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Why Saving the NomCom Means Saving ICANN Itself

Stéphane Van Gelder

ICANN's 2012 Nominating Committee (NomCom) selections are out. After a yearlong process, the NomCom has selected new members for the ICANN Board (3 seats), the GNSO and ccNSO Councils (1 seat each) and ALAC (2 positions).

For those unfamiliar with it, the NomCom is in theory independent of other ICANN bodies such as the Board and exists to help fill leadership positions on them. Created by a January 20, 2003 Board resolution, the NomCom has been the subject of much controversy ever since.

Its closed processes, perceived "Icannian" self-serving nature and even the quality of the candidates it selects have caused the NomCom to come under heavy fire. Looking beyond this rather useless NomCom bashing, I would suggest that the committee is actually a good litmus test of what currently ails ICANN.

Late to the party

As an organisation, ICANN is notoriously reactive rather than being proactive. This is such a glaring weakness than opponents often use it to great effect. For example, by repeatedly pointing a finger at a perceived problem until ICANN itself runs away from it.

Once it gets in panic mode, ICANN will not pause to think. Is the problem actually as bad as detractors say? Or is the cure (funnily enough, generally hinted at by said contractors) the real problem?

This is clearly what has happened with conflicts of interests. Recent events have helped put the spotlight on a rather strange perception that anyone with any domain name industry experience is conflicted under the ICANN model. A trend made worse by the new gTLD program's tendency to make like a black hole and pull everyone into this industry in some way or another.

This has led to such fallacies as Board members being excluded from any (and all) Board-level new gTLD related conversation because at some point, they spoke to a prospective applicant. Never mind the truly astounding number of ways by which, for the truly badly intentioned, Board members can be linked to the industry. Never let the facts get in the way of a good McCarthy-like purge! (Joseph, not Kieren, obviously...)

Hello, anyone home?

In reality, what this has done is deprive ICANN of the sanity check that people with industry knowledge can bring. It has also upset the precious balance between all stakeholders that the ICANN model was built on.

The adverse effects have already been felt. When no-one that has any first-hand experience of how the domain market works is allowed in the room, perfect storms like Digital Archery happen. No Board member is there to call time on ideas that sometimes feel like they were fashioned in some fantasyland. Yet it's the Board, and ICANN as a whole, that has to live with the negative publicity of taking a step back once real-world issues knock the dream-world idea down.

The NomCom is on the receiving end of this trend. As ICANN has swung its pendulum so far away from anything that might remotely be perceived as a conflict of interest, so the NomCom has acted in synch and opted to bring to these key Internet governance positions candidates that are so far removed from the subject matter that they might as well be talking fishing net governance.

Firm stance

ICANN needs to be stronger than this. The Board needs to be stronger than this.

From Vint Cerf through to current Board Chair Steve Crocker and Vice Chair Bruce Tonkin, ICANN's unique governance model has been built with the help of true Internet experts that understand the naming and addressing system as if they designed it themselves (which of course some of them did).

It's time to push the pendulum the other way a bit and make sure it comes to rest somewhere in the middle.

This could start with the NomCom, who's PR-rating in the wider community would undoubtedly get a boost if the committee adopted more transparent processes, explained the rationale behind its choices, communicated with applicants during the nominating process, and kept the community informed about what it is doing and why it's doing it.

This healthy dose of transparency might also help the NomCom grow confident enough to fulfil its initial mandate of simply selecting the best candidates for the job, regardless of their professional background. But of course, in the current climate, there is no point in them doing this, only to see the selectee pushed aside and have to leave the room because of the current climate of suspicion.

Here's hoping the NomCom can, given the right music, find its dancing feet. But I would argue that it's up to the Board to write the score.

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Chairman, MILATHAN

Related topics: Domain Names, ICANN, Internet Governance, Top-Level Domains

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Comments

conflicts of interest Paul Vixie  –  Sep 16, 2012 12:56 AM PST

I think that you've overstated the situation here:

This has led to such fallacies as Board members being excluded from any (and all) Board-level new gTLD related conversation because at some point, they spoke to a prospective applicant.

The concern many of us had was that a number of ICANN board members were bidders on various elements of the gTLD business, especially including its one-time Chairman who left ICANN a few days after the gTLD programme was approved to join a company in this space. Righteous accusations of "feathering one's own nest" or "revolving door politics" make everything ICANN is trying to do and supposed to do just that much harder.

Noting that it's never been possible to get the money out of politics in any era or any country, I do not claim that the ICANN conflict of interest policies are now perfect. In fact this may be a case of "inevitable backlash" but if so that's part of the process too.

When no-one that has any first-hand experience of how the domain market works is allowed in the room, perfect storms like Digital Archery happen. No Board member is there to call time on ideas that sometimes feel like they were fashioned in some fantasyland.

I don't think it would have required that any Board member in that room to be an expert on domain names in order to call time on bad ideas like Digital Archery, which was clearly flawed and universally criticized. That is, while I remain mystified as to how this particular bad idea lived as long as it did before somebody made the call to abandon it, I think anyone with any engineering, technical, scientific, or business background could have easily and simply explained to any audience why Digital Archery wasn't going to work. No DNS experience was required.

To your main point: I agree. Experts on the topics ICANN board members must know deeply and well are generally going to be in our industry in some way, and that leaves us with either an optical "fox guarding the henhouse" problem or with a deficit of relevant experience. The ICANN board works extremely hard for many weeks per year. Getting the right people into the room is a real challenge, but it's a challenge that the ICANN NomCom has met many times. I have high hopes for their continued success.

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