Kathy Brown pulls key Internet organization closer to US government
Brown is Verizon’s public policy expert and has worked for the company for more than a decade. While not well known within the Internet community, she is highly respected within DC and telecoms policy circles.
Prior to Verizon, Kathy worked for telecoms law firm Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, now Wilmer and Hale. And before that she worked for two US government departments: the FCC and NTIA.
In the past year, she has built a public profile on Internet governance issues, appearing on a number of panels at global conferences. She has also served on the advisory council of the Public Interest Registry – the company created by ISOC to run the .org Internet top-level domain.
While no one will doubt Brown’s talents, the choice of someone so intricately associated with the US government and telecoms industry goes against the prevailing mood in Internet circles where the Snowden/NSA revelations have led to calls for Internet organizations to move away from Washington and US influence.
A crucial appointment for the future of Internet governance
The new CEO of the Internet Society will be decided at the end of the week at a meeting of the ISOC Board.
Although the Internet community is prone to over-emphasizing its importance, in this case the decision for who will take over could be critical to the future of Internet governance.
The field has been boiled down to three candidates by a search committee of the Board, and the final decision will be made by the whole Board at the tail-end of the ICANN meeting currently taking place in Buenos Aires.
ISOC is being tight-lipped about who those final three are but the Internet world is not a big one and so I’ll tell you who I think they are and why.
Looking back at my time in ICANN.
While updating my personal website I came across some old articles. One sparked a memory of a document I wrote a few months after starting my job at ICANN way back in February 2007.
It was a five-point gameplan, written after some thought and a moment of strategic clarity. It was just for my own use, as a document I could refer myself back to every now and again and it listed what I was going to focus on and what I would try to get done in my role as general manager of public participation.
The original plan was a one-pointer: gather information, write it a simple and accessible way and push it out to people. Gradually I’d build a system to make this occur naturally, embed it into the corporate culture and then leave. I suppose I saw myself almost as an outside consultant than a staff member.
Literally within days, that one-point plan fell apart. To my surprise, staff was actively hostile to the idea of providing information to those outside their immediate team. Clear and concise writing – something I had assumed everyone would naturally embrace – was almost universally disdained as being inaccurate, even dangerous. And as for getting the information out there: there was no functional outlet to people beyond those that already knew the details. In short, the situation was much, much worse than I could have imagined.
So after some time thinking about how to tackle this bigger issue, I came up with a list of five targets with some brief notes. This was my five-point plan, and it was:
A curious email appeared in my inbox this morning. It was titled ‘Concerns at ICANN’, was addressed to the Board, signed ‘A Concerned Employee’, and came through an anonymous Hushmail email account.
Broadly, the email provides, in some detail, this person’s concerns about an influx of management at the domain name system overseer ICANN. It lists nine recent additions to the ICANN staff and highlights their connections to the CEO and COO which range from “former co-worker” to “former neighbor”.
It is widely known that the current CEO and COO worked with one another in the same roles at their previous company. Given the extraordinary complex and fast-moving world that ICANN inhabits, this has been seen by the Internet community as a good thing: a strong personal relationship at the top. But the email argues a significant downside.
“The normal checks and balances that exist between a CEO and COO do not exist at ICANN because of the long standing close and personal relationship between Fadi [Chehade, CEO] and Akram [Atallah, COO],” it states.
It goes on to outline a series of concerns: staff are reluctant to take concerns direct to the CEO; senior hires have not gone through a proper interviewing process; loyalty is valued above competency; groupthink is appearing as a problem.
Last week, I received a highly unusual email claiming that an article on my personal website was libellous and insisting I take it down within a week.
Even more unusually, the article was from 2002 – yes nearly a decade ago – it is called “Domain scam merchants get legs sucked by toothless OFT” and it tells how the same man had had his knuckles rapped by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in the UK having been caught trying to sell domains for top-level domains that do not exist. Examples were dot-brit, dot-sex, dot-scot.
The OFT had failed to do anything until the two people at the heart of the story crossed the line in the United States by using 9/11 as a way of advertising “patriotic” dot-usa domains (which also do not exist). The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was not at all amused and got a temporary restraining order against them, even putting out a news release on the matter. There were a series of other news releases as the FTC fought them, winning “as much as $300,000 for consumer redress”. Clearly selling non-existent domain names can be a profitable business done right.
