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ICANN and Accountability: Time to Walk the Walk

As the organization that oversees the Internet's domain name system, ICANN is in a unique and complex position.

It decides the policies that will guide the future evolution of the Internet's naming and numbering systems — a technical task, yes, but one that has far-reaching implications for how the Internet works and even how it is perceived by its users.

At the moment, ICANN is deciding a range of crucial next steps in the Internet's development: new Internet extensions, both generic and in other languages; DNS security; domain registration rules; and much more.

But despite all this, the biggest issue in the ICANN world concerns the viability of the organization itself: accountability.

Yesterday in Washington, the US government's Commerce Secretary, Larry Strickling, reminded ICANN that while it is "one of the foremost models in the world" for deciding complex Internet-related issues, it still possessed a significant flaw: accountability.

"As ICANN continues to evolve," Strickling said, "it must work to improve its accountability to its stakeholders and to the broader public interest."

An affirmation, a promise

Until very recently it was the US government that provided that accountability but after ICANN argued for more autonomy, it was granted an end to the Joint Project Agreement (JPA). Under the JPA's replacement, the Affirmation of Commitments, ICANN is now accountable to the "global Internet community" rather than a single government.

In order to replace the US government oversight function, the Affirmation of Commitments contains a series of reviews, the most significant of which is about accountability.

The US government felt this was so important that it took the step of placing one of its representatives permanently on the review panel. In this context, Strickling's comments are a reminder that the US government will make sure ICANN keeps to its end of the deal.

If ICANN is to mature into an international organization, with autonomy over a crucial part of the Internet, it has no choice but to ensure the Internet community feels it is sufficiently transparent and accountable.

ICANN is, of course, keenly aware of this. At its latest Board meeting this month, one of the topics under discussion was "Meeting Our Commitments under the Affirmation of Commitments".

The meeting minutes noted ICANN's "strong commitment to accountability and transparency within the organization, including having a senior staff member dedicated, full time, to accountability and transparency work."

And the Transparency and Accountability Review was specifically highlighted, noting that "the Board received an update from the GAC Liaison regarding the status of work of the Transparency & Accountability Review Team."

But even with these steps, there remain question marks over ICANN's ability to be truly transparent or accountable. ICANN has talked the talk, but is it willing, or able, to walk the walk?

The Review Team

A clear step in the right direction is the review team chosen from volunteers that will be charged with reviewing ICANN's record on transparency and accountability and, presumably, making recommendations.

This group will meet for the first time at the beginning of May at ICANN's headquarters in Los Angeles where it will start to draw up how it is actually going to work. It will be a complex and time-consuming task, and all the more remarkable for the fact that the review team will be doing it on their own, unpaid, time.

However, if ICANN isn't careful, this effort will be undermined by a lack of the very quantities that the team is there to review: transparency and accountability.

The chairman of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), Janis Karklins, plays a key role in the reviews and has repeatedly gone on record to say he believes the review should be done out in the open, with all discussions made public so there is nothing to hide. It's an approach we agree with and admire.

But there appears to be a cultural inability on the part of ICANN itself to make that philosophy a reality. Information on the review is sparse and scattered and limited to either snippets of information or long reports put out for public comment. Neither is conducive to understanding of, or participation in, the reviews.

The Affirmation of Commitments was signed at the end of September 2009. A document outlining how the review teams would be structured and their timeline was put out for public comment in January this year. February was taken up encouraging people to volunteer. March was taken up making the decision of who would be on the teams. And the review team was announced at the start of April.

However you may have difficultly finding any of that information — or even who is on the team — because there is no single place on ICANN's website where the information is compiled.

It is also still not known whether the review team's meetings will be held in public, or even when they will be held. Or how frequently. According to the timelines that appeared in January, the teams are already more than a month behind, but with no information emerging from ICANN, and without there even being contact details for a person to ask for more information, the Internet community is currently being left in the dark.

