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Exclusive interview: ICANN GAC change at the top

In October 2014, the Chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), Heather Dryden of Canada, stood down after four years at the helm. She and incoming ICANN GAC Chair Thomas Schneider of Switzerland discuss the role, the past and the future, and governments’ role within ICANN.

Thomas Schneider, incoming ICANN GAC Chair

What are you most looking forward to in your new role as Chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, and what are you least looking forward to?

Thomas Schneider: I am very much looking forward to contributing to creating a constructive atmosphere of mutual respect and recognition and of a better understanding of each other’s circumstances, needs and roles – within the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and between the GAC and the other constituencies of ICANN – and with the rest of the “Internet community”.

In my view, such an attitude and atmosphere is the basis for finding innovative and inclusive solutions to the challenges that the institution ICANN is currently facing.

A key part of this is a discussion – within the ICANN GAC and between all constituencies – about the respective roles and responsibilities of all stakeholders, in particular governments. A mutual understanding and acceptance of these roles will be key in moving the ICANN model forward. Transparency and accountability – to the ICANN community as well as to the “outside world” is also key in this regard.

Actually, there is not really anything that I am not looking forward to.

ICANN’s Chair recently said that he did not see the connectivity between ICANN and human rights. What is the connection? And how can the ICANN GAC help in this area?

ICANN’s activities and decisions clearly have an impact on human rights such as the rights to freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and the right to private life.

It is true that ICANN as a private corporation under US law does not have direct obligations for respecting human rights, as the responsibility and the positive obligations to protect their citizens’ fundamental rights lies with governments.

“ICANN’s activities and decisions clearly have an impact on human rights”

Thomas Schneider

But this does not mean that ICANN has no responsibilities in this regard. ICANN has the responsibility to make sure that its procedures and decisions are in conformity with human rights and with international (and to the extent possible also with national) law in this regard.

It is clear that ICANN’s core expertise is not human rights but the management of the DNS, hence ICANN should cooperate with institutions that are experts in this field and take their advice into account.

The ICANN GAC also has a role in this. The GAC should ensure that the advice it is giving to ICANN respects fundamental rights, that it helps to inform ICANN about fundamental rights, and supports it in being compliant with respective international (and national) laws. But there should also be external checks and balances to make sure that GAC advice respects human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Thomas, you won an election for the position of Chair of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee. Is this the first time an election has had to be held? Does it imply deep divisions within the ICANN GAC, and how will you work to rebuild unity?

Yes, this is the first time that there was more than one candidate for the posts of the chair and also the three vice chairs. I do not see this as something negative, as it is basically a positive thing to have a choice. Now the choice has been made and we need to look forward to work on a consensus basis and try to take all views present in the ICANN GAC into account when trying to find consensus positions.

I do not see myself as the chair of those who voted for me, but as the chair of all members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee as equals – whether they voted for me or for the other candidate.

“I do not see myself as the chair of those who voted for me, but as the chair of all GAC members whether they voted for me or not.”

Thomas Schneider

Are you confident that ICANN is now mature enough to do without the backstop role of the United States Government, and how should the role of governments within ICANN be evolving?

Whether ICANN is mature enough or not to do without the stewardship of the United States Government will be a decision that the whole ICANN community will need to take on a consensus basis.

“IANA transition will depend on “whether safeguards to protect ICANN from capture by special interests are considered strong enough”

Thomas Schneider

In my view, this will depend to a large extent on whether the transparency and accountability framework of ICANN is considered sufficiently developed or not and whether the safeguards to protect ICANN from capture by special interests are considered strong enough.

The decision of the United States Government and ICANN to combine the deliberations on the IANA stewardship transition with some reflections on how to improve and guarantee transparency, accountability and good governance is a very wise one, as this will be have a critical impact on the community’s decision to what extent ICANN is mature enough and can be trusted that it will work in the global public interest.

Heather Dryden*, outgoing ICANN GAC Chair

Heather, What are you going to be doing in your personal and professional life, now that you’re no longer ICANN GAC Chair (and won’t anything else be boring in comparison)?

Heather Dryden: I’m leaving. I’m not coming back as the Canadian GAC representative. Some people are having difficulty accepting that. I will be moving into a different area.

Being GAC Chair may be the most exciting I will have done in my career, but it’s too early to tell yet.

It could be – so difficult – and not for good reason. To handle the political dimensions, help support understanding of the GAC and its linkages to governments, requires quite sophisticated processes and understanding of how governments operate and communicate.

Heather, What achievements are you most proud of in your role as ICANN GAC Chair (either you professionally, or the GAC as a whole under your leadership)?

