News, views and what I choose to dos

IGP warns of ICANN participation conspiracy

Category : ICANN, Internet governance, Journalism · by Dec 12th, 2009

Sadly, paper is no more than blinkered academic nonsense

Last month, the Internet Governance Project (IGP) put out an academic paper [pdf] that covered the issue of participation within ICANN.

As the ex-general manager of public participation for the organization, I was hoping to find some insights that I might then be able to promote from outside the tent. Instead, with sad inevitability, what presented itself was a 20-page pile of conspiratorial nonsense.

Now I happen to like the author, Brenden Kuerbis, and I also like his IGP/Syracuse University compatriot Milton Mueller, but they and the IGP appear to have developed a collective delusion about what ICANN is and how it works that informs and undermines just about all their work in this area.

In a nutshell, the IGP view of the multi-stakeholder organization that is ICANN is:

  1. All decisions are made by a secretive staff
  2. Efforts are constantly made to mislead people into believing their input has an impact
  3. The US government / US big business pulls the strings in the background
  4. There needs to be a body above the Board to make the organization accountable
  5. ICANN can be viewed a single entity with a singular approach and philosophy

All of these assumptions are, fortunately, false. But what is disturbing is that constant indications that demonstrate this isn’t how the organization works are determinedly ignored by the IGP, and – as this latest paper makes clear – when the disparity grows too large, are dismissed through diatribe and conspiracy.

Getting to the bottom of it

When I first started working at ICANN, I spent a good deal of my time trying to get to the bottom of the various accusations of foul-play thrown at the organization – much as I had done when a journalist, except this time from the inside.

What I found was that in virtually every case it was a matter of either cock-up or poor communication. And it was a vicious circle – staff were afraid to communicate publicly because their every word would be picked over and turned into a new conspiracy by the community. I was very resolutely of the position that if you opened it up, there would be an initial period of pain, but that people would quickly recognize that it was a genuine effort to communicate and the conspiracies would fade and, in turn, staff’s fears would diminish.

And I think that that has pretty much happened. Although I do feel the need to point to a blog post where I mocked the conspiratorial tendencies of the community and in response was deluged with angry emails – not just to me but to other staff, senior execs, Board members and my boss. I learnt first-hand why staff were so afraid to stick their heads above the parapet.

The post was “Organizational structure image conspiracy uncovered” and I still laugh when I read it now.

But back to the IGP paper

That tangent aside, in summary, the IGP paper says:

  • ICANN is using “participation” as a smokescreen to avoid proper accountability (maximizing participation is used as a tool to minimize influence)
  • That actual decision-making power is retained by a few and public comment is used to placate people (that ICANN resists any efforts to make it more accountable and that Board and staff make the decisions)
  • There need to be new accountability mechanisms (suggestions are given)

Now this is the really big problem I have with this paper: the reason there has been such a big increase in participation and a focus on getting more people involved is because I worked incredibly hard to make that happen. And I hit a hell of a lot of resistance while doing so.

Not only that but one of primary calls *from the community itself* was to increase participation in ICANN’s processes – it was in a GNSO report, an ALAC report, a GAC report, a NomCom report, a report from the President’s Strategy Committee, and various other reports. I can dig out the URLs if needed.

The idea that ICANN somehow uses participation as a tool to avoid accountability is ridiculous. What’s more it could only come from a personal conviction that the organization will only act in its own limited self-interest *and* that that self-interest views not communicating with its community as possessing a strategic advantage.

Even if on the surface, the organization appears to be making changes that are exactly what is needed and what people have asked for, the argument that runs through this paper is that there is a conscious and deliberate effort at every opportunity to deceive the very people that provide the organization with its legitimacy. That such a paranoid assertion would form the core argument of the paper is almost too bizarre to believe.

Here is another important point: ICANN is not a single entity. It does not act in a single way with a singular approach. There are too many people, with too many views and too many ideas for it ever to be possible to develop a conspiracy.

Even within the staff there are constant discussions and debates about how best to approach an issue. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about working for ICANN is that *there is no way* to push through your approach – everything requires a consensual agreement to progress. And, contrary to popular belief, that is not always a good thing when you have people expert in their field.

Now, what ICANN staff and the chairs of the various SOs and ACs try very hard to achieve is a single voice at the end of the process. It is crucial that ICANN be capable of saying exactly what its viewpoint is or its recommendations are in order to be an effective as a decision-making organization.

But the IGP delusion that somehow this singular ICANN approach exists and pushes itself through despite concerted efforts by others represents the complete opposite of reality. And it probably explains why the IGP remains so baffled and threatened by the organization it seeks to study and influence.

Conflicts of interest

What is also a glaring omission from this paper is any effort to measure whether added participation has actually had an effect.

The paper is strident in its believe the extra participation has made no real difference – but makes no effort to back that up. Instead, what the paper does is review three issues from a highly subjective viewpoint and then points to the viewpoint as proof that increased participation hasn’t had an impact.

A very dangerous omission from the academic paper standpoint is that in all of the three issues, IGP members were very heavily involved. It is not difficult to find acres of argument online, some of it highly personal, where the IGP became personally invested in the outcome.

This fact is clearly reflected in the text: I don’t think there is a single paragraph in this part of the paper that others involved in the process wouldn’t criticize as being one-sided and/or inaccurate.And so the paper fails horribly in its intent – to serve as an academic review – and instead becomes a partisan piece of propaganda that promotes one specific viewpoint as objective reality.

Actual measurement

What would be interesting to see is a proper academic review of the impact of expanded participation and public comment.

The amount of commentary on ICANN’s work has jumped in recent years thanks to increased ease of responding to public comment periods and public sessions – and thanks to the fact that a summary and analysis of those comments is produced each time.

Now, the question is: have those comments had an impact? Or were they, as the paper boldly states, largely ignored? I can tell you with absolutely no hesitation two things:

1. The impact of comments on the new gTLD process – ICANN largest and most important project – has been very significant.

And there has been a very concerted effort to reflect comments, and to explain their impact in a series of specially commissioned papers. You can find the report of version one of the Applicant Guidebook here [pdf]; version two here [pdf]; a paper covering explanatory memoranda comments here [pdf]; and another is one the way following the third version of the guidebook.

Whichever way you cut it, this is direct impact of participation on processes and decisions.

2. The process for all the other public comment periods that ICANN opens needs improving. It works, but not brilliantly. And the reason that ICANN has no problem with admitting that is because ICANN itself wrote it into the Affirmation of Commitments that it signed with the US government. ICANN itself has recognized where it needs to improve and then written in the terms for that improvement in a very public document.

See paragraphs four and seven of the Affirmation for explicit details.


Lastly, and possibly most significantly, the issue of ICANN and accountability. The paper claims that ICANN is avoiding accountability, and that it uses participation to hide that fact.

What is absolutely extraordinary in this declaration is that it completely ignores a consultation that has been going on nearly two years and which the IGO has written numerous blog posts about.

The Improving Institutional Confidence consultation was the biggest ICANN has ever run. It was announced at a US government hearing in February 2008 by the chairman and CEO. It saw three versions of a report put out to public comment (which the IGP responded to); there were consultative meetings across the globe, and more at every ICANN international public meeting.

And the upshot of all of that – discussed in a public paper and in public sessions where the IGP was present – were two additional accountability ideas that would allow the community to question Board decisions, and to replace the independent third-party review process with a more robust process, the “Independent Review Body”.

And the IGP paper’s recommendation for increasing this all-important accountability? “We need to revisit the concept of membership in ICANN and strengthen ICANN’s Independent Review Process.” Which is precisely what ICANN has not only identified itself but then actually gone to effort of producing the wording in a set of bylaw amendments to make it happen. Which it has put out for public comment and review. The IGP simply cannot have missed this, so why is it actively ignoring it? The determination to find fault with the organization is apparently all-encompassing.

One last gasp

And if you want one more indication that this paper [pdf] is completely out-of-step and out-of-date with what is really going on in ICANN, it is in the references index. Only one paper referenced was produced after 2005 – a whole lifetime away in terms of ICANN, and before any of the improvement in participation that the paper solely addresses was introduced.

I’ve often pondered why academics try to contemporaneously review structures that are still changing. Academic skills are simply not suited to do the job and the results are almost always embarrassingly erroneous. Where are the interviews with people? Where is the research? Where are the balancing perspectives?

This is a shoddy job and should be assigned to the bin as soon as possible. Shame.


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