Ironic considering that this is the transparency and accountability review we are talking about.

Board minutes

One place where the community might expect to find significant levels of accountability are in the minutes of the ICANN Board.

But last month's minutes, released this week, do no more than boil down hours of conversation to a few summary paragraphs and formal resolutions.

We do know that the Board has been updated on the reviews, and we also know that a "senior member" of ICANN's staff has been assigned full time to the reviews. But we have neither the update nor the name of the individual.

When the transparency and accountability review team does meet next week, it will be to draw up the terms of reference of their review. We hope that they insist on all their work being clearly and publicly transmitted by the organization: posted in easy-to-find places in easy-to-understand summaries. That would aid transparency.

And we hope they write into their procedures a way for people to comment on their work and their findings all the way through the process. That would aid accountability. And in particular we hope that the community is given plenty of public notice about both, as well as an easy way to sign up for regular updates.

Without this, there is a real likelihood that all the review team's hard work will be invisible to the wider Internet community, and a big part of the value of such a review will be lost.

When it comes to accountability however there is an even more pressing issue facing ICANN — the review Declaration of its Independent Review Panel.

The Independent Review

Two months ago, the organization's own final accountability mechanism — an Independent Review Panel — was used for the first time. The Panel was charged with looking at whether the Board had made the correct decision in rejecting the application for a dot-xxx top-level domain back in 2007.

The IRP process* was introduced years earlier because the Internet community had asked: what if the Board makes the wrong decision? How can 21 individuals be expected to make lasting decisions about the very structure of the Internet without some kind of appeal system?

And so, the Independent Review Panel, acting as an arbitration body, was created to allow for a review of Board decisions.

After nearly two years of argument and millions of dollars in costs, it made its first Declaration on 19 February 2010: that the Board had been wrong to deny the dot-xxx application and in so doing it had broken its own bylaws as well as international law.

As it was required to do, the Board discussed this Declaration at its next meeting. To the disappointment of the Internet community, the Board decided to delay its decision for three months, asking for an "options paper" to be drawn up instead and put out to public comment.

While that delay concerned those hoping for a clear demonstration of accountability, the subsequent paper put an ever bigger question mark over the organization's willingness to be accountable to anyone but itself: of the three options outlined in ICANN's response to the IRP Declaration, two of them suggest ignoring all or part of the Declaration itself.

So where are we?

With the US government joining the global Internet community in looking very closely at its accountability mechanisms, it is clearly time for ICANN to take a fresh look at how it provides information, and especially how it handles criticism of itself.

A good start would be to start pulling together all the information on the reviews and the Independent Review and putting them somewhere where people can find them, in language - and in a language - that people can understand.

Without that, the Internet community will always feel as though it is Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, only finding the plans to bulldoze his house in an unlit cellar in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet inside a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard".

* If you are looking for an explanation of the Independent Review Panel process on ICANN's website, here is a very handy guide:

• On the front page, click on Processes in the top bar.
• Then in the box "Accountability and Transparency - Draft Management Operating Principles", click the fourth link down called "Accountability in the Public Sphere".
• From there, go down to Section C, Dispute Resolution. There, under "Disputes about process and fair treatment", you will find a link to "Independent Review Panel".
• If you click on that, you will find a three-paragraph explanation of the IRP process with a link through to an Accountability and Review page.
• On that page, at the bottom, you can find a link to the relevant part of the ICANN bylaws telling you about the IRP, as well as four links labeled "here". The first three links go off to a third-party but the fourth will take you to the IRP documents page.

Or you may find it easier to use your own brain's navigation system rather than rely on ICANN's and remember the URL itself: http://www.icann.org/en/irp/.

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Share your comments

Thank you ICANN! ICM Registry  –  May 01, 2010 3:02 PM PDT

A rapid response to our accountability request: http://bit.ly/902CQX

With the link working... ICM Registry  –  May 01, 2010 3:04 PM PDT

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