Door of ICANN secrecy opens a crack

The door on the super-secret [tag]ICANN[/tag] Nominating Committee has opened just a crack with the release of the most basic information on the candidates that had put themselves forward.

Here are some personal reflections on why the Internet community now needs to stick its foot in the door of the [tag]NomCom[/tag].

The final decisions were made in Frankfurt at the weekend so in one sense it is pointless that the NomCom has now announced how many people applied, how many to each position and what their geographic and male/female breakdown was (this information should obviously have been released at the same time as the deadline announcement of 9 August).

*But* it is a very slight move forward because normally these details are only released at the same time as the actual candidates are announced, as can be seen from the 4 November 05, and 11 October 2004 announcements.

No doubt my emailing the NomCom and ICANN and asking specifically for these details just prior to the (secret) Frankfurt meeting had an impact, although ICANN now has a policy of not even replying to my emails.

But that isn’t the point. There is something very wrong with the system itself when an individual has to make themselves extremely unpopular just to extract even the most basic and obvious changes. If I wasn’t a journalist, there is no way in hell I would risk aggravating ICANN to such a degree for such tiny reform. If there is one lesson to take away from the LSE’s excellent review of the GNSO, it’s that the self-created cliques within ICANN, despite having the best intentions, are actually damaging the organisation’s effectiveness.

Personal reflections

Since I put myself forward to the NomCom and then made a point of publicly stating my reasons for doing so, and since this is my blog, here are some personal comments before I tackle the real issue of the NomCom.

I haven’t been chosen by the NomCom (how do you know? You just know) so I feel I can now be clear about a few things.

My application was entirely serious and professional – and I made that much clear in person to Paul Twomey in Marrakech. I knew that my likelihood of success was slim because, despite everyone’s stated hopes for transparency, the reality is that ICANN retains a very strong culture of secrecy and it wants someone like me in the heart of the organisation like it wants a hole in the head.

Nonetheless I made it clear to as many people as I could that I was serious and would work in the interests of the organisation. This would have had an enormous negative impact on my income and my reporting but I was willing to deal with that because ICANN desperately needs someone like me in there opening things up. Without that person (and I hope they have chosen one this time round), ICANN is going to beat itself up for years and only at the end realise that it could have saved all that time and trouble back in 2006.

NomCom (nomadic comedy?)

Almost immediately after I decided to stand I realised that the secrecy of the NomCom was its own worst enemy. I relied on ICANN insiders to tell me how the process actually worked. In actual fact, I relied on ICANN insiders to tell me who the people were that would help me understand how the process worked. In the course of this research, it became clear that the lack of openness had created a sub-culture of those-in-the-know, and, probably unconsciously, they had already started developing unofficial rules for a likely successful candidate – rules that, incidentally, appeared completely arbitrary to anyone outside that core.

No one would talk openly. Even when the NomCom steeled itself to hold a public meeting in Marrakech (which I attended), the very limited information provided was the most anyone had ever heard about the workings of a cabal more secretive than most countries’ secret services. That information was not made available on the Web – the one place where a prospective applicant might be expected to find it (in fact you can read the transcript of the meeting on the ICANN website – but I challenge anyone to find it).

Initially, a large number of prominent ICANNers were intrigued with my standing (after I had assured them I was serious). We were, after all, only talking about one Board member – hardly enough to sway the whole organisation. By over the course of a few weeks, this support ebbed as doubts started being raised about whether I *really* was serious. Was it just a stunt? Could I be trusted? Did I really know anything about the Internet?


This is all part and parcel of politics but the problem is that by the NomCom being so enclosed, despite its avowed independence, it is extraordinarily open to influence by a tiny minority of people. The result is that the NomCom will chose people who are either part of its clique or people it barely knows.

You are either in close enough to have insider knowledge or you are an unknown entity and so there is no baggage. And that means the very people ICANN needs i.e. those with *some* knowledge of ICANN but who aren’t so close that they don’t have fresh perspectives, are the people least likely to be chosen. And if you don’t think that is true, I bet *everyone* can name who the startling exceptions are.

This is not an equitable or practical way to run the Nominating Committee. In fact, now the LSE is free, ICANN should bring it back immediately to get a look at the NomCom before it secretly dissolves into the woodwork for another year.


As I sensed the politically astute ICANN insiders distancing themselves from my application, it became increasingly clear that there was no way the NomCom would select me and increasingly obvious – to me at least – that the very NomCom process was the greatest manifestation of a self-defeating and jealously guarded culture within ICANN.

And so when I made my application public, I also outlined why I thought the secrecy, rather than protecting people and supplying confidentiality, was in fact belittling the job and making the likelihood of finding the best candidates smaller rather than greater.

People should be proud to put themselves forward. And those people that the NomCom assumes – without any evidence – would not do so if their application was made public (i.e. would be embarrassed if they did not make it), are not the sort of people that should be Board members of an Internet overseeing organisation that exists in a very difficult and fraught public and political arena. The NomCom is condemning itself to choosing poor applicants.

Of course the vast majority of the people involved with the NomCom honestly believe that its processes – entirely secret as they are – are the optimal solution to finding the best candidates for ICANN. As a result, if the NomCom is criticised, the secrecy is reinforced and the situation made all the worse.


There is not a single reason why the stats released last night could not have been released in August. Not one. And yet I know that producing them even now – before the official announcement – is viewed as a concession. And I know that there is irritation with me for pushing the issue. This is virtually a textbook definition of an elite – and an elite that has convinced itself it is not an elite but a protector.

Another example. I tried to find people who had applied to the NomCom to put forward my arguments about how making *their* application public was in the overall interests of the NomCom and ICANN itself. I found a few and made my points. Without exception, they then spoke to others within the ICANN system and were told that while the points were theoretically correct, they would be putting themselves at a disadvantage if they actually do it themselves. It could be viewed as grandstanding or of being indirectly critical of the NomCom itself, and so would damage their chances.

The reality – as has happened so many times in the past and throughout history – is that secrecy becomes self-perpetuating. Insiders hoard their knowledge, making it harder for outsiders to peek in, and impossible for insiders to reconstruct without losing immediate influence.


In fact, at the risk of upsetting some insiders, but as a clear illustration, I came across a stark example of this damaging situation during my application. Someone who had been on the NomCom and remains a powerful voice within ICANN stepped down from the committee in order to stand themselves. They were subsequently found not to be eligible because of their previous NomCom activities.

I approached this person and persuaded them of my seriousness in standing and as a result they said they would act a reference for my application. My hope was that people would see that if serious people acted as my referees it may reduce the suspicion over my own seriousness. In the course of talking to people about the NomCom, I was told by more than one member of the NomCom that including this person on my application was “the kiss of death”.

It was a spat – a temporary spat no doubt – but it was clear that, despite the grand words and high-faluting rhetoric, the independent body that decides who should take senior roles within the organisation has a fatal flaw running right through it. As one international Internet figure told me soon after my application: “You haven’t got a chance. The fix is in.”

My standing will have, I hope, at least caused some people to reflect on the vital processes within ICANN. I noted that at the NTIA meeting nearly two months ago that the representative from the Canadian government mentioned that it was not entirely happy with how ICANN Board members were chosen for the simple reason that it didn’t know *how* ICANN Board members were chosen.

It will be none the wiser this year either.


Hopefully others will start asking very obvious and fair questions and so show up the ludicrous assertion levelled at me personally (and behind hands and doors) that I am somehow out to create dissent and undermine ICANN.

In fact, I care about the Internet and its organisations as much as anyone else in the community. I feel so strongly about it that I’m willing to put myself on the line for it and say the things in public that everyone else says in private. And anyone that doesn’t believe me, I will more than happily sit down with over a coffee and discuss it.

I should also like to drawn a distinction yet again between this blog – my personal blog and personal thoughts – and the paid-for journalism that I write (I don’t charge The Register for my blog posts btw). It is a distinction that is immediately obvious within the first few words of any story or post and I defy anyone in the small Internet world to not understand the wearing of two hats. In fact, I think two hats is the bare minimum these days.

All that off my chest, what have we learnt about those that applied to the NomCom this year? Well, there were 90 applicants: 11 female and 79 male. Four came from Africa; 17 from Asia Pacific; 38 from Europe; five from Latin America and the Caribbean; and 27 from North America.

Let’s hope the people that get through will serve ICANN well.

  1. “Of course the vast majority of the people involved with the NomCom honestly believe that its processes – entirely secret as they are – are the optimal solution to finding the best candidates for ICANN. As a result, if the NomCom is criticised, the secrecy is reinforced and the situation made all the worse.”

    I’m just expressing my surprise and anger that the body that governs the Internet is less accountable than the organisation that collects my refuse and funds my local libraries.

    I shall be using this article with appropriate background to start a debate in my College. Our 16+ students have hazy memories of the time before the Web and will be surprised to find how narrow the base is. Remember that I teach classes composed of 5 religions, 10 language groups and diverse social views.

  2. Keith,

    One of the big issues and problems with ICANN is that participation in it is at rock-bottom levels. To my mind, this is because: people don’t understand what it is that ICANN does; ICANN has been so ineffectual in the past; and because keeping it among the close groups is very attractive to the people in those close groups.

    I see my job as getting all the people that I know are hugely interested – and justifiably so – in the Internet and its governance to go to the trouble of sticking their head in the door. And then when they’re not made welcome, stand in the hallway and yell until someone apologises and lets them on the stage to say their thing.

    Even though that is a hugely simplified visual image, it’s not too hard to imagine exactly that scenario actually happening in reality.

    It is, of course, all about education, so you have my full backing and blessing to do whatever you can – just so long as you also critically review what I have written.


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