ICANN – peering into the recesses

Well, I've scoured all the online resources to find out what is going on at the Internet overseeing organisation's conference in Wellington and have found out – well, almost nothing.

Which rather handily points to the two major problems with the current ICANN system:

1. Transparency
2. Internet community interaction

Transparency has become a hot topic because of the dotcom contract approval, against the wishes of a majority of ICANN members, and because of the political shenanigans over the .xxx domain. Put simply, people don't know and don't trust how decisions are made.

Unsurprisingly, the ICANN Board has reacted defensively to these criticisms, as is human nature. Veni Markovski and Brett Fausett have actually had a bit of an online barney over it on Brett's blog. If I can summarise: Brett wants the Board to record its meetings and make the recordings available and says the Board is too inaccessible. Veni (who is on the ICANN Board) on the other hand says he is always accessible and actually asks people to come and speak to him but they don't. As for recording conversations, this reminds Veni of the oppressive Bulgarian regimes that he lived through and fought against.

There is an added element here as well in that Brett now has a professional interest in criticising ICANN – he is serving as a lawyer for CFIT in its court case against ICANN. Whether he likes it or not, this now puts a questionmark over his objectivity.

Susan Crawford (the newest ICANN Board member) has also chipped in on her blog. She thinks transcripts are a good idea and something the Board will get used to. Also, it couldn't cover confidential matters – something that I don't believe anyone has said it should. But she also has some criticism of the way the Board is being labelled secretive. The discussion had yesterday, she points out, “was a public meeting, and many Board members made their views emphatically known.  A free and frank exchange of views.”

My reading of this is very simple: the ICANN Board has to put up or shut up. If it does this, the Internet community will then have to face its continued failure to produce useful feedback.

Veni may not like recordings because of what that entails in his experience. But the fact is that a recording of an ICANN Board meeting would be an open recording, exclaimed publicly, not a secret recording used later to prosecute people. Board members will know if they are, or are not, on the record. With the meeting on the record, unless otherwise stated, it will provide a very useful bit of self-awareness for Board members – they will have to think about how their behaviour will be seen publicly. And that, I'm afraid, is a very, very good thing.

Why should the meetings be recorded? Because the ICANN Board has made, and continues to make, extremely important decisions that often no one outside the process can understand. Put simply, the fact that the Board *can* behave secretly has led to it behaving secretly, and that has created a damaging culture that has wiped out a very large part of the goodwill directed toward it. The ICANN Board has abused its position for years and so it doesn't have the right to continue as it does. It has to be opened up. That is, if it wants to survive.

But the whole other big issue is about the Net community's own failure. This is something that Veni consistently complains about – and he's right. I've been sat in dozens of meeting where the only agreement is that everyone doesn't like what ICANN is doing. But if you don't like something, you have to point out why you don't like it, and then outline how it can be changed to make it better. The sheer lack of feedback given to ICANN processes is depressing. Check out any of the public comment boards than ICANN opens – they are invariably empty or contain the same arguments by the same people. There is little real discussion going on.

Also, ICANNWiki has gone to the trouble of creating a calendar of meetings with a space for meeting notes. I have been through it and found only one meeting with notes. That is not exactly a good ad for the community's openness and willingness to engage. What's the point in complaining that ICANN doesn't provide enough information or isn't open enough when you are doing exactly the same?

That said, ICANN often has only itself to blame because it not only ignores whatever actually is posted in public consultation but it also never replies to comments there either. An ICANN public comment area is often no more than a well – a wishing well for people to throw their hopes into.

The solution

There is a way out of this. The ICANN Board agrees to open up its meetings and in return it tells the Internet community it expects it to provide more, and better, feedback. The Net community does this and then tells ICANN staff it expects them to reply to it and pay it attention. The ICANN Board tells the staff it expects them to reply to requests and provide a summary of all public comments on an issue whenever that issue comes up for discussion. That report is made public before the Board meeting – enabling the Net community to review whether it is an accurate representation, and so ICANN staff are pulled into the accountability along with everyone else.

I really don't see why this shouldn't be the case.

Media coverage

Media coverage of the ICANN meeting has been really poor, as ever. There have been a few New Zealand media organisations that have turned up to see what it's all about, but they have been tied around individuals – NZ government ministers or Vint Cerf – and are mostly useless.

One unfortunately underlines the ignorance of both the NZ governments and the NZ media over what is happening with the Internet. Communications Minister David Cunliffe opened the event and used it for a speech on spam: “I think the time is right for a discussion on how, globally, governments and stakeholders can effectively tackle issues like spam by working together. A number of countries do have anti-spam legislation. New Zealand is currently in the legislative process but I believe that an international agreement would add credence to this.”

Wonderful. Except what someone should have told him is that this has already been effectively agreed to by world governments, NGOs and the Net community. The first meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Athens in November will almost certainly be about solving the issue of spam.

According to ICANN, the meeting's highlights will be:

  • Further discussion of reform of the GAC – although the GAC continues to hold mostly closed meetings
  • The Security committee talking about DoS attacks – which could be fun
  • “Community discussion” on internationalised domain names (here we go again)
  • A forum to discuss new Top Level Domains – which will be interesting but I suspect won't change the status quo (although if Susan Crawford really does push…)
  • A “public workshop” on Internet governance – which should be interesting but most likely will achieve next to nothing.

Btw if people really want to open up a discussion on the Internet Governance Forum, why not use this as a standpoint: Is it a good idea that of the 40 people on the IGF's Advisory Board, which will decide what is discussed and how, 20 of them will come from governments?

The actual highlights are going to be:

  • Fury over the delay of .xxx again
  • Argument over the Board's lack of transparency and its dotcom contract approval
  • Some great ideas – subsequently ignored – about new top level domains

I should also say that I cannot get the webcast to work (apparently at: http://media.icann.org/ramgen/broadcast/wellington.rm). At all. And yes, I have tried to access it while the meeting is in progress; and no, I am not an idiot, I know how the technology works – it is a fault at ICANN's end somewhere.

I also left Circle ID off my list of useful resources yesterday. John Levine's blog may also produce something interesting.

Oh, and if people are interested in the real identity of “Steven Forrest” and his brazenly biased articles on the Net, you'll find a hefty clue with the author of http://texturbation.blogspot.com/.

  1. […] the hugely controversial decision to hand VeriSign the dotcom contract in perpetuity). I fired a warning shot across Mr Forrest boughs, and he shut up for a few […]

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