News, views and what I choose to dos

Who should control the Internet?

Category : ICANN, Internet, Internet governance, Journalism · No Comments · by Jan 15th, 2012

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:|titles=NPR All Things Considered radio piece]

My analysis of the broken ICANN culture

I wrote an extensive review of the dot-jobs saga earlier this week on .Nxt called: The case study that could kill ICANN.

This afternoon, I saw the Stephane van Gelder had referenced it in a blog post: What ICANN is doing wrong.

I wrote a lengthy response to Stephane’s post, but for some reason it repeatedly could not get past his anti-spam mechanisms. Having spent a little bit of time writing a response, I figured I would post it here instead. It’s below:


I think you’re being a little unfair to me. It is relatively easy to follow the article, even though the process itself was a little convoluted.

But anyway, this is the real problem: a very large number of people now know exactly what has happened and how bad it is. But what will happen? How will anyone be held to account? Will anyone even admit publicly that this is an example of poor governance?

Even if you were to raise it as GNSO Chair at the next ICANN meeting, you would likely be shouted down or told it is not in the GNSO’s remit, or be put under enormous peer pressure to keep it out of the public sphere. You’d probably be offered a private briefing. Anything to prevent the taboo being broken.

The best anyone can expect is that some Board members will dig into the issue.

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.

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.

ITU Plenipot: Happy talking, talking, happy talk

Category : Internet governance, Journalism · No Comments · by Oct 20th, 2010

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 tag cloud made from the Plenary transcript on Tuesday sold (again) for $13m

Category : Domain names, Journalism, · (4) Comments · by Oct 20th, 2010

A set of three documents filed in California Bankruptcy Court earlier this week reveal that the world’s most valuable domain name – – has been sold for $13m, just one million dollars more than it was sold for back in January 2006.

The tale of 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 from Gary Kremen in 2006 (for $12m plus $2m in stock and other options), Escom LLC, declared bankruptcy. Escom has been unable to make sufficiently profitable and was overdue on interest and debt repayments.

This announcement was quickly followed by the news that 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.

ITU Plenipot: Old men and young women

Category : Internet governance, Journalism · (9) Comments · by Oct 19th, 2010

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.

ITU Plenus Potens: Locked in a room, locked in time

Category : Internet, Journalism · (4) Comments · by Oct 17th, 2010

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.

Is ICANN’s independent review dead in the water?

I have avoided the meetings of the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT) into ICANN for a few months because it was so incredibly frustrating to listen to 60 minutes of people organising hotel rooms in different parts of the world while the ICANN Board and staff ran rings around them.

But the meeting popped up while I was in front of my computer this afternoon so I decided to listen in. The 90-minute scheduled meeting lasted just over 30, and nothing was discussed except for organising its next trip – to Boston this time – and what sort of meeting the ATRT would have with the Board when the review team is on the final leg of its international tour of pointlessness in Cartagena in December.

While this was going on I noted a new document had appeared called CA-Corp-Law. It’s a PDF so I downloaded it and read it and it comes from ICANN Board/General Counsel. You can download it here [pdf]. And it states that ICANN is *legally* obliged to never allow a process that forces the Board to act. I then spent the next 15 minutes trying, and failing, to get the review team to discuss the fact that its entire work product had no weight whatsoever in ICANN’s eyes.

I thought the ATRT was dead in the water before this point. But now that the team won’t even discuss the fact that it is wasting its time, I think it’s pretty certain that the fearless wolf of review has been beaten, neutered and house-trained and that being forced to recognise that it is also toothless was too much for it to bear.

The ATRT is a dud. ICANN’s accountability problems will remain. Next time this issue explodes, it may take ICANN down with it.

Here’s a copy of the chatroom for the meeting. You may be able to sense my frustration:

WordPress and Thesis: your upgrades are driving me mad

Category : Internet, Journalism · (4) Comments · by Jul 12th, 2010

I love WordPress – the software that this blog runs on. And I love Thesis – a clever piece of software that works with WordPress to provide all sorts of clever customisations.

But the combination of them is driving me nuts at the moment. In particular, the fact that they keep bloody updating both too frequently, and each time something goes wrong with one or the other or the combination of both and then I am forced to trawl through techy posts from people who *believe* they are being clear but really aren’t.

A few months ago, I abandoned an upgrade from Thesis 1.5 to 1.7 because it destroyed the look of the site and made it unreadable (and this despite me following upgrade instructions carefully). Of course, lots of other people had the same problem and so “guides” started appearing online. I tried these guides, and it fix some issues but also created new ones. So I stepped back down to 1.5 – and found I had lost some of things I previously had.

I decided, unwisely, to try again tonight after a break. Same problem – mostly with the menu. So I decided to leapfrog 1.7 and try the beta of 1.8 which, amid all the wonderful reasons as to why you should upgrade, also noted it had fixed an issue with navigation menus. This I did and the site all appeared great. Except now the options within 1.8 don’t actual change the site – so now I have two useless menu items at the top of my blog that I don’t want and can’t get rid of.

AT THE SAME TIME as these troublesome upgrades, WordPress has put out at least three upgrades in the past few months. I had also held off upgrading for a while because of the problems I’d have in the past. But, I had used the updated versions (on new sites) and they were better, so I bit the bullet and upgraded. And then upgraded again. And then upgraded again. And now I see WordPress is urging me to upgrade a fourth time to version 3.0.

Will people PLEASE STOP PUMPING OUT NEW UPGRADES! You are turning them out too fast. You are causing people to have to constantly go back to their site and fiddle about with it, and you keep causing problems with other plugins that aren’t upgraded every bloody month. I know you think you need to do this but you don’t!

I know you think that new features that enable the user to upgrade some plugins with just a click mean that upgrades are easy and so you can do more of them – you are wrong. It is a royal pain in the arse and you are causing me and many thousands of other people alot of grief. Stop it. We use your software because it means we *don’t* have to fiddle around with code and files.

Store up your great ideas and new tweaks and resist the urge to keep banging them out like over-excited schoolboys. Please, a maximum of once a year. It really, really is not worth doing more than that. I know you think it is but can I please assure you that it isn’t.