I haven’t written for a while. There’s usually two reasons for that: either I have been horribly over-worked, or I need a break from the strange, incestuous and often bitter world of Internet policy and governance. In this case, unusually, it is both.
Here’s the big news from the world of Internet governance: some vague details of a meeting between the ICANN Board and governments, in the form of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), have emerged. But adding concern to the general vagueness is the inclusion of precise wording that means something specific, although no one is quite sure what. It is this:
This meeting is not intended to address the requirements/steps outlined in the Bylaws mandated Board-GAC consultation process.
This wording is indecipherable to any but the greatest of insiders. And that fact, combined with the reality that this Board-GAC meeting is one of the most significant Internet governance meetings in the past five years, makes it all the more frustrating. Despite the global impact, and the open processes, and the much-vaunted bottom-up multi-stakeholder model, here is a very, very small group of people making crucial decisions about the future of the Internet and they are using arcane and indecipherable terminology in order to keep everyone else out.
[But if you *really* want to know what it means, read this post.]
This unprecedented GAC-Board meeting (and it is increasingly more GAC-Board than Board-GAC) was the result of a fudge devised in short order in an effort to overcome a short-term problem at the recent ICANN meeting in Cartagena. It is the latest in a long line of short-term fudges stretching back years, none of which ICANN has any reason to be proud of and which, I would argue, have created a very dangerous culture of bypass over resolution.
The fudge was intended to avoid a confrontation between the ICANN Board and governments over two key issues: the approval of rules to open up the top-level of the Internet’s naming systems; and approval of the controversial dot-xxx application, which openly seeks to provide space online exclusively for adult content.
A new meeting just between the Board and GAC scheduled just two months later would discuss these issues with an eye to resolving them before the next ICANN meeting in San Francisco in March, one month after that. But why bother to cram an entirely new and unprecedented process into a tiny two-month window? Because everyone is acutely aware of the frustration that exists around the seemingly endless delays over both the gTLD programme and the dot-xxx application.
However, in trying to move forward quickly, and for the 100th time in ICANN’s tiny 10-year lifespan, both groups’ actions are now likely to delay things even longer and create even more tension and frustration. If an older, wiser institution were to tell ICANN anything, it would be this gem:
More haste, less speed.
Alternatively, it might be a little blunter and say “stop trying to be so bloody clever and get on with it”. The Board and staff think they are being clever, and the GAC thinks it’s being clever. The cleverness is so intoxicating that it’s all too easy to forget that the process has actually become quite idiotic.
The dot-xxx farce (yes, it has gone beyond “saga” and is now firmly in the “farce” camp) is a case in point. Neither the Board nor GAC really know what they are doing from one day to the next. There had to be a public comment period on the substance of course. And a comment period on the process steps that might be taken (which no one agreed with). And then discussions of the upshots of those comment periods. And then a discussion about what the Board was likely to do in response to those comment periods. And then a check whether that likely decision would break the GAC’s advice. And then a discussion about what to do if it did. And then the Board saying ‘we think we disagree with you, do you agree?’ And then a discussion saying ‘so you agree we disagree with you. How do we find a way to agree to disagree’. And on and on and on. It would be funny if it wasn’t so appalling.
Of course if you are in the middle of it, this all seems a little frustrating, certainly, but logical and in the interests of the greater good. The larger reality however is quite different – a process has been created that when one looks back at it is so convoluted and erratic that it can never been used again. Rather than surveying the land and building a train line through the best topography, ICANN has instead hacked its way through the forest to the top of the hill and hacked its way back down again and now doesn’t have the foggiest idea where it started from. Or where it came from.
ICANN can no longer adopt this haphazard, by-the-seat-of-its-pants approach. It is time it grew up. And that means *not* creating new processes out of thin air just because you don’t like where the currrent process is leading you. There is a reason why every significant decision-making body on the planet has procedures and rules that it sticks to even if they seem ridiculous at the time. It’s because they create something lasting, and something that doesn’t leave everyone, including its main actors, unsure about what it going to happen next and when resolution will be reached.
The new gTLD process has been so badly delayed by procedural gymnastics that the processes of other organisations are starting to look enticing by comparison. When you have no idea what is happening, and no control, and the process doesn’t even have the advantage of being fast, what exactly is the point of playing along?
These failed efforts at reaching decisions create a very much bigger problem though. Not only do they undermine confidence in the whole process but they create a culture where obfuscation, distrust, procedural games and misrepresentation of others becomes a norm that is then, perversely, defended.
We have a very damaged process of decision-making at the heart of the Internet governance, and a damaged community surrounding it that doesn’t quite know how things work and feel as though they have been sold a giant lie.
The feeling is that no matter what you do, or how much effort you put in, if either the Board or the GAC don’t like it, you are going precisely nowhere. And the procedural justifications that amount to little more than saying ‘not until I’m happy’ have been stacked so high that they are on the verge of toppling over.
This is the reality: unless there is a change of heart or approach, ICANN will screw up yet another deadline and San Francisco will come and go and we will have more pointless comment periods and more tedious pow-wows.
When it is finally done all those involved will be so overcome with relief that they will delude themselves that they actually did a brilliant job given the toughness of the task. And so the hope that any lessons might be learnt will fade into a fog of ill-deserved mutual backslapping.
But the damage is there under the protective clothing of resolutions and communiques. I have spent the past six months creating a conference about new gTLDs that seeks to break free from this divisive and negative atmosphere and create a space for positive dialogue – the creation and sharing of knowledge and viewpoints.
I have been amazed and dismayed as frustration with ICANN occasionally gets thrown in .nxt’s direction. When the Board failed to approve the new gTLD program in Cartagena, a number of people started insisting – rather oddly if you think about it – that the .nxt conference also be put back. Not a chance, I said – the conference is designed to function entirely independently of ICANN’s (lack of) decisions. It is all about the business of new top-level domains, the changes coming, the new models, the new markets, the business environment that exists for new Internet extensions.
The reality is that 95 percent of the real gTLD market is going to remain entirely unaffected whether or not trademark lawyers get their rule changes, or governments don’t have to pay to object to applications. But the process has become so emotive that some have lost sight of the bigger picture. Every strike-out is a disaster; every home run is a victory for the noisy policy sports fans.
The same calls for .nxt to be postponed appeared again in the past few days when the news finally emerged that the GAC-Board meeting was likely to be a colossal waste of everyone’s time and possibly delay the new gTLD process even further. Someone even suggested that it be cancelled altogether – as if the whole future expansion of the Internet depended on a badly worded press release from ICANN (.nxt, incidentally, is still very much on and I have high hopes that it will remind everyone about the exciting opportunities that this name expansion creates).
This emotional response to ICANN’s work has been unusually high as long as I’ve known it but there comes a time when the community needs to ease off trying to force people to make decisions, take a couple of deep breaths and realise that there is always plenty else to do in the meantime.
If there had been more discussions in the past five years about where we were going, rather than fights over where we actually were, we may never have needed to have gone past version three of the Applicant Guidebook.
I’ve actually forgotten what the next one will be – version six?