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:
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?
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.
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.