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Why ICANN Nairobi Security Concerns May Be a Blessing in Disguise

Kieren McCarthy

There is a questionmark over ICANN's upcoming meeting in Nairobi, Kenya again. This time it has more bite than the usual xenophobia: the COO has published a US Department of State report that lists the conference centre itself as a specific threat from a Somalian insurgency group, Al-Shabaab. In response, a number of Internet companies have already announced they are pulling their people.

The Kenya conference was cancelled last year following election violence, and the meeting this year has been under a constant review — with the Board finally deciding the bite the bullet at a meeting on 22 January (my heart, incidentally, goes out to my former colleagues in the meetings team who have a near-impossible job of preparing for over 1,000 attendees at short notice). Now there is fresh discussion about whether to go ahead with the meeting — due to start on 7 March.

Maria Farrell has written an interesting post giving some background (although, I feel the need to point out that the attendees at ICANN meetings are: one third regulars; one third occasional; one third entirely new — my analysis online here). So I thought I'd write a positive post pointing out how this bad news can be turned around to be positive for the organization.

If the meeting goes ahead...

It is a terrific opportunity for ICANN to really work on remote participation since large numbers of ICANNers will not be physically attending. This fact has not been missed (thank god) by the Board's Public Participation Committee, which has been pushing for participation guides at its past two meetings.

I am delighted to see this approach, especially since it was a main recommendation of mine in my leaving report as general manager of public participation.

Most of the tools for effective remote participation are already in place. What is missing are the cultural and procedural guidelines to make the most of them. With lots of people unlikely to attend, this is an ideal opportunity for ICANN to step up a notch and start making remote participation a functional reality.

If the meeting is cancelled...

Then I sincerely hope that the Board decides to simply cancel the event and reinvest the $2 million it costs to run an ICANN meeting (or as much as it can recoup) into events that focus people's attention on the issues that need to be tackled.

There are only really two things of importance that the Nairobi meeting is going to cover: the Expressions of Interest model for new Internet extensions (whether people have to pre-apply for their gTLD); and the registry/registrar separation issue (the rules surrounding the split between those who sell domains and those who run the Internet registry itself).

The Board is going to make the decision regarding the Expressions of Interest. And it has lots of comment from the community following a very active public comment period. I'd like to see the Board meet physically somewhere else (Los Angeles?) for a week and really tackle the issue and do what it needs to do — make a decision. The community has had its say, having another meeting on the issue is only chewing up valuable time.

And wrt registry/registrar separation — well, it seems that there is work being done on that by the Board, as made clear in the latest Board minutes (item k). So why not have the staff focus on producing the work the Board has asked for, and then have the Board spend a week discussing and reviewing the issue, coming out with firm recommendations for review — rather than engage in another largely pointless and time-consuming community discussion that is scheduled for Nairobi.

The other HUGE advantage to cancelling the whole meeting would be to overcome the status-quo fears of some in the community about moving from three to two international public meetings a year.

Over the past four years, first Susan Crawford (ex-Board member and former advisor to President Obama), then Paul Levins (ex-VP of communications and the man who negotiated an end to the Joint Project Agreement), and then the Board Public Participation Committee as well as the Head of Meetings have all argued that ICANN should reduce the number of large international meetings the organization runs each year.

Having studied this issue closely myself, I have absolutely no doubt that reducing the number of international public meetings would benefit both ICANN and the community. All it requires is the community to get over its fear of change. And cancelling the whole meeting will cause minds to focus, and provide some funds to think about what meetings do need to happen to move the organization's work forward.

So, possibly, hopefully, this Nairobi problem will end up a blessing in disguise.

By Kieren McCarthy, Freelance journalist; Executive Director at IFFOR
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Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance
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EOI Richard J Tindal  –  Feb 12, 2010 1:19 PM PST

Thoughtful piece Kieren.  I plan to attend Nairobi, if the meeting happens, but I can see how the situation may accelerate the incremental improvement we’ve seen in remote participation, which would be a good thing.

Can I re-emphasize one point you made, especially for any Board member who may be reading this.  Make a decision on the EOI.  Vote it up, or vote it down, but please make a decision.  There’s been extensive public comment on this issue and a thorough analysis and summary by the staff. 

Deferring a decision will simple fuel critics who claim ICANN’s response to every tough issue is – ‘it needs more study’.  The proposed model is clearly presented and the pros and cons are thoroughly detailed. Please analyze this information and take a vote.  Not everyone will be happy with the outcome, but the community respects timely and clear decisions.  No-one respects endless deferment.

Richard T

EOL Eric Brunner-Williams  –  Feb 13, 2010 12:09 PM PST

Kiren,

Reductions in the numbers of general, open meetings, must increase the effect of the meetings which are other than general and open, such as the Increasing Institutional Confidence Consultations, in Geneva and elsewhere, the DC Consultation on the Draft Registry Agreement and Registry-Registrar Separation, and the very wide range of side issues we discussed there, or the IRT Consultations in New York and London, to which I and my colleagues participated, or the two meetings, in DC and LA 14 months ago on Single-Registrant and Registry-Registrar Separation. Additionally, reductions in the numbers of general, open meetings, must increase the effect of Staff in the development of general and specific policy recommendations.

I don't doubt that a budgetary rationale for a reduction can be made, but this leaves several long-standing questions unanswered, and ignored as if they'd never been asked. Why continue in the "traveling circus" mode? Why not pick three useful venues, say Seoul, Dehli and Cairo, and stick with them for several cycles? We are after all attempting to make the best use of our time actually doing "Internet Governance", nothing else. Why do we package everything, from the profound to the trivial, into the same week-at-venue package? If the big ticket items, the CRAI Report, the IRT Final Recommendation, the Draft Registry Agreement, can break out of the week-at-venue constraint and go solo, why can't we get the lesser, or simply different stuff out into a webcast/email/voting/podcast formats and (a) out of the work-week agenda, and (b) available to those unable to travel to the venue location and remain there for some part of a week? I skipped the Seoul meeting scheduled face-to-face time of the GNSO Council Operations Work Team, to which I contribute via email and some of the weekly conference calls, because of schedule conflict.

Next there is contingency planning. We, the "one third regulars; one third occasional", can get to Vegas and its hotels, or New York and its hotels, or LA and its hotels, on wicked short notice. Yes, there is a distortion in the demographics of the occasional and the first-time attendees, but (and this is important) whatever it is that they do through occasional and first-time attendence, it is not Internet Governance. The idea that an Internet Governance meeting could be canceled on short notice, basically through belligerency, without adverse consequence or alternate siting is very unattractive.

Finally, I'm very glad to see an ICANN community member post at Crooked Timber. It has been one of the better reads in the Left Blogosphere (or Blogtopia, and y!sktp!) for years and years.

Great post, especially about the focus on Jeremy Hitchcock  –  Feb 13, 2010 2:57 PM PST

Great post, especially about the focus on remote participation.  It's a tough place to be in and there will be criticism no matter what.  Even a month or two out, canceling a week long event with complicated flight itineraries is unfair.

additional reading Eric Brunner-Williams  –  Feb 13, 2010 7:34 PM PST

i recommend reading africacomments.org for more insight. h/t Maxcrat commenting at wampum.

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