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

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


Culture clash

It is easy to laugh off such transparent efforts to control the conversation, but a deeper truth – and much bigger problem – lies at the heart of them.

When Paul Levins was described as the "first adult ICANN has hired," it was for good reason. Faced with the complex, strategic process of trying to extricate ICANN from the firm clutches of the US government, he went against the ICANN default of fixing internal processes and shutting out critical voices. Just as importantly, he looked outside the organization, rather than believing the answer lay in winning the argument internally.

When the US Congress started complaining about ICANN's bid for greater autonomy, he went against the insular nature of the organization and held countless conversations with Congressional staffers. When he got pushback, he leaned in, moving from Los Angeles to Washington DC and going to the Hill again and again, answering difficult questions with straight answers until the tide slowly started to turn.

Inside ICANN, the criticisms of the corporation's lack of accountability and opaque decision-making were taken personally. Staff went to enormous lengths to bypass or undermine those critics, planning a seemingly endless series of meetings in an effort to find the right answer to take to the board, and a long list of queries into all of the other proposals so they could be taken off the table.

The corporate affairs team took a different approach. To get the US government behind the plans for greater autonomy, it was important to acknowledge fault and outline what the organization would do to fix it. The corporate affairs team recognized that by engaging in open dialogue, ICANN would be able to pinpoint the biggest problems and enlist the community in helping to fix them.

That approach led to fierce internal battles as the two cultures – one open and acknowledging fault, the other focused on shutting down criticism – clashed. But eventually the open culture won, ICANN achieved a broad range of improvements, and the US government loosened its hold of the reins.

But it wasn't to last. Just as ICANN was showing real signs of maturity, it lapsed. Rather than using its greater autonomy to step up to the plate, the prevailing atmosphere within the organization was that it couldn't believe its luck. And then, with the arrival of a new CEO and the approval of the money-minting new gTLD program, ICANN more than quadrupled its own budget. It's now a child with both fewer constraints and more money to spend.

Now in 2016, with the transitioning of the IANA contract, ICANN is finally coming of age and the US government can no longer expect to keep it in its house. Rather than sending forth a well-prepared and mature young adult, however, we're letting loose a know-it-all teenager with a chip on its shoulder and a determined belief that it doesn't have to listen to anyone.

It's not where the world wanted ICANN to be. But it's our own fault; we should have paid it more attention while we could. ®

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