whole circle economy understanding that things can be reused, they can be reconstructed locally. And probably the best explication of that whole idea is in the book and the movie The Martian by Andrew Weir, where at the end of it somewhere, the hero says, you know, I'm the best urban gardener on Mars or something like that. But it's that notion that you need to reuse stuff. And you can do most of that locally rather than sending it across the ocean or up in the sky to get somewhere else. For what it's worth, another of my favorite books is Junkyard Planet by Adam Minter.

Ayden Férdeline [00:30:28] Why is it one of your favorite books?

Esther Dyson [00:30:30] Oh, because it talks about this. It's basically about recycling. And the very first company I was ever involved with was Federal Express. And they, it's interesting, at the time, complexity was the problem. Packages had to go through these very complicated routes to get anywhere and it would take a day or two and Fred Smith has this great idea, let's just simplify the thing and send everything to Memphis and then send it back out, which is perfect for the 1980s. Now complexity is easy because we have all these computers. So the basic business model didn't make so much sense, but the rest of it still does. And understanding the need for optimization and efficiency, but there's a tradeoff because you need slack, because things don't always work. And that's, again, a very important trade-off, not just for Federal Express, but for the world. We need a little spare capacity, as we discovered when Covid-19 hit.  

Ayden Férdeline [00:31:35] Esther Dyson, thank you very much.

Esther Dyson [00:31:37] It was a pleasure. Thanks a lot.

Outro [00:31:39] This has been POWER PLAYS, the podcast that takes you inside the rooms and into the minds of the decision makers responsible for some of the most instrumental decisions that help shape the Internet, which we all use today. If you'd like to help us spread the word, please give us a five-star review and tell your friends to subscribe. We're available on every major listening app as well as at POWERPLAYS.XYZ.

Check us on youtube

Feel more like watching a podcast? Check us out here: