ICANN's leaving the nest, so when will it grow up?

The org that will run the internet still acts like a teenager


Transparency: We've heard of it

Now that ICANN has largely won its fight to win control of the IANA contract, rather than see it given to a third party, the corporation is fighting on a second front: accountability.

As a condition of moving the IANA contract, the internet community insisted – and was backed up by the US government – that a range of improvements be made to the organization's "accountability." This topic has been a persistent problem with ICANN, to the extent that it has undergone no less than seven formal accountability reviews in the last decade.

Currently, the community is pushing strongly for ICANN corporate to have some of its overweening powers clipped or removed. An official working group has made a series of recommendations that would introduce actual members to the organization – through a bit of regulatory sleight of hand, it currently has none – and so give them legal powers to limit what ICANN and its Board can decide.

It would also give these members the right to access ICANN's records – something that the organization is so paranoid about that a former director had to actually sue the corporation to force it to hand over documents he had a statutory right to see.

While ICANN is publicly saying it welcomes accountability improvements, in reality it detests the idea of allowing the community to restrict it in any way and so has embarked on a fierce campaign to undermine those efforts.

In one example, the ICANN board released an "Impact Analysis" document [PDF] a day before a key meeting, which contained no less than 88 questions designed to make the working group's proposals look poorly thought-out.

Despite ostensibly being a community organization, at its thrice-yearly conferences ICANN corporate tightly controls the agenda. There are no "unconferences" or even community-led sessions. All sessions – and frequently panelists – are chosen and controlled by the staff. Sessions are added and removed according to whim.

And so it was when an unusual session was added to the agenda on June 21. Unusual, not because it was on a Sunday – ICANN meetings often run through the weekend – but that it started at 6.30pm local time when sessions typically end at 5pm.

The session, "IANA Stewardship Transition & Evolution of ICANN Accountability," boasted a speech by the US government official in charge of the IANA transition – Larry Strickling – and so was immediately viewed as important. There was then a panel comprising the two chairs of the accountability working group, a member of ICANN's legal team, and three of ICANN's "reliables."

These were: Alejandro Pisanty, a former vice-chair of ICANN and a frequent corporate choice for other committees; Lyman Chapin, also a former ICANN Board member, frequent committee invitee and the single biggest recipient of ICANN's consultancy contracts through his Interisle consulting group; and, of course, Nii Quaynor, the unexpected recipient of the Multistakeholder Ethos Award.

Back to the future

How did ICANN justify inserting three of its ringers into the accountability panel? Well, it turns out they are already all on a committee looking at these issues. Which committee? Why, the Evolution and Reform Committee, of course, which was created in, um, 2002.

This is the session description on ICANN's website: "It is important to understand that 'accountability' has always been a top priority of the ICANN community… the Committee on Evolution and Reform, established by a Board resolution during the ICANN meeting in Accra, Ghana in 2002, took on issues of accountability which led to new reforms and mechanisms.

"Additional mechanisms are being developed by the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability (CCWG). Chairs and members from both groups will participate in this panel discussion looking at how ICANN's accountability has evolved."

In other words, rather than spend time discussing and debating the months of work that have been carried in during 2014 and 2015 by a community working group, or dig into the recommendations that exist in the current draft of that group, ICANN corporate decided instead to resurrect a group it created 13 years ago and give it greater say in the discussion than the current group of more than 50 people.

Unsurprisingly, this hand-picked committee had a lot of concerns over what has been proposed and they were not shy of putting them forward. Expect to see an "independent" proposal fronted by Mr Quaynor in the coming weeks.

What we need to see now, ICANN corporate will tell us shortly, is a solution that introduces the principles of improved accountability but which doesn't risk introducing new elements that could disrupt the complex and delicate balance of stakeholder interests.

Which is to say, a series of ornate adornments on an unchanging edifice. Like last time. And the time before.

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