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.]
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.
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.
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:
In the 1990s, on Channel 4 in the UK, the Pakistani team game Kabbadi was shown Sunday mornings for several hours. The only explanation can be that the broadcasting rights were cheap.
Kabbadi is a silly but oddly fascinating game. A bunch of middle-aged, overweight men stand at opposite ends of what looks like a small beach-volleyball court (without the net). One man steps forward from one team (the attacker); one man from the other team meets him. The first man has to get past the second to the other end of the court; if he does, he gets a point. If he fails; the teams switch, defense to attack and vice-versa.
The twist is that the attacking man has to constantly mutter the word “kabbadi”. The usefulness of this is that it naturally limits the time the attacker can spend trying to find his way past his opponent – because he runs out of breath.
At the ITU Plenipot, they have their own version of Kabbadi called “Chairman”. So long as government delegates say the word “Chairman” or “Mr Chairman” every ten seconds they can keep talking, and talking and talking.
The game is played by the same middle-aged, over-weight men, although they are dressed in suits rather than stripped to the waist. There are always two sides (although the team members vary). And they take it in turns to square up to one another and find a way to sneak past them. Just like Kabbadi it is very silly but oddly fascinating.
A set of three documents filed in California Bankruptcy Court earlier this week reveal that the world’s most valuable domain name – Sex.com – has been sold for $13m, just one million dollars more than it was sold for back in January 2006.
The tale of Sex.com is a fascinating and complex one (I wrote a book about it), and never short of twists and turns. The most recent twist came earlier this year when the company that bought Sex.com from Gary Kremen in 2006 (for $12m plus $2m in stock and other options), Escom LLC, declared bankruptcy. Escom has been unable to make Sex.com sufficiently profitable and was overdue on interest and debt repayments.
This announcement was quickly followed by the news that Sex.com would be put up for public auction – the time, date and location and the need to be holding a cheque for $1 million to even be allowed in the room, were published. But then, one of the owners of Escom, Michael Mann, broke cover (Escom has always been purposefully cloaked in corporate law cloth) in order to prevent the auction going ahead.
The International Telecommunication Union is a walking contradiction.
There are many things wrong with the organisation: its closed nature; its budgeting; its out-of-date and out-of-control procedures – and yet not only is the ITU aware of this, but there are formal proposals here in Guadalajara to make changes to fix many of them.
The ITU is stuck in the past, but at the same time its staff and many of its members are living in the immediate present, sitting at the cutting-edge of technology. So why is there such a huge cultural disparity?
An answer of sorts comes in the form of Syria’s permanent representative to the ITU, Nabil Kisrawi. Mr Kisrawi used to work for the ITU – between 1979 and 1992. Since then – nearly 20 years – he has been a constant feature of the ITU.
Mr Kisrawi has an encyclopedic knowledge of the organisation and its procedures. Younger delegates speak admiringly about how he helped them understand the complexities of the ITU when they joined. He is also admired for his ability to follow events in multiple rooms and turn up at the right moment to speak to the room – which he does with no more than a notepad and a bundle of the latest papers. And he is, I am told, a pleasant and friendly person to converse with.
Unfortunately, on the basis of every intervention I have seen Mr Kisrawi make in the past week – and there have been hundreds of them – he is also the most obstructive, unhelpful, out-of-touch and stubborn government representative I have ever come across. And that is some achievement.
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.
Nearly two months ago, I reviewed the ICANN Board and staff’s efforts at releasing the information that goes into the Board’s decision-making.
I was pretty scathing – and for good reason. It was a poorly managed, poorly handled, largely pointless exercise that saw huge chunks of information blacked-out for no discernible reason, and provided without notice, on a webpage four pages deep into the ICANN website, in two large PDF documents.
For some reason it reminded me of Douglas Adams’ classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur outlines exactly how he managed to get his hands on the council’s plans to demolish his house [see below].
So, what has been ICANN’s reaction? Well, it appears to have got upset at not being paraded through the streets for providing the bare minimum of information about decisions that it makes on the community behalf, and so has decided not to bother at all anymore.
It is now 8 October and there are no materials at all for the 5 August meeting, or the 24-25 September meeting of the Board. Which contrasts somewhat with the next-day publication of the September meeting resolutions which the Board wanted published.
It’s really more Kafka than Adams.
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: