ICANN, a Greek Tragedy in the making

ICANN’s board, for fear of anarchy or instability, is resisting community proposals to create a membership.  But if it succeeds, it may cause its own destruction, and that of ICANN.

The situation has echoes of Greek tragedy. In Oedipus Rex, the Oracle prophesies that a newborn prince will kill his own father. Oedipus makes conscious choices to avoid this fate, and those choices fulfil the prophecy.

Similar cosmic forces seem to be at play, here. The board’s fear of destroying ICANN by introducing a membership – chaos and revolution will ensue! – threatens to bring about that calamity.

Background – the IANA transition

Last year, the US government announced its intention to step back from its supervisory role over changes in the root domain name database, the IANA. ICANN was tasked with finding a replacement by 30 September 2015. The ICANN community has worked hard to reach consensus proposals about improving accountability. One of the main proposals has been the call to create a membership.

Now the board, not much liking the results of this bottom-up process, is objecting. (I explored the background to this in a recent article for the Guardian.)

ICANN board calls emergency summit

Government and industry observers are losing patience. Days ago, at a fraught weekend of lectures and disgruntled selfies, both US Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Strickling and Ira Magaziner, one of the original architects of ICANN, warned that time was running out. The transition now seems further away than ever. In his robust posts for The Register, Kieren McCarthy says more about the mood of waning optimism.

“You have a limited amount of time to get this done and for the US government to consider it and pass it.” – Ira Magaziner

Magaziner seemed to advise introducing a layer of representative democracy rather than continuing to work through the community. He’s right that ICANN’s way of doing things is unwieldy and doesn’t scale. But wasn’t this part of his original design? And in ICANN’s hour of crisis, isn’t it a kind of hubris to invoke the superiority of an elite? He’s speaking impartially to the community, but his Sphinx-like message carries echoes of the ICANN board.

Bottom up process or negotiation?

Magaziner and Strickling would do better to ask how a bottom-up process, which delivered consensus proposals under challenging deadlines, has turned into a negotiation with the board. Who proposed that? Of course someone has to make sure that the community’s proposals are sane and practical – that’s what the IANA Stewardship Coordination Group (ICG) is for. The board should be receiving proposals from the community and approving them or not. Instead, it has decided to insert its own proposals into a community project, and then hold a meeting at short notice on its home turf to hijack the whole process.

Magaziner and Strickling are highly respected figures in ICANN circles. But you can overplay your hand. The next US government could call time on the whole ICANN experiment if it can’t be demonstrated that the multi-stakeholder model of governance works.

Fears of instability – and why they’re unfounded

Yes, membership activism can cause instability. An example no doubt on the minds of the ICANN board is Nominet, with its rambunctious membership threatening disruption, in an atmosphere of low trust. But in a long-running row at the UK registry over governance and fiduciary duties, there was ultimately no uprising. No directors were fired by the membership.  

The point is that even at Nominet, ructions weren’t disastrous. And there are structural differences between Nominet’s membership and the model proposed for ICANN, which make ICANN more stable.  Nominet has weighted voting which guarantees capture by big members; and stakeholders other than the domain name industry don’t really figure.

“Capture” within a single-member model is a largely theoretical risk

The probable result of creating an ICANN membership would be the replacement of one inert backstop (the US Government) with another (a semi-supine membership).  “Capture” within a single-member model is a largely theoretical risk. Though ICANN’s engagement isn’t as wide or diverse as it could be, it’s not bad. Domain industry players, ISPs, governments, lawyers – lots of people are involved. The infighting will make it unlikely that such groups will unite to fight a common enemy: board and staff.

The industry is conservative, its drive to keep the network running militating against irresponsible actions by a membership. The proposed creation of a “single member” also means that a high level of consensus will be required before any radical action can be taken. And finally, there is the fear of unintended consequences. Most community members find it difficult to keep on top of the detail of ICANN as it is. Many would have limited appetite for firing a director or the entire board, or voting down a budget. Such obvious signals of instability would be bound to provoke “better proposals” – and the community knows this.

Why introduce a membership?

So, why do I advocate a membership for ICANN? Magaziner pointed out that the objective is to replace one backstop with another, not to “completely rewrite the way ICANN works”.  And that limited gain is what a membership would achieve. The powers of a membership are largely symbolic: for example, the dumb show of directors resigning by rotation and submitting to the company’s true owners (the membership) for re-election. The script for AGMs is dictated by company law, requiring a good run-through of the accounts prior to a vote on the budget. This forces a little bit of focus on a real source of potential corruption for an organisation like ICANN.

The most potent risk to ICANN’s long-term viability is the board’s fearful rejection of a modest backstop accountability. If it continues to dig in, it risks scuppering the IANA transition process. The lie that it’s the community not the board that runs things will be exposed and the whole brave experiment in multistakeholder governance sent up in smoke. As Oedipus nearly said, you go right out of your way not to kill your father, and then accidentally bump him off in a squabble about right of way . . .

 

Credits:

Artwork: Patrick Taylor

Article edited by Will Eaves

 

Comments

5 October 2015 by Steve DelBianco

Emily — an apt analogy, and a highly accurate summary of forces at play in this transition.  Well done.


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