On the substantive policy side, I’m most proud of the Board/GAC consultations for the new gTLD program, and the scorecard we developed to track the issues. The ICANN GAC handled the issue of sensitive strings capably, based on experience of governments working with each other in difficult circumstances. We were in uncharted waters, and it was challenging. But it essentially worked.

The timing was difficult for many, because it forced a pause to the programme, but the community was really constructive and that was good.

“The GAC is not often well understood and can be hard to understand”

Heather Dryden

The ICANN GAC is not often well understood, and can be hard to understand. It is compelled to use the only mechanisms available to it – providing advice to the Board. GAC is currently advising the Board. It’s necessary to think about how to change, how to provoke different patterns, or just risk repeating the same thing.

To date, the ICANN community and the GAC have not found the right way to involve the GAC appropriately in development of policy. Work has begun to address that issue, and people on both sides want to find a way to address it. If you have a policy development process leading to a major change, like the gTLD programme, that did not take into account a governmental perspective, then that was going to be problematic.

I’m also proud of implementing improvements on the administrative side. The ICANN GAC has increasingly complex needs in terms of support. That can be challenging. The GAC has always been well served by countries and individuals. I was happy it was possible to make further improvements to admin and process.

Why do you place so much emphasis on the administrative and secretariat functions?

The GAC has been criticised for not giving timely input into policy development processes within ICANN, such as new gTLDs. If you’re going to have exchanges between governments based on public policy aspects, particularly gTLDs, you need a capable secretariat to help prepare and guide the ICANN GAC. To prepare and focus, representatives need an analysis of all the work being done within the ICANN environment. To enable substantive discussions, you need groundwork, specifics, the history with the issues, and these things are going on all over the ICANN community. The secretariat helps bring the pieces together. If you don’t have it the ICANN GAC becomes overloaded.

Within ICANN, the GAC has been on the receiving end of policy initiatives. It has needed to try and take in the issues, process and prioritise them. If the ICANN GAC is not able to do that, it becomes less effective at the working level.

“Political forces can be unpredictable. There are a variety of political agendas at play”

Heather Dryden

The ICANN GAC is designed as an expert level group. There are political pressures constantly pulling against that, such as IANA stewardship and accountability. ICANN is engaging the political levels of government more and more. Political forces can be unpredictable. There are a variety of political agendas at play.

People have wanted to engage the political level within the ICANN GAC. If you do that, you move away from the GAC as an expert body, and this fuels the politicised back and forth between governments you see in other arenas. When that happens the GAC ceases to focus on important working issues that the community needs, such as two letter country codes. These issues need to be on the agenda, with reasoning about why focus is needed on it at this moment. If not, you’re not going to get advice at a time when it’s useful. That’s why capable administrative and secretariat support is essential.

Have some GAC members been there for too long?

I don’t agree. I don’t think that. You don’t see the same level of rotation in expert ministries, and the GAC should be seen in that context. Experience is really important in this area. Representatives in the GAC have a really hard job. It’s too easy to attack, and people have been far too activist in putting people in and out of the GAC. It rankles with me. The issue should not even be on the table. These are duly appointed representatives, and that needs to be respected.

Are you confident that ICANN is now mature enough to do without the backstop role of the United States Government, and how should the role of governments within ICANN be evolving?

I am confident on the IANA transition, and I think that ICANN as an organisation and process will survive long term. For anyone involved, you become very close to things. I really have confidence in a lot of the people at ICANN. I could not have done what I did without their advice and support.

“I really have confidence in a lot of the people at ICANN. I could not have done what I did without their advice and support”

Heather Dryden

What piece of advice would you give to your successor (or what piece of advice do you wish your predecessor had given you)? This is not advice to my successor. To lead the ICANN GAC, you need to be accountable to the full membership. Not a subset. The full membership. Even if that means making some difficult decisions. You have to want to do it for the right reasons, to support the ICANN process, to reinforce it.

Why are there so few women in leadership roles at ICANN, and why does ICANN keep losing female board directors? I don’t know. There’s not parity in other organisations, and I do think that maybe things do get more personalised in the ICANN environment.

It is important to have women on the ICANN Board. There have been some recent departures, but I don’t believe there’s a pattern. I don’t see a causal link. There are very capable women on the board.

*Heather is speaking in her capacity as outgoing ICANN GAC Chair, not as a Canadian public servant.

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Emily Taylor

Emily Taylor is the CEO of Oxford Information Labs. She is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and is the Editor of the Journal of Cyber Policy and co-founder of ICANN accredited registrar, Oxford Information Labs.

Published: , 2016 Words.