News, views and what I choose to dos

Threatening faxes, dot-xxx and an angry Vint Cerf

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.

I wish [bang!] ICANN would [bang!] read its own [bang!] papers

Category : ICANN · (1) Comment · by Feb 25th, 2011

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.

United Nations continues to undermine Internet Governance Forum

Category : Internet governance · (1) Comment · by Feb 24th, 2011

The first preparatory meeting for the 2011 Internet Governance Forum has ended with a significant degree of uncertainty thanks to ongoing bureaucratic delays.

Over two days, representatives from business, government, civil society and the technical community met in Geneva in order to decide the path forward for the sixth annual meeting of the Forum, dedicated to discussing global governance issues for the Internet and due to be held in Nairobi toward the end of the year.

Those plans have been hamstrung by the United Nations in New York, which continues to delay crucial decisions about the event dates and the event’s key decision-makers.

Closing the meeting, Kenya’s representative and meeting chair Alice Munyua repeatedly asked for others’ indulgence as she explained she did not have final dates for the event – it will be somewhere between September and December, she said – nor had dates been finalised for the second preparatory meeting in May.

On top of that, there is still no replacement for the main meeting organizer, Markus Kummer, who left the United Nations in December, with a representative from the UN’s Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) telling attendees that they were still finalising the job description, which will then be put through the usual UN recruitment process.

And to make matters all the more surreal, the Multistakeholder Advisory Group (MAG), which was in the room trying to decide the agenda and structure of the next IGF, may not even formally exist.

Broken deadlines, broken bylaws, broken ICANN?

Category : ICANN, Internet governance · (7) Comments · by Feb 23rd, 2011

Where is ICANN’s 2010 Annual Report?

It is typically produced at the end of the calendar year. The 2009 Report was published on 24 December 2009, and the 2008 Report on 31 December 2008. It is currently 23 February 2011 and so far no 2010 Annual Report.

Two months late is sloppy by any measure, and it is most likely down the high level of exits in ICANN in the past 12 months – not least in this case Sara Stohl who as publications manager was responsible for chasing the disparate groups in ICANN and pulling together the report in time (Sara left in November 2010 and her post is still unfilled).

But there’s sloppy and there’s breaking bylaws. According to ICANN’s bylaws:

The Board shall publish, at least annually, a report describing its activities, including an audited financial statement and a description of any payments made by ICANN to Directors (including reimbursements of expenses). ICANN shall cause the annual report and the annual statement of certain transactions as required by the CNPBCL to be prepared and sent to each member of the Board and to such other persons as the Board may designate, no later than one hundred twenty (120) days after the close of ICANN’s fiscal year.

ICANN’s Fiscal Year ends on 30 June each year. In this case it means that Board should have received the annual report no later than 29 October 2010. The fact that the report still hasn’t been published doesn’t mean Board members didn’t actually receive the report before 29 October – they may still be holding it or checking it – but it might be worth asking as four months is a pretty long time to read 50 pages.

However the bylaws say that “The Board shall publish, at least annually” – and it is pretty clear that 14 months and counting is definitely not “at least annually”. No one is going to bat an eyelid if an Annual Report is published a week within the previous year’s but it is now 60 days later than the 2009 Annual Report (taking today, 23 February as the date).

So has ICANN broken its bylaws? I’d say, well, yes.

And I would lodge that complaint with the ICANN Ombudsman, but he left on 31 January, and ICANN is still looking for his replacement as well.

USG Submission to the GAC Scorecard re New gTLDs

Category : ICANN, Internet, Internet governance · (2) Comments · by Jan 31st, 2011

Background: At a meeting in December, the ICANN Board and GAC agreed to a special session to be held in February that would be dedicated to trying to find a way to deal with GAC concerns over the new gTLD process and the dot-xxx application. The GAC has been preparing documents for the meeting – and so too, it is believed, have been the ICANN staff.

The details of the United States government submission – which is the most crucial submission due to its relationship with ICANN and its dominant position in the GAC – emerged late last week. They have caused somewhat of an outcry particularly because it suggests that any GAC member would be in a position to veto any gTLD application – which would clearly make ICANN’s processes sub-ordinate to governments. Since the whole point of ICANN is to provide for a multi-stakeholder decision-making process, it is no surprise that this request has got people’s backs up.

There are other suggestions that will almost certainly infuriate other arms of ICANN, some of which go directly against others’ policy decisions, as well as a Board resolution, so there is now a big question over how successful the GAC-Board meeting will be, given the size of the gap to be bridged in just two days.

Anyway, a fuller analysis later but in the meantime below is the full text of what is believed to be the final submission from the US government to the GAC:

So what does that weird GAC wording actually mean?

Category : Domain names, ICANN, Internet governance · (5) Comments · by Jan 27th, 2011

UPDATE: The ICANN Board just published the minutes from its meeting on Tuesday and intriguingly it has formally “triggered” the GAC-Board consultation that is explained in greater depth below.

That means the Board is prepared to say it disagrees with the GAC on 17 March and then, presumably, will approve the Applicant Guidebook at its formal Board meeting the next day.

On Tuesday I wrote a piece about the damaged decision-making process at ICANN at the moment. Right at the top I wrote:

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.

Somewhat inevitably, people have emailed me saying “but aren’t you an insider? So what does it actually mean?” So, as briefly and as an coherently as I can manage here is my explanation for what this means. I am more than happy for people to disagree or add perspective in comments below; in fact, I’d encourage it. But anyway, here goes…

A damaged process and a damaged community

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.]

ICANN Day 1: Sane Board, crazy community. What happened here?

Category : ICANN · (1) Comment · by Dec 7th, 2010

According to chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, the ICANN Cartagena meeting is “not that much different” to others. I’d beg to differ.

Not only are there a number of very big topics coming to fruition here in Cartagena but there is a bigger change afoot in this organisation that oversees the Internet’s domain name system.

First off, and the first time in many years, the ICANN Board is, well, looking like a Board. Usually its members look tired, a little stressed out, and are not exactly excited about talking to people or answering questions. But in Cartagena, they seem relaxed, are freely mingling (when their schedule allows), and have a comfortable confidence that is oddly reassuring.

You can probably put this down to the fact that they have met frequently, in person, and for several days in the lead-up to the meeting. All the swirling issues around them have clearly been thrashed out and they are singing from the same hymn sheet. Not bad considering there is 21 of them and that the expression “herding cats” doesn’t even begin to do them justice.

Election race heats up for Internet users’ ICANN Board seat

Category : ICANN, Internet governance · (2) Comments · by Nov 26th, 2010

The first round of voting has taken place for what is an important and historic election: a voting seat on the board of ICANN for a representative of ordinary Internet users.

In the lead after the first round is Sebastien Bachollet (with 43.75 percent of the vote); followed by Alan Greenberg (31.25 percent) and in third place Pierre Dandjinou (25 percent). Coming last, Pierre will drop out leaving Sebastien and Alan as the remaining candidates in a second round of voting.

Only the Council of the At Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) have votes (that’s 21 people). The voting window is short – from now until the end of Sunday. So we should know the result by Monday morning.

The election is important because the ALAC represents ordinary Internet users and it is the first time since aborted elections 10 years ago that there will be a voting member for this group of people in an organisation that decides crucial aspects of the Internet’s future evolution.

ICANN begins to find its feet with published Board materials

Category : ICANN, Internet, Internet governance, Journalism · No Comments · by Oct 29th, 2010

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.

The materials for a special Board meeting held in September over the “new gTLD” process are clear, organised and understandable. They also help to publicly demonstrate the large amount of professional work that goes on at ICANN. The issues in front of ICANN are clearly and concisely laid out, complete with arguments and recommendations with rationale. ICANN should be rightly proud of this sort of work.

The September materials also show clear improvement over those for the previous meeting in August – which are not as well structured and suffer from many of the same fault as previous months. That said, and despite a clear improvement for September, several significant procedural problems remain with the publication of Board materials, namely:

  1. There is no notice that the materials have been published. This is important and very easily rectified
  2. There is no explanation or apparent timeline for publishing the materials. This is unprofessional
  3. Entire sections – including their titles – continue to be redacted. There is no explanation for this redaction, and no mechanism for querying the redaction. So long as this unaccountable process is allowed to continue, there can never be full confidence in the publishing process as at any time, staff are in a position to redact whatever material they wish with no requirement to justify that redaction. The Board should be in charge of the redaction process – and they should be in a position to justify any redaction publicly. There should also be a process for publishing redacted material after a certain period of time.
  4. The materials are published in a very unhelpful format: long PDFs on a page four pages deep on the ICANN website. This hugely limits the ability to find and digest the information. If ICANN were to spend a little more time making its most important documents available as text on webpages, it would benefit significantly from all the tools that exist on the Internet. As a result, its work would find a far greater audience.
  5. There are some errors in the work product. If ICANN were to learn to relax its control mechanisms, it may find that the broader community is in a position to *improve* the Board materials, and so improve decisions made by the Board
  6. There materials continue to demonstrate a very insular approach to information provision – everything given to the Board comes through a staff filter. What is lost is a broader context. There is plenty of high-quality commentary and analysis on issues before the ICANN Board; the Board should be in a position to see this. If the staff work product is sufficiently high, it will stand on its own. Without a mechanism for external material, Board members will continue to be lobbied on a personal basis, encouraging the insider culture that remains entrenched within ICANN and continues to damage its reputation on the broader stage.