Strolling through Parc de Bruxelles at 8.30am, with barely a soul in sight, and only the occasional car on the road, I couldn’t help but wonder whether to go back to the hotel and have a lie-in. It’s a Sunday after all. Even the outside of the giant see-through jigsaw that is the Mont des Arts was undisturbed and peaceful.
Enter this strange industrial maze and visit the registration booths lost in a huge foyer; wander through the hotel-kitchen corridors, and squeeze into a tiny metal lift to the second, third or fourth floors. Still nothing. But open one of the identikit doors – behind each of which you half-expect to find a flight of concrete stairs – and there they all are. The deciders of the future of the Internet’s domain name system.
I can remember when Sunday at ICANN meetings was a pleasant and relaxed affair – people arriving, bars full of banter, lots of gossip and schedule sharing. But the Day of Rest has been pulled into the meeting over the past two years as the workload increased, and today, in Brussels, it has irrevocably become a full day of work.
I say work. At any given time, half the people in a room are idly typing away at their laptops and paying little attention, a quarter are half-listening and half staring into space, and the remainder are listening to the one person who is currently talking into the microphone.
Happy talking, talking, happy talk
ICANN can really talk. I left the organization eight months ago, which isn’t that long, but it is long enough to remember that the rest of the world goes much, much faster, and with far less hot air.
Anyone who has sat through an inter-governmental meeting at, say, the UN or the EU will immediate recognise the slow pace, gentle back-and-forth, and lightly chaired meetings that let people give long, sleep-inducing monologues. But this is how important policy-making is done, you say. When you have to reach consensus from a broad range of people on a number of complex and novel issues, there is no other way.
The problem though is that the Internet evolves at a tremendous pace and of its own freewill. ICANN is forever playing catch-up and so in order to stop falling too far behind, the organization simply increases the number of hours. The result: Sunday and increasingly Saturday are sucked into the vortex.
Is there really no other way to do this? Would a team of facilitators extract more in less time? Would more focus and a cultural shift to disapproving of long monologues resolve the long hours that people sit through? Would the use of tools other than the human voice make more progress? Well, yes, but somewhat unusually, just about the only thing that community doesn’t like talking about is how effective *it* actually is.
ATRT stands for the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (we’ve run out of three-letter acronyms). I have been half-following the ATRT around the building today as it visited different groups in ICANN: the GNSO, ALAC, the Board, the GAC.
The upshot? All the ATRT members deserve a Belgian beer. Even though the community’s favourite pastime is to complain about the lack of accountability and transparency in ICANN, when you try to actually pin them down on something, you find, incredibly: nothing.
The GNSO Council were given a list of questions in advance. The result? Nothing of actual practical use. Same happened with the ALAC. Lots of talking, lots of suggestions about how to improve things (make documents clearer, try harder to engage people), but when prodded, precise details? Nope.
I think US Commerce Secretary, Larry Strickling, was close to cracking when he finally asked the governments in the GAC for precise examples. Larry, god bless him, actually wants to know a clear time on a clear issue where ICANN’s accountability has been found wanting. He wants – get this – to use real issues to identify where things didn’t work right and then, unbelievably, try to fix them.
And the GAC very nearly gave him some. They weren’t happy that they weren’t approached when the Board approved the GNSO’s recommendations about new generic top-level domains; and they didn’t like the fact that the Board nearly approved an “expressions of interest” approach at the last meeting without having sought their input.
Both these examples were somewhat tempered by the fact that in the first example they had actually already provided input, and in the second, the measure wasn’t passed anyway.
If this is what the ATRT has to work with, then the community has really only got itself to blame if things don’t improve.
Pluses and minuses
ICANN is actually doing a number of things very well at the moment. Remote participation is on a path of gradual and significant improvement. He’ll hate me for naming him, but Rob Hoggarth is the man to thank.
There are now people that follow each session and also work much closer with the people actually running the sessions in an effort the make it feasible for people to interact without having to fly thousands of miles three times a year.
On the downside, the ICANN website is looking worse by the day. It is an extravagant embarrassment. Fortunately ICANN new comms head, Barbara Clay knows this and seems determined to fix it, telling the ALAC today that it was a top priority. All strength to your bow, Barbara.
In the meantime, I understand that the GNSO is progressing with a major overhaul of its site. There won’t be a dry eye in the house when it finally goes live.
13 or 14?
Talking of the GNSO, Kurt Pritz should be bought a drink every 15 minutes until Friday lunchtime for his performance today at the GNSO. Tony Hayward wouldn’t switch places with the man who has to explain changes to the gTLD Applicant Guidebook.
You know that an ICANN process is finally drawing to a close when people get heated about issues that require everyone else to do a computer search inside a document to even recall what they’re talking about.
For 20 minutes the question was “why 13 and not 14?” You don’t need to know what this 13 or 14 represents, because no one on the planet will remember in a month’s time. But Kurt still took it on and provided an answer even though you could actually taste his desire to never have to talk about the DAG in his life ever again.
What else? The ISOC and ICANN Boards had a full and frank discussion and by all accounts have come out of it happier. A lot of people are worrying about the ITU and its upcoming Plenipot. A lot of people are also worrying about the number of top execs that have left ICANN in recent months. And Brazil beat the Ivory Coast 3-1.
On to tomorrow – where everyone is wondering what on earth Rod Beckstrom is going to do this time for the opening ceremony.