Internet organisations can seriously damage your health

It seems that working in the Internet Governance space should carry a clear warning “This job can seriously damage your health”.

Countless friends throughout the international community have suffered from the effects of work related stress (my own struggles are well documented), and Internet organisations, eg ICANN, Nominet, appear trapped in destructive cycles.

Internet organisations: open and shut

One of the striking things about the Internet Governance environment is the contrast between the vibrant, often combative discourse on the issues from “the community”, and the communication regime within the internet organisations that serve them. It’s not only Nominet, I have heard similar stories from friends and colleagues in other Internet organisations. Take this from Maria Farrell, formerly of ICANN:

“There is a climate of fear stalking the ICANN staff. People are afraid to speak frankly internally, and to speak unpalatable truths behind closed doors, the sorts of things that need to be discussed to allow the organization to function efficiently.

People are afraid of losing their jobs by doing their jobs.”

I remember the applause that greeted Maria’s electrifying statement to the ICANN Public Forum in 2011. She was a hero, just for one day. But the fact is, she was not swept back into her previous job on the warm tidal wave of “community” approbation. And the community is the loser for that. People like Maria (and me) are a danger in a corporate environment, and it seems, particularly in the rather nasty, toxic corporate environment that is the Internet organisation.

Fear stalks the halls

What is the reason for this odd behaviour? I’ve had the opportunity to ponder this a lot in recent years. As usual, Maria nailed it. One word – fear.

  • Fear that your Internet organisation lacks legitimacy and will be “taken over”, whether it’s by government, domainers, aliens or whatever other convenient bogeyman you care to mention.
  • Fear that no one quite knows what to do because nothing has ever been done before.
  • Fear that any errors will be set upon by the “community” who can be harsh and vocal in their criticism and not averse to making personal attacks.
  • Fear that by associating with troublemakers, you will be tainted.

These set up an internal culture of secrecy, backside covering and going to Kafka-esque lengths to avoid making a decision, or at least, avoid having your name on it. There’s safety in numbers. No one can criticise you for being part of a team. Especially if you keep the internal processes opaque so that no one can work out what really happened.

But the fact is that if you have the misfortune to challenge the dominant logic within an Internet organisation, that’s it for you. Not only will you lose your job, you will face personal destruction as the entire Internet organisation’s focus and resources are turned against you. I am lucky to still be here, but it’s only my family that have kept me alive.

So, most people are left with the simple equation – speak out and face annihilation or keep quiet. It’s a basic IQ test for most.

Campaigning for change

In recent months, I have tried to turn my own disastrous experience of being a whistleblower to some good, by campaigning for a change in the law. I have gained a great deal of strength from the TellSafely.org campaign. We now have over 2,800 signatures, from people who believe that it should be a crime to victimise people for blowing the whistle. (edit: petition ended with over 10,000 signatures)

Yesterday, Lucien and I were interviewed by BBC Radio 4 journalist John Waite. With Sue Mitchell he is preparing a 40 minute documentary on whistleblowers for broadcast in September. It’s a strange experience meeting someone whose voice is as familiar as a family member, but whom you’ve never seen. It took a while for us to realise “This is John Waite!”.

He has been in broadcasting since the 1970s. He has covered pretty hard hitting stuff. He told us that this documentary on whistleblowers is the most depressing issue he has ever covered in his career. He told me that most of the whistleblowers he has interviewed when asked “Would you do it again?”, said “No”.

I agree.

Time for a change

To any of my few remaining friends who work in Internet organisations, I say this. If you have the misfortune to uncover wrongdoing, keep quiet, look for another job, and get out (I have actually given this advice to more than one person). Still want to do the right thing? I hope you have a strong family and plenty of savings (or a rich father). Remember, whatever anyone says to you, you are not a criminal, a misfit, a dishonest person, a blackmailer. You have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

To the organisations, I say this. When you feel yourself lapsing into the knee-jerk character assassination cycles… Stop. Think again. Focus on the issues, not the individual. Ask yourself what is the cost to your organisation, and to individuals’ health, of all that effort to curb dissent, forget mistakes, and suppress the truth.

You don’t deserve your shaky legitimacy unless you can embrace robust internal discourse, and protect, cherish those who are brave enough to want to help you improve your organisation.

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: , 868 Words.

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