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Who Are the True Multi-Stakeholders in ICANN?

Donna Austin

During ICANN Durban, I attended the Country Code Names Supporting Organisation (ccNSO) 10 year anniversary celebrations.

ICANN Chairman, Dr Steve Crocker, was on hand to congratulate the ccNSO on their 10 years and revered them as the "true multi-stakeholders in ICANN".

Post Durban, I was reviewing notes and I came across a similar statement made during a ccNSO session that country code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs) "represent the best functioning multi-stakeholder model" in the ICANN ecosystem.

Is this entirely accurate? Is the ccNSO really the golden child of ICANN's multi-stakeholder model?

While there is no doubt that the ccNSO has been instrumental in influencing policy development and championing change for their cause, are they really ICANN's "true multi-stakeholders"?

Let's recap

When I first started attending ICANN meetings back in 2001 representing the Australian Government as the coordinator of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), ccTLDs were pretty much sitting outside the tent. There was considerable distrust between the ccTLD community and ICANN at the time and regular meetings between the ccTLD operators and the GAC could be rather frosty events.

In 2005, when I joined ICANN staff as policy support for the ccNSO, relationships were slowly mending and both the ccTLDs and ICANN were recognising the mutual benefits of having ccTLD operators inside the ICANN tent.

So against this background, it is a tremendous achievement that the ccNSO is now well-established and an important contributor in the ICANN community.

However, the ccNSO has a stronger focus on collaboration, information sharing and best practice adoption, rather than a true aspiration for the Policy Development Process (PDP) that underpins a multi-stakeholder model. This is in large part because the participation of a ccTLD registry operator in the ccNSO and ICANN — and adoption of any policies that might be developed — is on a 'voluntary' basis.

ccTLDs are not bound by ICANN consensus policies and operate largely unfettered without interference from ICANN.

I don't deny that within their respective countries or territories ccTLDs engage in multi-stakeholder style consultations and policy undertakings, but I do not agree that they are the 'true multi-stakeholders in ICANN'.

While the ccNSO thoroughly deserves plaudits on a highly successful 10 years, I question whether they are the preeminent representation of the multi-stakeholder model.

The GNSO

Instead of the ccNSO, I would argue that the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) is the prime example of the multi-stakeholder model operating at its full capacity. It might at times look like a dog fight, but that's the beauty of the model.

The GNSO has a long history of undertaking policy development processes and perhaps the most contentious and the one that still lingers is the PDP that recommended the introduction of new generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs).

I used to think it was inappropriate for those that stood to benefit from the new gTLD process to be involved in the policy development process that recommended the introduction of new gTLDs. But what I've come to appreciate and understand is that the only way for the ICANN experiment to succeed — at least in the short term — was to ensure that those who had a dog in the fight were involved in the process.

The development of the new gTLD program has been the process — while often times messy — that has led in large part to the maturation of ICANN and the expansion of the GNSO into a more diverse and dynamic set of interest groups. The process has also brought considerably more interplay across ICANN's structure of supporting organisations, advisory committees, the ICANN Board and staff.

As ICANN contracted parties, there is also much more at stake for the gTLD registries in these PDPs as the outcomes will have some impact on their business. All gTLD registry operators sign contracts with ICANN acknowledging that they will be bound not only by consensus policies that exist at the time of signing the agreement, but any consensus policies approved at a later date.

So it's understandable that some of the policy debates that take place within the GNSO are very robust, hard fought and lengthy. Finding consensus in such an environment should be applauded and exalted by ICANN and time should be taken by those new to ICANN to understand and appreciate the machinations of the process.

The GNSO should be ICANN's flagship. It is the central policy organ that is so important to the bottom-up, consensus driven, multi-stakeholder model that is ICANN.

As Jonathan Robinson, Chair of the GNSO Council, noted prior to Durban:

"… ICANN's multi-stakeholder model is complex, dynamic and necessarily evolving."

Those of us that have been engaged in this community for a long time will understand the multi-facets of the SOs and ACs that collectively are the "true multi-stakeholders in ICANN".

After 12 years of following this circus, I am finally starting to get it.

By Donna Austin, Policy & Industry Affairs Manager at Neustar
Related topics: ICANN
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Degrees of multi-stakeholderism? Jean-Jacques Subrenat  –  Sep 18, 2013 12:58 AM PDT

You put it briefly and well, Donna.
When serving on the ICANN Board of Directors, I chaired the ccNSO Review Working Group. From that experience, I arrive at the same conclusion as you, that because of the lesser constraints under which its members operate in the ICANN space, ccNSO is not the epitomy of the multi-stakeholder model. It's a statement of fact, not a criticism.
More interestingly, one can ask if ICANN's current ecosystem, in which its Supporting Organizations (SOs) and Advisory Committees (ACs) are assigned different levels of involvement, has not become self-defeating. We know the history: since its inception, ICANN has preferred to add layers to satisfy vocal constituencies with increasingly divergent agendas, rather than pausing to re-assess its structure in the light of REAL CHALLENGES AND NEEDS.
This may be one of the more important tasks for ICANN in the near future: how should it re-engineer its structures and processes in order to place the global public interest at the centre of its logic? Can it be satisfied with being perceived, by many, as an industry association, rather than as a vicar of the general Internet user? Oh, it would take a substantial change of by-laws, would it? Probably, but then, does ICANN want to be guided into the future by its current by-laws, or by a fundamental re-appraisal of what is really at stake?
JJS.

The ASO gets my vote! McTim  –  Sep 25, 2013 9:51 AM PDT

When you consider that Policies are completely developed inside the ASO structures with no chance of Board/Staff/GAC changes, the ASO seems to me to be the most open, transparent, bottom-up, consensus based and multi-EQUAL-stakeholder body in the ICANN universe.

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