Whatever Nominet’s proposals are, they are not bottom-up (or multistakeholder)

Nominet, bottom up ... Really?

“We remain committed advocates of a multistakeholder approach to informing our policy development rather than a more top-down method of running the Internet.”

These words are taken from a blog by Lesley Cowley, CEO of Nominet. To claim Nominet’s policy development as a multistakeholder, bottom up, underscores what a devalued, meaningless slogan “multistakeholder” has become.

Nominet has many strengths, principally its staff. But on some things – openness, transparency, accountability – it can, and should, do better.

A comparison with ICANN, an Internet organisation which for many is the multistakeholder, bottom-up governance model, highlights serious shortcomings in Nominet’s structure and processes.

1. Transparency, transparency, transparency

ICANN’s proceedings are transcribed, published, webcast, audiocast, archived. Intersessional work is carried out through conference calls supported through online remote participation “conference rooms”, whose participants span the globe, and time-zones. Every public comment made is published and accessible by others. So are board minutes, external studies, and independent reviews.

ICANN is often criticised, and nearly always fails to live up to expectations, but there are some things that it is world-class at. It provides the gold standard for transparency of proceedings. Sometimes imitated but never replicated in other Internet Governance processes.

Now, let’s have a look at Nominet.

It’s first consultation on direct.uk did not publish a single consultation response. It still hasn’t. Its round tables are not transcribed, neither are the proceedings of stakeholders. I can’t even find a copy of the first Direct.uk proposal (2012) on Nominet’s site.

Nominet provided a summary of the first consultation responses, and was congratulated by its Board for running such an excellent consultation. Really? How can an outsider understand whether the summary fairly reflects the inputs and nuances of consultation responses?

We’re told that some of the responses to the second consultation will be published in November, when the results are released. How does that help anyone? How can a person responding to a consultation understand the issues as they appear to others?

2. “Not top down”

At ICANN, policy proposals are formed bottom-up by and through the community. They say that people who like sausages or the law should never see either being made, and participating in ICANN can certainly provoke biliousness. It’s messy, takes ages, and sometimes appears pointless. Someone once compared it to being “nibbled to death by ducks”. But striving for consensus across different interest groups in public, lends a certain legitimacy to the outcome, and it is a worthy ideal.

Whatever Nominet’s proposals are, they are not bottom-up.

Take the recent proposals – the first direct.uk, the second direct.uk, the root-and-branch reform of its registrar (and therefore in my opinion its membership) structure which includes handing expired domains to a chosen few, the abolition of term limits for sitting directors – all of these seem to have sprung fully formed from the head of the Nominet Board on an unsuspecting world.

3. Who and where are Nominet’s “multistakeholders”?

ICANN has “multistakeholder” built into its structure, as shown in the diagram.

ICANN multistakeholder model

ICANN multi-stakeholder model

Organisational chart of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model ICANN multi-stakeholder model Each of those multi-coloured boxes represents a different aspect of the Internet naming and numbering ecosystem. Not all contribute directly to policy making (I was once pinioned to the wall by an angry person who thought I thought that the ASO was subject to ICANN policy – I didn’t, but boy….!). It can be horrible. You can argue for hours about whether it is truly representative, despite all its openness. But it can justifiably claim to be multistakeholder – they’re all there as a resource: registries, registrars, business, intellectual property, non-commercial users, end-users, governments….

First of all, Nominet’s board. There are three great and good, but their recruitment process is not handled by a bottom up Nominating Committee (which this year at ICANN has done much to improve its transparency of process). Like many things at Nominet, the recruitment is done professionally, behind closed doors, and with little or no transparency. The board is otherwise bossed by Nominet’s customers – registrars. In particular – until recently – the top two registrars who together represent approximately 50% of Nominet’s turnover. And I won’t even start about Nominet’s weighted voting system.

Whatever became of the PAB?

In the old days, Nominet had a Policy Advisory Board, PAB, which was a microscopic version of the many-headed, sprawling ICANN policy development process. At the time when I was Director of Legal and Policy, the PAB was a massive headache, like a problem-child with great potential who suddenly develops anger issues. Being responsible for the PAB was a frustrating, and often frightening experience. I often wished it was dead (so, who was the problem child?).

But you have to be careful what you wish for. Abolishing the PAB, as Nominet did a few years ago, was all well and good if it was replaced with something better. The trouble is, that apart from an inner circle, no one really knows.

From a Nominet staff perspective, I’m sure that staffing whatever policy consultation has replaced the PAB is a more enjoyable experience. I expect that the discussions are measured, intelligent and professional in tone. But really, the PAB was a poor enough concession to multistakeholder policy making. It had some transparency, some elements of democratic election, and – whether I personally liked it or not – it had people who were willing to commit their time on a voluntary basis for the good of the UK Internet. That gave the process some legitimacy.

I could go on…

A couple of years ago, I shared a cab with an ICANN board member from an airport to the meeting venue. I’d never met him before. He asked why I was at the meeting, and I replied that I was chairing an independent Review Team. He asked about who the other members of the team were, how long we’d been working (a year). He asked me how much I was paid to do the work. Like many at ICANN, I had my expenses covered but was not paid to attend. The Board member remarked that he frequently felt humbled by the number of people who willingly volunteer their time for ICANN.

ICANN’s volunteers work hard to give the organisation, and process, some semblance of legitimacy. For Nominet’s CEO, who is also retiring Chair of ICANN ccNSO and therefore familiar with the contribution made by ICANN’s massive volunteer network, to seek to appropriate the terms “multistakeholder” “not top down” and apply them to Nominet in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, is in my view disrespectful of the work of those volunteers – and the ICANN staff who have the unenviable job of trying to keep a sense of shape and forward progress.

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: , 1125 Words.

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