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ICANN Board briefing materials: more cover pages than information

Category : ICANN, Internet governance · by Aug 17th, 2010

At its recent meeting in Brussels, the ICANN Board resolved that it would publish the briefing materials that are supplied to it in order to make decisions.

This decision was widely seen by those familiar with ICANN as an effort by the Board to pre-empt what would be a recommendation from the independent review team that is looking at the organization’s accountability and transparency (the ATRT). The failure of ICANN to publish any of the material supplied to it by staff has been a bone of contention for a number of years and a large number of people had highlighted the issue to the ATRT in public sessions.

ICANN’s staff this week published, in two parts, 318 pages of Board briefing materials for its meeting in Brussels [Part one | Part two]. Two things immediately struck me when going through the material: one, large proportions of the material released was already publicly available; and two, huge chunks of the documents were redacted. How much exactly? Well, I endeavoured to find out:

Publicly available

The first thing you will notice is that 190 of the 318 pages – or 60 percent – comprise material that is already publicly available. Examples are: preliminary minutes from previous Board meetings; published documents such as summary/analyses; and materials that have been either formally sent or received from ICANN itself – such as letters.

What does this tell us?

Well, first is that if the two documents represent *all* the material that the ICANN Board is being supplied with in order to make decisions, then the Board is being poorly served.

On the topics under discussion at the June Board meeting there are a multitude of other documents that could and arguable should have been provided by the staff in order to assist the Board in making a decision. The only documents that are supplied are internal to the organization, with the partial exception of the declaration of ICANN’s Independent Review Panel, which was a formal report provided at the end of a formal ICANN process.

There are no materials that provide broader context or external view. No third-party reviews or magazine clippings or even reviews of discussions external to ICANN staff reports. This is a dangerous and introverted approach.

In terms of making the Board materials transparent and accountable from the reader perspective – you and me – the huge amount of publicly available material is an unnecessary distraction. It would be far more useful for this information to be referred to using a URL or added to an appendix. Or a separate file.

Redacted redacted redacted

This is the most troublesome part of the materials. The Board resolution directed staff to “publish the non-confidential portions of the Board briefing materials”. At the time, many wondered what would be considered confidential and what would be seen as non-confidential.

The answer would appear to be: 21 percent, or 68 pages of material. This is an excessively high percentage and on a par with military releases of information – clearly something that gets to the heart of ICANN’s accountability and transparency since ICANN is most definitely not in need of as much secrecy as the military.

ICANN staff and Board have not provided a definition of what constitutes “confidential” nor have they provided explanatory notes about the extensive redaction, nor is there an apparent process for questioning the decisions behind redacted material.

There is a long history of processes and procedures, particularly in the United States, for the release and publication of materials. ICANN’s approach would fail to meet any of these. Most troublesome in this set of documents is the complete removal of advice to the Board about the dot-xxx issue, and the blacking out of an independent report into the issue of chairman remuneration.

With no procedures, accepted rules, or external overview of the redaction process, it is a certainty that anything even mildly concerning will be removed – which would appear to be the case here when even a simple timeline has been blacked out in its entirety.

Cover sheets and actual information

It is telling that there are the same number of cover sheets provided as new material: 30 pages each.

Of the new information, and of the 316 pages in total, 13 pages contain material that is intended to guide Board action, and the remaining 17 pages are provided to the Board for information only. In two of the three main documents where “actionable” material in provided, the documents contain parts that are redacted.

So, of the 30 pages (or 9 percent) that contain new information, what are the subjects covered?

  • A President’s Report: A summary of what the CEO has been doing and a general overview of ICANN works, with parts redacted. This report might be useful but due to the long delay in releasing the report (it covers events from April and it is now August), it has little or no value beyond an archive.
  • IRP review: The controversial dot-xxx situation, where ICANN’s independent review panel decided against the organization and said it had broken its own bylaws in denying dot-xxx back in 2005. The IRP/Dot-xxx issue is heavily redacted to the point that you are able to make out that the staff provided the Board with papers concerning the issue but unable to ascertain very little beyond the background of the issue.
  • Chairman compensation: This covers the proposal that the ICANN chairman be compensated at $75,000 a year. Again though it is redacted in all parts that go beyond basic background. The Board has already approved the measure so you have to question the decision to not release any information that went into the resolution, even after the resolution has passed. As such the material that is provided is of little or no value.

The good news

There is, however, some good news. Of the remainder pages that offer new material are three documents from ICANN’s policy department concerning: GNSO improvements; a GNSO constituency charter; and a Geographic Regions report.

These documents are the staff reports that help summarise the work done by the community and give an overview of how things are progressing to the Board.

It is extremely helpful to see these documents being published, particularly when policy documents have in the past proved controversial, with some parties claiming they have been purposefully misrepresented in documents provided in secret to the Board.

None of the documents in this case are particularly controversial so it may have been easier to publish them in full without having to fight the urge to redact portions. Nonetheless, ICANN’s policy department deserves credit for making its documents readily accessible, even if they are contained within two very large PDFs.

Conclusion

If I were grading ICANN’s effort to provide additional accountability and transparency, it would get a B-minus.

There is nothing in these documents that is not readily known already. There is a huge amount of redacted material and no effort to explain that process or even a suggestion that a process along the lines of other information-release programs is being looked into. The documents were released with no indication or notice. They are large files. And they are available from download on a single page that is four pages deep into the ICANN website.

What’s more, if these documents do in fact represent all the material provided to the Board in order for it to make decisions, it demonstrates a dangerously introverted approach in which staff summary documents carry far too much weight. The documents overall appear to be poorly structured – different reports are simply laid on top of one another – no doubt making it harder to Board members to keep abreast of changes and developments.

In conclusion, the release will do little or nothing to assuage concerns about ICANN’s accountability, and will again point to the fact that the extensive provision of (largely irrelevant) documents does not equate to transparency.

The Accountability and Transparency Review Team would do well to look at this self-created effort on the part of ICANN’s staff to be more accountable and review how it differs from what external reviewers would have implemented. Understanding this accountability gap may prove far more useful in really understanding how to improve the organization.

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(13) comments

Kevin
4 years ago ·

Interesting. How did you create those pie charts so quickly?

kierenmccarthy
4 years ago ·

@Kevin: Huh? In Excel.

My figures below – will try as HTML table:

  Percentage Total Part 1 Part 2
Publicly available 60% 190 45 145
Redacted 21% 68 15 53
Cover page 9% 30 16 14
Informational 5% 17 17 0
Actionable 4% 13 9 4
    318 102 216
Jorge
4 years ago ·

I’d give them a C-.

It is acceptable and has been discussed before that personal and some sensitive information should be redacted, but there is too much black ink on issues that are relevant for the organization transparency and accountability.

I agree with you that a large percentage is already available and known, the additional info is almost worthless.

It looks more like a bad joke, unless this material is now also part of the NIEs and there is a lot of juice under the black curtain. Will ICANN remove the black boxes in 50 years ? well if it still exist …

Cheers
Jorge

TheBigLieSociety
4 years ago ·

“The whole dynamic is wrong. I’m sick of obvious improvements having to be dragged out of reluctant people.”

The “ICANN Attitude” came from Esther Dyson, Vinton Cerf, Mike Roberts and many others. It is their way or the highway.

It Seeks Overall Control

Kevin
4 years ago ·

@Kieren

I wasn’t asking what software you used ;)

I was wondering how you managed to gather the data so quickly, especially given some pages have just a line or two redacted.

kierenmccarthy
4 years ago ·

@Kevin: I’m a fast worker. But seriously, hardly rocket science, scrolled through each page and noted whether it was a document publicly available; or redacted; or a cover page; or new material (and whether the doc was for information only or was suggesting some kind of Board action).

The vast majority of pages were easily classified in one of these categories. For pages with a mix – say, half-redacted, half-new – I counted in halves. The smallest proportion I used was an eighth of a page’s content. Any less I disregarded it – although I only recall doing that once. And then add it all up, rounding to the nearest page.

It’s possible, though unlikely, there might be shift in a single percentage point if the papers were gone through with a fine-toothed comb – but then there’s very little value in an absolutely precise value in this case, say, 21.2 percent redacted.

avri
4 years ago ·

So, the baby step is even smaller than first i thought.

a.

TheBigLieSociety
4 years ago ·

Why do people continue to (endorse-via-participation) the ICANN Regime ?

Are people aware that the .CO movement does not involve ICANN ?

Do people prefer to have free market forces continue to migrate people to a “better” tomorrow ? …or should nukes be used ?

kierenmccarthy
4 years ago ·

@TheBigLieSociety: Please give it a break. I’ve already asked you to stop posting your nonsense here. There’s plenty of other websites out there – go provide them with your conspiratorial brainfarts.

Scott Pinzon
4 years ago ·

Kieren, I think in all the page-counting you missed the entire point. Some community members had alleged that the Staff lied to the Board in these private briefings, and that’s why the papers should be made public. As you’ve detailed, there is no lie. No scandal. Most of it publicly available. Move on, folks; nothing to see here.
If there’s any “lie” going around, it’s the idea that ICANN’s highly qualified Board members are passive puppets who cannot read anything or think about anything unless ICANN Staff hands it to them on a piece of paper. Board members are bright, experienced, opinionated, and do not live in a vacuum. They talk not only to Staff, but also to the community, and they make up their own minds.
This is much ado about nothing.

kierenmccarthy
4 years ago ·

Hey Scott,

I don’t know, I think you’re missing quite a big point here, and may only be adding to the broader problem of an unhealthy circle of accusation and defensiveness between “them” and “us”.

The community has asked for years for the material sent to the Board to be made public. The reason those calls started was because people were concerned the Board was being given bad or skewed advice.

The right thing to have done at that point was for the Board and staff to say: “nothing to hide here” and publish the professional summaries that the Board is provided with.

But instead the opposite happened. Call it stubbornness, call it arrogance, call it what you like – the core of ICANN (staff and Board) simply ignored the requests, or, on occasion, provided unsatisfactory reasons as to why material couldn’t be released.

Of course the big problem with that approach is that the staff and Board are representatives of the community – and not the other way around. And so, inevitably, more of the community started to ask: *why* won’t you release documents that lead to decisions that you make in our name?

Eventually, after more years of argument and a further erosion of trust, the Board finally decides to release its briefing materials – and then both staff and Board blow it spectacularly by doing so with a reluctance that borders on petulance.

If ICANN had put the materials together helpfully, broken them up, thought about it from the perspective of the new viewer, make access simple, and put out an announcement about it, proudly stating that from now on Board materials would be released — well, then the community would have been not only content but greatly relieved. ICANN would have won plaudits.

As it was, the documents were posted on a webpage with no notice. They are big, long PDFs that are difficult to digest. And, of course, huge chunks of it are blacked out – with absolutely no reason given as to why, and no clear explanation or system behind that redaction. Plus no way to question it.

ICANN’s staff had a great opportunity here and – with the exception of the policy department – blew it.

The fact that the Board has said nothing about this release as well – after all, it is their material – also adds to the feeling that actually the Board *isn’t* really aware, or on top of, what goes on and the staff exert an influence greater than is healthy.

In PR terms, it was a spectacular own goal.

In real terms – people want to know why 68 pages have been blacked out. The Board has made its decisions. It made them as representatives of the community. How come then that the community isn’t allowed to know what advice led them to come to those conclusions?

Until both the staff and the Board take the time to understand why the community doesn’t quite trust them – as opposed to dismissing it as over-the-top or misguided – then it won’t be possible to build that trust up.

So I think there is an issue here. But it is one that could be easily rectified – interact with the community about how they would like to see the release of future Board materials.

And then change the system for the next Board meeting. And – crucially – admit publicly that the previous system, this current system, was flawed and has now been improved upon.

Plus of course explain what is under the big black boxes and why both staff and Board feel it can’t be published. And give a timetable for when it *will* be published.

Do all that, and this is nothing but a blip. But stubbornly insist that everything is fine, and the issue will keep coming back, over and over again.

[...] was pretty scathing – and for good reason. It was a poorly managed, poorly handled, largely pointless exercise [...]

[...] Credit where credit’s due, the disclosure of Board materials of the organisation that oversees the domain name system, ICANN, has greatly improved since its first and woeful effort. [...]

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