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.
This sense of coherence is also present in the ICANN staff. Maybe it’s the fact that, despite all the issues on the table, they are coming to a steady close.
The marks on the jump test (how much an individual jumps in alarm when a non-ICANN Board/staff member approaches them) are coming out extremely low. Well, in relative terms anyway. Even entry into the staff room is not met with guarded looks or aggressive requests for explanation.
Of course it may also be the weather.
Defecating on the microphone
The line from ICANN’s CEO and chairman to explain why, after five years of work, some people are still sending in furious accusations that the whole Internet will be destroyed if new extensions are added to the domain name system, is that “our multi-stakeholder model depends entirely on the passion, dedication, and intellectual contributions of this community”.
An equally accurate explanation would be that some members of the community are obsessive, bordering on nuts.
One of the lucky repercussions of ICANN’s philosophy of open participation is that if you wish, you can get up to a microphone and express your view, even if you have just walked in off the street, even if you have already made three comments, even if you drone on and on without make a useful point, and even if no one else in the room agrees with you. And the wonderful part of it is that everyone has to listen to you until you stop.
This approach has, frankly, been horribly abused for years for long-term ICANN attendees. The fact that the bigger the session, the more intimidating the process for making your input (standing up to a mic, facing a large stage above you, a full room behind you) have given two types of people a particular advantage: those with too much self-belief; and those that have been coming to meetings for years – the insiders.
For years there have been jokes – often by those standing at the microphone – that it is always the same few people making comments and monopolising discussion, but the over-indulgence of a few has typically been greeted by little more than eye-rolling.
But here, that eye-rolling has grown a little more public – particularly when the comments go against the mood of the room. And Twitter has proved to be the perfect medium for the irritation.
“Someone please bring out the ICANN hook for speakers that go on and on and on,” tweeted one person during one of the new gTLD meetings. It was swiftly retweeted by others. “It would have been broken from overuse by now!” came the response. Others were more personal. “I’d love to see [name of person] make a point succinctly just once… and perhaps a good one?”
A change is brewing: ICANN is becoming more professional. And more brave. Changes are being pushed through, despite the loud and angry minority who increasingly look just loud and angry rather than usefully critical. New faces are being pulled in thanks the new gTLD process – and are aghast at what they find.
In the past, those new attendees just walked away and didn’t come back. But with the latest crop looking to run businesses stemming from ICANN processes and following ICANN contracts, the door is less of an option.
So while the Old Guard is up at the microphone providing their seemingly endless insights into the Internet world, they might well be advised to look behind them. Or watch an #ICANN Twitter feed on their phone. They may not like what they see.
There is a peculiar habit of some in ICANN meetings to reach for analogies – usually in order to propound some future fear that is hard to define with real world examples.
Sometimes those analogies get out of control. Maybe it’s an effort to inject a little humour in a lengthy (and let’s be honest, dull) session. But it’s a fine line between amusing and bonkers.
The winner for crazy analogy so far this meeting was – I think – trying to explain that the rules for rejecting a community application were, in some way, a little off. “So what if I could prove that everyone in the world will lose a kidney if a particular Internet extension is approved?” asked someone at the microphone. Incredibly, ICANN’s SVP of Services, Kurt Pritz, actually tried to answer the question (after years of being in his role, nothing short of a naked Colombian taxi driver asking for the right fare is likely to shake him.)
Just a few hours later, in a different meeting, this gem appeared: “That’s like asking ‘What colour do you want your car bomb? Grey or blue?’”
Losing kidneys, coloured car bombs. It’s all too easy to forget that we are actually talking about the addressing system for a computer network.
The perils of pills
The looming issue at this meeting is dot-xxx. The GAC is due to tell the Board whether it believes approving the top-level domain for adult website would break its advice. If it does or if it doesn’t the Board may well give dot-xxx the green light.
Considering the long battle between ICANN and ICM Registry (the company behind dot-xxx), it is ironic – or is it appropriate? – that their booths are wedged next to one another in the main hall.
It’s not just ICANN that is eyeing dot-xxx uncertainly though: the Colombian customs office feels the same.
Coming through Cartagena with several hundred mint containers stamped with “.XXX”, the Customs people smelt a rat. “What are these pills for?” the unwitting ICM mule was asked. “Mints,” he replied. “Mints? No sex pills? No Viagra?” “No, no Viagra. Mints.”
So he was forced to take six to prove it.
He apparently passed the test but with Cartagena well resourced for horizontal leisure pursuits, it probably wouldn’t have mattered either way.