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Good is Better than Perfect in ICANN Accountability

Jonathan Zuck

In the next few months, ICANN will have a concrete opportunity to improve its accountability and transparency by enacting the recommendations of the Accountability and Transparency Review Team (ATRT). Those recommendations may not be perfect, but if the history of the ICANN process is any indication, we can't afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the very good.

The Affirmation of Commitments Accountability and Transparency Review process was a bold experiment in the finest tradition of ICANN. Stakeholders from throughout the community came together under a tight deadline to address one of the biggest challenges facing ICANN. The review team worked through resource limitations, time constraints, and the challenge of creating an entirely new process to not only fulfill its charter, but also to blaze a path for future teams.

In many ways, the final product of the ATRT process represents the ideal ICANN document; not because everyone agrees on its findings — quite the contrary — but because it synthesizes an incredibly diverse set of inputs into a clear, actionable set of recommendations. By any reasonable measure, the ATRT has exceeded expectations in bringing the inaugural AOC review to a successful conclusion.

If there is one criticism to be lodged against the final ATRT report it is that it is perhaps a bit myopic. There is more to accountability and transparency than mechanisms for accountability and transparency. When speaking of building secure software, you will often hear the term "secure by design," which means that for software to be truly secure it needs to be designed with security in mind from the outset, not just subject to security mechanisms which are applied after the fact. True accountability at ICANN requires understanding those objectives to which the organization is being held accountable. The more concrete the organizational objectives, the easier to measure its success and failures and seek procedural improvements.

Accordingly, while ACT applauds the ATRT recommendations regarding metrics in the implementation of accountability and transparency measures as well as the board's resolution requiring metrics to measure the success of new gTLDs, metrics are essential across the organization for ICANN to be truly transparent and accountable. There need to be metrics surrounding internal processes; there need to be goals and metrics on contract compliance, diversity, etc. Even more abstract objectives such as raising community or governmental confidence in ICANN can be measured through participation and surveys. What gets measured, gets done.

That said, the herculean effort by the ATRT must be rewarded by action. While the work of the ATRT may be done, the work of the ICANN staff and board of directors has just begun, and their responsibility to the ATRT process is even more significant than that of the review team itself. Now that the ATRT has produced consensus recommendations for how ICANN should strengthen its accountability and transparency processes, the burden falls to ICANN to implement those recommendations without prejudice and in a timely fashion.

The AOC is unequivocal about the board's responsibility regarding the ATRT findings. The Affirmation states "the Board will take action within six months of receipt of the recommendations." But at the most recent meeting in Cartagena, ICANN President Rod Beckstrom seemed to indicate that the board and staff would pick and choose which recommendations to implement and when, based on constraints of time and budget. While later comments by ICANN leadership seemed to back away from this assertion, the episode only furthered the impression that ICANN is not fully committed to the ATRT process.

The biggest unanswered question about ICANN in the eyes of the global community is whether the organization possesses the will and the capacity to make difficult but necessary changes to strengthen its accountability and transparency to stakeholders. ICANN has long insisted that it is responsive and accountable to the ICANN "community" and requires no additional oversight. If this is truly the case, ICANN will act quickly and without prejudice to implement the recommendations of the ATRT. The ATRT indisputably represented the will of the ICANN "community" in the area of accountability and transparency. If ICANN fails to implement the changes developed by a community-driven process that it helped create, it will raise serious questions as to whether the organization is capable of demonstrating real accountability to anyone.

ICANN has never lacked for ideas on how to improve its accountability and transparency. For the past several years — dating back long before the ATRT — members of the community have offered an array of practical and creative solutions for improving the manner in which ICANN responds to the input of its global community. The ATRT built on and refined those efforts into the most cohesive and balanced set of recommendations that ICANN has yet seen. But until ICANN takes decisive action on the ATRT findings, they remain just another set of unrealized good ideas. And ICANN may be running out of opportunities to demonstrate its capacity to improve.

The ATRT may not be a perfect document, but the ICANN process does not demand perfection. Rather, it demands a commitment to continued dialogue, community engagement, and improvement. In that respect, the ATRT has met and exceeded its charter.

ICANN doesn't have to be perfect in implementing the ATRT proposal, but they can't afford not to be good.

By Jonathan Zuck, President of Association for Competitive Technology (ACT). More blog posts from Jonathan Zuck can also be read here.

Related topics: DNS, Domain Names, ICANN, Internet Governance, Policy & Regulation

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