Like a government, ICANN is easy to criticise. You can take your pick: its insular, self-congratulatory leadership; its lack of real accountability; its inability to balance its finances or do operational things well.
An observer might be forgiven for thinking that there is no good news here. But that’s not true. ICANN does plenty of things well. Sometimes these are overlooked, or just taken for granted. Here are five examples.
1. ICANN Dispute resolution is transparent and observes due process.
Google just announced that in the past 6 months, it has handled 150,000 requests under its right to be forgotten process. That much we know, but there’s so much we don’t. In contrast, ICANN’s mechanism for handling domain name disputes, dating back to 1999, observes due process and principles of open justice.
Google has set up a small Advisory Council, which has held a series of public meetings (watch the videos, no transcripts), and has published a short transparency report containing aggregated data. We have no other information about what has been decided, how, which links have been affected, what recourse exists for poor decisions, who takes the decisions, according to what criteria?
For ICANN’s process, each case has to follow a published process, and be decided according to published criteria. We can disagree about the effectiveness of the process and criteria – but at least we know what they are. The decisions are reasoned, observe due process, and are published. To help practitioners and parties, guidance and tools are provided. Individual panellists are identified (and therefore accountable) for each decision, having declared themselves free of conflict of interest. Some may feel that the panellists are unduly favourable to intellectual property rights holders, but we can say this because we know who they are, and can read what they say.
ICANN’s process should be seen as the gold standard for alternative dispute resolution.
For all its faults, the ICANN’s process should be seen as the gold standard for alternative dispute resolution. Google, Facebook and other providers can learn a lot from what ICANN did 15 years ago, with far fewer resources at its disposal.
2. ICANN’s Middle East Strategy
To many, ICANN still feels far too American to claim that it’s an international organisation. But look below the surface, and interesting things are happening.
Take its excellent Middle East Team. Unobtrusively, they have been doing a great job for a few years. Here are some of their successes:
- Recruit local talent. ICANN has made some smart hires, bringing on to staff respected and experienced people from the region.
- Use ICANN’s convening power, but don’t tell people what to do. Events like the ICANN Middle East DNS Forum is an example. ICANN hires the room, works the agenda, and brings people together from the region to discuss industry issues as they affect them. Useful exchanges of information take place, and this is an example of hands-on capacity building by the region for the region.
- Provide secretariat support to get important work done. A team of scholars and industry experts has been working for years to identify Arabic script code points for use in domain name. This is painstaking work, as Arabic is used across multiple languages. The work was floundering for lack of funding and secretariat support. ICANN has stepped in to provide this and the work is now nearing completion.
ICANN’s Middle East Team has unobtrusively been doing a great job for years.
When people wax lyrical about the multistakeholder process, maybe this is what they have in mind. It seems a relic of a bygone age, where there was genuine information sharing and a shared sense of purpose, now somewhat lost in the ICANN global process.
3. Publishing the archive
Didn’t make it to the last ICANN meeting? Want to know what was discussed? No problem, read the transcript, listen to the audio (in your language) or watch the video. Want to find out what a policy working group has been discussing? No problem, go back to the Wiki, read the mailing list, listen to the calls.
ICANN has been doing, and incrementally improving, this stuff for years. It’s easy to take for granted until you find yourself in a different sort of meeting (for example the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, or Commission for Science and Technology for Development). ICANN’s transcription services were imported wholesale into the Internet Governance Forum, and that’s part of the reason why there’s such a good archive from the IGF.
Missed the meeting? No problem. Read the archive
Amid a sea of policy initiatives, working groups and consultations, it is possible to go back and educate yourself. Or check whether promises have been followed through, management statements are correct. The sheer volume of material can be daunting, for sure. And perhaps knowing that any statement can be used against them in the future is the reason why ICANN management can sound so robotic in their statements. But this is an important historical archive, and an important transparency mechanism.
4. Remote participation and meetings
It sounds trivial, but it’s not. ICANN’s great at organising working group calls, or networking meetings for remote participation. OK, participating remotely in a meeting can feel strange, unsatisfying, and if you’re on limited bandwidth, fraught with dropouts. But to the extent that it can be done, ICANN does it better than anyone else I’ve come across.
If you’re on a working group, chances are you’re participating in weekly calls, lasting 1 hour, with participants from multiple time zones. ICANN now has a slick way of getting the invites done, making sure everyone knows what time the meeting starts (sounds silly, but I recently took part on a call under a different process where half the participants came in one hour late, because of time zone mix ups), providing a virtual meeting room where people can see the same materials, ask for the floor, chat to each other. For those participating from limited bandwidth, ICANN will dial out and do its best to get a good line.
This is the engine room of the ICANN process. It doesn’t happen by magic, but through dedicated people and resource. When things go wrong – like working with children or animals, the Internet is pretty much bound to let you down in unpredictable ways – people try and make it better. It’s always impressive.
5. The lesser known ICANN communities
Some parts of ICANN can feel thuggy and bad tempered. Others are more collegial, where experts collaborate on the technology, sometimes across political divides.
ICANN has a multi-part engine for creating policy, called the Generic Names Support Organisation (GNSO). It’s responsible for creating policy for generic domain names, for example the new gTLD programme.
Sometimes the GNSO can feel awfully thuggy, dominated by North American voices, clashing commercial interests, and just plain bad-tempered. But there are enclaves of collegiality, international participation and interesting discussions. Take, the forum where country code operators meet, the ccNSO. Its membership has steadily expanded, and the meetings feel international. While the discussions can at times be passionate, and the ccNSO has its fair share of petty politics and power grabbing behind the scenes, its meetings have useful information exchanges – capacity building in action.
Likewise the meeting place of IP address folks, and the grouping of security boffins. Both have a rather quaint, old world feel of what the Internet must have been like 20 years ago, when everyone knew each other, and basically trusted one another. Both are awash with experts in their field, who are collaborating on the technology across political divides.
Even ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), much criticised, struggling with its own divisions – whether petty or geopolitical – has expanded its membership. Whereas a few years ago, you could do the speaking order in your sleep (US, Canada, UK, EU Commission, New Zealand, Rinse, Repeat), now it’s full of surprises. The last meeting had plenty of interventions from Brazil, Iran, China, Indonesia. Those countries may bring different visions for Internet Governance than has been heard within ICANN in the past, their participation may strain consensus-based mechanisms to beyond their limits. But, they are participating in the process. If this can be done without breaking the fragile consensus model, it offers hope for a sustainable ICANN model in the future – one that is diverse, international and representative of global stakeholders.
Learning from ICANN’s successes
As ICANN’s power increases, and demands on it intensify, voices will be raised in criticism. That’s inevitable and should be welcomed in any learning organisation.
In seeking to improve, ICANN should try to transport its successes into areas of its operation that are more challenging. As it struggles to improve its operations, it could do some internal learning from those involved in planning meetings and supporting the policy processes. As it seeks to become more internationalised, or to improve the effectiveness of its principal policy-making arms, can lessons be learned from elsewhere in the community? As it advocates multistakeholder governance, can it build on those genuine capacity building interactions which are community driven, where ICANN brings people together, but then steps back to let them do their work?