Domain name overseer ICANN has spent $2.5m in the past year lobbying the US government, putting the small non-profit on a par with multi-national corporations.
The figure is five times larger than the organization has previously admitted to. It emerged after ICANN was repeatedly asked to reveal the true amount it was spending on professional lobbyists in its bid to take over the internet's critical IANA functions – that's the heart of the global DNS, worldwide IP address allocation, and management of communication protocol details.
After months of pressure, during which the corporation attempted to stick to a legal definition of the term "lobbying," it finally relented and has produced a breakdown of figures [PDF] under its catch-all term of "professional services."
The disclosure does not provide the clean breakdown that members of the internet community – and this publication – have asked for. Instead, it aggregates different vendors under a series of newly created titles, mixes different quarters, includes and excludes expenses on different issues, and provides limited guidance over what the figures mean or how the organization arrived at them.
The intent is clearly to avoid producing a single figure for the amount the organization has spent promoting its position on IANA and related accountability changes to the organization, and to be in a position to question any figure arrived at by others.
Regardless, we have arrived at a figure of $2.5m based on our knowledge of how ICANN operates and the activities of the firms listed.
When is lobbying lobbying?
ICANN has continued to stick to its legal definition of lobbying and lists three firms as providing lobbying advice: Akin Gump Strauss Hauer and Feld, Kountoupes Denham, and Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen Bingel & Thomas. These three accounted for $765,829 in expenses for the time period 1 July 2014 to 30 September 2015.
For some reason, ICANN has excluded the amount its in-house lobbyist has spent over the same period, despite having included him in all previous lobbying breakdowns. That lobbyist – James Hedlund – has filed consistent lobbying reports of $200,000 per quarter.
And how much for Condi?
The biggest expense however comes in the form of money spent on firms such as former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright's Albright Stonebridge Group, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley's Rice Hadley Gates, and former Obama Administration trade representative Miriam Sapiro's Summit Strategies, among others.
These were the costs that the internet community repeatedly asked ICANN to provide. ICANN has listed these expenses under the title "Education/Engagement" and has included its long-time PR firm Edelman with that group.
The organization has provided a single aggregate figure for that group of $1,070,438, making it difficult to assess what has been spent on former US government officials and what proportion of the money it spends with Edelman on a whole range of activities it has included in that figure.
ICANN notes in its disclosure that: "The distinction between this category and lobbying is important. As part of our broader remit, ICANN has tried to raise general awareness of the IANA Stewardship Transition process and promote interest and participation in the multistakeholder model. These efforts are educational and are aimed at increasing global participation."
However, as just one example of where this is an artificial distinction, on Monday ICANN will be hosting an "off-the-record, invitation-only roundtable discussion FOR A SMALL GROUP OF SENIOR LEADERS" [their caps] at the Atlantic Council's offices in Washington DC.
The meeting is a follow-up to a similar closed-door meeting held in July, and the sole topic of conversation is the IANA transition and ICANN. "This will be an opportunity for you to comment on and ask questions about the final draft of the proposal to Enhance ICANN's Accountability and learn what you, as thought leaders, can do in the critical coming months, as ICANN prepares to present the proposals to the US government," an invitation to the event reads.
It is worth noting that the session says it is ICANN that will "present the proposals to the US government," clearly presenting the corporation as the final arbiter. In reality, the proposals have been developed by the internet community and if ICANN wishes to comment on them, it is required to do so explicitly and separately when it forwards them on to the US government. Such a distinction is unlikely to be made at the closed-door meeting.
The event is organized and run by former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, who will be speaking alongside ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, as he did last time. As we noted, it is not known what proportion of the $1.07m spent on "education/engagement" went to Hadley's firm Rice Hadley Gates. The cost of putting on this meeting is also not included in the figures provided by ICANN.
What does this matter?
It is expected that on 30 September next year, ICANN will take over management of the critical IANA functions from the US government.
A key component of that transition has been the internet community's insistence that significant accountability improvements be made to the organization. As we reported on extensively, the corporation has gone to enormous lengths to limit those accountability changes, even successfully pressuring the working group to abandon its central proposal to create a legal member of the organization in order to force the organization to act, and instead go for a much weaker "designator" model.
One of the powers lost in that shift was the ability to inspect ICANN's books, which means that the organization can continue to spend the tens of millions of dollars it receives from the internet infrastructure industry in ways it sees fit without having to disclose them in anything but vague and aggregated formats.
Although ICANN has finally revealed that it has spent five times the amount it had previously claimed on lobbying the US government, thanks to persistent pressure from the internet community, the fact remains that this disclosure has been carefully structured to present the minimal level of real transparency it feels it can get away with.
The figures are not broken down by vendor or topic. They are not provided in a machine-readable format. They do not conform to the organization's accounting standards. And they are not directly comparable to the previous reports that ICANN has produced.
In other words, the organization's commitment to accountability and transparency remains far from genuine. But that is not something that the US officials are going to hear from the organization when they attend its "engagement and education" programs over the next year. ®