Even the guy from Fox thinks ICANN should get real
At the public forum of ICANN's meeting in Buenos Aires in June, Rick Lane, senior vice president of government affairs at 21st Century Fox, supported a suggestion from the business constituency of ICANN: the suggestion being that the DNS overseer introduce a bylaw that requires it or any individual acting on its behalf to regularly disclose any contact with any government officials, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.
Lane argued that this would "help create a transparency and a trust that there aren't deals being cut between ICANN and government officials." Such a change, he argued, would "be critical to ensure the trust that we all want to have with the board, ICANN, and the multistakeholder community."
What Lane didn't say, but which all attendees to the meeting who live in and around Washington DC circles were complaining about privately, was that ICANN had clearly been spending huge sums of money pushing its agenda in the corridors of power.
And that agenda was often in direct opposition to what members of the internet community were arguing for: an improved contract compliance regime at ICANN; the introduction of greater accountability controls; and many other issues of concern with the organization.
One long-term ICANN follower and member of the community told us: "Every time I got to a meeting in DC, either someone representing ICANN has been there before me, or within hours of me leaving, someone from ICANN turns up to tell them a different story."
Almost overnight, ICANN was exhibiting the kind of lobbying muscle that only pharmaceutical companies and utility companies are capable of. And it wasn't the heavy lobbying that most distressed those who represent other interests – that's just part of the game in DC – it was the fact that ICANN was doing it on the quiet and in the shadows.
Lane and others wanted ICANN to be up front about its political activities. After all, this is an organization that has an entire article of its bylaws dedicated to transparency. The first part of it reads: "ICANN and its constituent bodies shall operate, to the maximum extent feasible, in an open and transparent manner and consistent with procedures designed to ensure fairness."
In addition, ICANN's CEO Fadi Chehade and its board members have repeatedly emphasized that everything they do around the transition of the US government's IANA contract – the contract to run the top level of the internet – is done in the open. As open and transparent as possible, we're told.
"Firstly, all of our engagements with governments are listed to the GAC and on the GAC site," Chehade said in response to Lane's requests at the forum, referring to the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). "Secondly, we do not have any lobbyists outside the US. Thirdly, our lobbying activities in the United States are disclosed as per the law."
That "as per the law" caveat is a reference to the aforementioned Lobbying Disclosure Act. Following the letter of the law, ICANN declared that it spent $576,138 (£375,000) on lobbying in 2014, using the services of its staff-registered lobbyist (James Hedlund) and two government affairs firms (Kountoupes Denham, and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld).
But that isn't half the picture. In fact it is not even an eighth of the picture.
We asked ICANN to send us an email breaking down all of its political expenses, but no answer was forthcoming. We did some digging, and spoke to sources working close to the Washington DC machine. We asked them who they believed ICANN was using. The responses were illuminating. Among those that ICANN is understood to have hired to push its case on Capitol Hill are:
- "K Street powerhouse" Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas.
- Global law firm K&L Gates.
- Former US trade representative and President Obama advisor Miriam Sapiro.
However, what is most striking are two firms representing the very highest echelons of US political lobbying power:
- The Albright Stonebridge Group, headed up by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
- Rice Hadley Gates, whose principals are former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
These last two firms in particular are usually the preserve of huge multinational corporations with billions of dollars in profit. How can ICANN, as a non-profit organization with an annual revenue of $100m (£65m), justify spending millions of dollars hiring the most expensive lobbying outfits on the planet?
What's more, ICANN staff and board have required the internet community to log all of their activity and expenditure on the IANA transition process, including requiring each individual to provide a personal conflict of interest statement. The full amounts and hours spent of every person involved in the process have been meticulously measured, even down to the number of emails sent.
Not only that, but ICANN repeatedly questioned the use of independent legal experts for the accountability working group, and publicly pressured the group into limiting its expenditures. The amount spent on independent legal advice has been published by ICANN's staff in the name of transparency, and almost always followed by a message about the need to limit expenditure.