It is going to be a particularly crazy year in terms of Internet policy and governance, maybe even more than so than 2005, when the World Summit on the Information Society happened.
NPR used the launch of the new gTLD program last week to cover the other big issue – actual governance of the Internet. The slow build up of pressure to again try to bring the Internet under United Nations control is going to let out another big blast of steam this December in Dubai at the WCIT meeting when governments – and only governments – try to rewrite the ITU’s International Telecommunication Regulations (ITRs) to incorporate the Internet. It will be a big fight and I’ll be heading over there to shine as big a spotlight on the weird world of inter-governmental politics as possible.
Anyway, I was interviewed as was Super Rod of ICANN and David Gross – who was the US’ main man in charge during the WSIS negotiations. You can read the piece online, but it was designed for radio, so listening is much better in this case.
I wrote an extensive review of the dot-jobs saga earlier this week on .Nxt called: The case study that could kill ICANN.
This afternoon, I saw the Stephane van Gelder had referenced it in a blog post: What ICANN is doing wrong.
I wrote a lengthy response to Stephane’s post, but for some reason it repeatedly could not get past his anti-spam mechanisms. Having spent a little bit of time writing a response, I figured I would post it here instead. It’s below:
I think you’re being a little unfair to me. It is relatively easy to follow the article, even though the process itself was a little convoluted.
But anyway, this is the real problem: a very large number of people now know exactly what has happened and how bad it is. But what will happen? How will anyone be held to account? Will anyone even admit publicly that this is an example of poor governance?
Even if you were to raise it as GNSO Chair at the next ICANN meeting, you would likely be shouted down or told it is not in the GNSO’s remit, or be put under enormous peer pressure to keep it out of the public sphere. You’d probably be offered a private briefing. Anything to prevent the taboo being broken.
The best anyone can expect is that some Board members will dig into the issue.
I am both happy and depressed to see a public comment period open at ICANN talking about making changes to ICANN’s public comment period process.
With appalling inevitability, everything about the comment period highlights the problems that exist with the public comment period process. No one really knows about it, and it’s not being promoted anywhere. The text talking about it is indecipherable. The main thing it is about comes as a hefty PDF report that no one will read. The report itself was put together by a small group of people who didn’t engage is any useful effort to dig into any data, evidence or information.
Very few people will respond. Those that do will not have their comments listened to. There will be no follow-up. And the end result will be that ICANN convinces itself that actually the comment period process isn’t that bad after all.
I was working on this issue *five years ago*. And the only thing that has changed is that the comment period page is now in pastel colours.
I swallowed all that frustration and just sent in a comment (the first but hopefully not the only one) in a pathetic attempt to actually help. It is, I think, positive and helpful. I expect it to be partially read and then ignored. And for the complaints about the process to start up all over again in two years’ time. Still, you’ve got to try.
Here’s what I sent:
One of the more bizarre situations I have found myself in while covering domain name system overseer ICANN, both outside and inside the organization, was at the Vancouver meeting in December 2005.
It was a particularly difficult meeting. For one, ICANN was under intense scrutiny because it was about to sign an extension to the dot-com contract and literally no one outside Verisign and the ICANN Board liked it. But secondly, it had come to light that the US government, under pressure from right-wing Christian groups, had pushed the Board very hard to *not* approve the dot-xxx contract.
The Board was planning to approve dot-xxx on the last day of the meeting, but had a sudden change of mind and put it off until the next Board meeting. There was all manner of behind-the-scenes shenanigans as the very worst of ICANN came out and it made important decisions in secret, and then spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to make it look like it hadn’t. No one bought it and there was a lot of anger.
Sorry to always be harping on about ICANN; it’s the not exactly the most important organisation in the world. But it is the one bureaucracy I have come to know really well and so just can’t help but rail against all the things that infuriate people the world over when they come up against unthinking bureaucracies.
I just saw a tweet from some bloke talking about outreach efforts by the GNSO. Since it was my job for a number of years to engage people in the ICANN processes (often despite those already involved), it was intriguing to see that a report has been produced that is now out for public comment about exactly how to do this. This might be one of the those times where ICANN actually impresses.
The work began in January 2009, so they have had over two years to get this right. And the result is… absolutely horrifying.