ICANN Accountability - the chronology and Dublin thoughts

This post shares a referenced chronology of recent accountability-related milestones in the ICANN environment, and offers some thoughts about the stakes at ICANN's Dublin meeting next week.

You’ve probably had an experience in your life of being part of a difficult or complicated project – sometimes things go into a blur, or after months or years you find it hard to remember the order of significant events.

Well, the debate regarding ICANN’s accountability is nothing if not complicated (not to say difficult!). I’ve been a participant in it as a member of the Working Group representing country-code domains since December 2014, and even over not quite a year, things get a bit blurry.

To help me, and possibly you, I decided to pull together a short chronology of some of the key milestones. Dates of proposals, significant moments in the project, and so on.

You can review (and critique) the chronology here:

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I didn’t expect that seeing this story in one short place would trigger some new insights, or remind me of some old ones, but it did. Here are some of them:

  • Astonishing progress: since the end of last year, and the demise of ICANN’s resistance to a community-led accountability process, the Cross Community Working Group (CCWG) has made huge progress. It assessed previous suggested accountability mechanisms; built requirements for a new settlement; devised models that could deliver; took feedback in good faith and worked together to overcome problems exposed in public debate. The Second Draft Proposal of the group is workable, though it does not enjoy consensus in the ICANN community yet.
  • Consistent resistance and delay: the powers-that-be at ICANN have resisted community-driven accountability reforms throughout this process. The multi-month delay to establishing the CCWG speaks volumes. The group’s work would have concluded next week in Dublin if we’d had the few more months back in 2014. I say that not to lament it, but to make it clear where responsibility lies for the current time pressure. Hint: the CCWG isn’t responsible.
  • The rightness of multistakeholderism: the community has followed a true multistakeholder process. Compromise, diligence, thoroughness and a willingness to compromise and think outside the box – all these have been central to the work of the group. That work process is hard to maintain and has been seriously challenged by the ICANN Board alleging a right to insert “red lines” into part of the debate – on the critical matters of enforcement. Those interventions place the credibility of the multistakeholder process at risk. In doing so, the ICANN Board isn’t only putting the accountability reform process under pressure it doesn’t need, it is delaying the group’s ability to complete its task (others have more forceful views - see the note by William Currie, an Advisor to the CCWG appointed by the Public Experts Group last year, here). The follow on consequence: the IANA Stewardship transition itself is delayed, a consequence only a very few people would celebrate (and I am not one of them). 
  • Proof of need: looking over the short history of the current debate gives ample evidence of why the reforms demanded by the community are required.  Without the spur provided by the IANA Stewardship transition, this opportunity would never have opened up. We should be grateful to the Obama administration for the chance provided to build a long term, responsible framework for ICANN accountability.
  • Some welcome flexibility: a year ago, if you’d thought you would hear ICANN saying it would welcome binding arbitration, the ability to remove Board directors, a community right of veto in bylaws changes – many would have stared at you and laughed. If you’d suggested a community group working in open multistakeholder ways could deliver a work output the quality the CCWG has matched, the same stares and laughs. But both have happened. Things have moved.

Everyone involved with or watching this process will have different insights, or may agree happily or disagree sharply with mine. I offer them up in public as part of my own commitment to accountability: it is reasonable for people involved in the conversation to share their thinking. In any case, my own thought processes work best with dialogue – not with solitude.

ICANN is on the verge of historic, meaningful and positive reform. The Numbers and Protocols communities, watching this process through gritted teeth and very keen for the transition to go ahead, can hopefully celebrate what is happening. With ICANN having a curious dual role for the Names community (policy forum and IANA functions operator), there has been no alternative to making accountability improvements now.

(To my technical community friends - if there’s any doubt in your mind about why we need change – review the chronology, remember the pushback, remember what you guys faced early this year.)

We’re all close to the end of the debate. You can sense it – proposals are crystallising, timeframes are compressing, volunteers are at the end of reasonable commitments of time and energy.

The imperatives now are to see things through: to stick with the multistakeholder process that listens to all perspectives but gives nobody a right of veto; the accountability framework the community requires to accept the transition going ahead; and the changes to ICANN’s culture that will flow from a new accountability settlement. 

Dublin is a week away. The elephant in the room (the CCWG’s proposal and the ICANN Board’s counterproposal for the way to crystallise accountability powers) will need to be resolved, or eaten, or thrown in the ocean.

My preference is of course for the product of the multistakeholder process, the model the CCWG has developed in public and with the involvement of all stakeholders. But unlike some others, I am not proclaiming bottom lines on any of the “how” – it is the “what,” the requirements and ability to meet them, that matter. 

The “what” is ensuring the Internet community, able to organise through ICANN’s open groupings, can hold a corporation with hundreds of staff, hundreds of millions of dollars, tight links with the American government, a monopoly ability to extract rents from the domain name industry, and a natural institutional desire to be as free of restraint as it can – can hold all that to account, given the huge imbalance of power, knowledge, resources that tilt the playing field of accountability entirely in ICANN’s favour.

Beyond the "elephant," there are lots of other details that need to be sorted out.  It all matters – NTIA have been clear the proposal has to be bullet proof.

In the end though, if there isn’t an accountability settlement that achieves consensus, then there isn’t going to be a proposal bullet proof or not.

No accountability proposal – no IANA Stewardship Transition proposal. No transition proposal – no transition.

No transition? All those risks the transition is designed to head off come back to life. And the multistakeholder approach discredited to boot.

Those are the stakes on the table as we head to Dublin.

Two final thoughts: where there’s a will there’s a way. And as an old high-school teacher used to say to me, “not easy, not optional.”