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.[audio:http://kierenmccarthy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/npr-internet-itu-12jan12.mp3|titles=NPR All Things Considered radio piece]
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.
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:
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.]
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:
The International Telecommunication Union is a walking contradiction.
I’m here in Guadalajara, Mexico at the organisation’s Plenipotentiary – a meeting it holds every four years to decide the strategic direction of the ITU.
Here’s what you need to know about the “Plenipot” first off: it goes on for three weeks. Yes, three weeks. It used to be four. The first week is taken up entirely with electing new officials; the second week is used to spread out and discuss the papers that have been provided to the conference; and the third is about refining the details and getting them approved.
If this sounds like an arcane way of doing things in the modern world, it’s because it is.
The clue is in the title – Plenipotentiary comes from Latin: plenus and potens meaning full and power. Government representatives (and no one else, mind) are given full powers to negotiate on their country’s behalf and at the end what is decided has full power on the countries represented (more or less).
Of course this approach was much more useful in 1865 when the ITU was created. It wasn’t until 1903 that the Wright brothers flew for the first time. Henry Ford started producing cars in 1908. John Logie Baird’s first public experiments with television were in 1926. In this world, representatives would take days to reach a meeting, and news of what they discussed and decided would take just as long. They had to be given full power in order to be of any use.
But the Plenipot name, and the fact it goes on for three weeks, is just scratching the surface of ITU arcanery. The election process is, by all accounts, so bizarrely out of step with the 21st century that it takes on an almost surreal air.
I’ve sent the following note to ICANN’s Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT) on its own mailing list that it pays no attention to.
I’m frustrated that they have become a part of the problem, rather than the solution. And in reviewing their draft recommendations, you can’t help but be struck by the vagueness, lack of focus, and weak wording. Anyway…
Gandhi said: “You must *be the change* you want to see in the world.”
When you put out a call for ATRT members to provide statements of interest in being a member of the team, you received 26 applicants.
Of these, 17 were “endorsed” – although we don’t quite know through what process or why.
Of these 10 were chosen for the team – although we don’t quite know through what process or why.
When Becky Burr was kicked off the team for an apparent conflict of interest that she had declared from day one, the ccNSO replaced her with Chris Disspain – a very able and respected member of the community but not someone who was in the original 26 applicants, or 17 endorsed candidates.
Just this week, Willie Currie has stepped down from his position on the ATRT because he has taken a job with a regulator in his own country. The NCSG part of the GNSO replaced him with Carlos Alfonso – a very able and respected member of the community but not someone who was in the original 26 applicants, or 17 endorsed candidates.
This begs two big questions: