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ICANN and the Developing World: Examining The Outreach Program

Shravanti Reddy’s recent piece draws attention to an important issue that has nagged at ICANN ever since the ill-fated at large elections, when participants from the developed world greatly outnumbered those from the developing world. This imbalance was somewhat mitigated by the regional delineation of candidates, but it nonetheless raised two important questions that have yet to be settled. First: How can ICANN (and, more generally, Internet governance) be more inclusive of developing countries? And second (less often asked, but perhaps even more important): Why should developing countries care about ICANN — i.e., why does the answer to the first question even matter? This article discusses some recent developments related to the first question; a later article will consider some specific reasons why ICANN matters to the developing world.

In fact, a potentially significant step was taken last month with regards to the first question; for some reason, it went largely unnoticed. On May 17, ICANN released its Proposed Budget for 2003-2004. Buried at the very end of that budget, after all the personnel and meeting-related expenses, is a “Proposed ICANN Outreach Program” that would — in the words of the budget — “provide an improved vehicle for ICANN to explain its policies and procedures, and its other activities, to Internet communities in developing countries.”

The program, still only in a pilot phase, would hire Internet activists in two parts of the developing world (probably Africa and Latin America or the Pacific Islands). These so-called outreach “evangelists” would be responsible for coordinating with the local Internet community, and for initiating wider educational and information activities. They would, for example, advise the local groups on ccTLD redelegation matters, provide technical advice on operating a ccTLD, and encourage the development of grassroots at large movements that might one day grow into the wider Internet democracy that ICANN itself was supposed to become.

This proposed program is certainly an encouraging development — despite its very tentative nature, and despite its relegation to “Appendix 2” of the budget. It may be an instance of ICANN’s actually listening and responding to external complaints, and thus a signal of new (and very welcome) accountability in the organization. There are, however, a few outstanding issues regarding the specifics of the program, which at this point remains somewhat vague in its operational details.

The first of these issues relates to what we might call the issue of “ownership”: who will in fact control the outreach program? Since the outreach “evangelists” will be hired and trained by ICANN, it seems reasonable to assume that this will be an ICANN-led effort. That’s certainly the impression conveyed by the budget. If the program is going to be funded by ICANN, I suppose this is only fair (although perhaps not necessarily the best way forward: see my discussion below). But it is unclear at this point where the proposed $220,000 of funding for the first year of this program will be found. An earlier draft of the budget, released after the Rio meeting, included a line saying that “other avenues are being explored for establishing this program, including the possibility of grant funding and of collaboration with other parties.” If indeed external funding is being sought, then the question of ownership is easily raised — it seems unlikely, in that case, that ICANN will exert sole control over the outreach program.

But the issue really isn’t just about money or control — it’s about who is best suited to run such a program, and to ensure that it achieves its desired ends. Even if ICANN does end up providing the financing, it’s worth asking whether an outreach program is in fact best operated and led by ICANN itself. After all, the organization isn’t exactly known for its inclusiveness, and its operational “culture” and history would seem to bode ill for an outreach effort designed to generate greater inclusiveness and openness. Anybody remember the last effort ICANN made to include a wider section of the public in its operations? Unless I’m wrong, that was the ill-fated at large elections. The point is simply that ICANN has earned a mostly well-deserved reputation for secretiveness and a lack of transparency, neither of which are qualities one would expect to contribute to the success of this program.

In addition to ICANN’s own shortcomings, another reason to think outreach efforts should be “outsourced” is the wealth of capacity that already exists in other organizations — NGOs, technical associations, academic centers, and other civil society groups on the ground in developing countries. Such groups already have the necessary contacts, social and cultural knowledge, and, in many cases, technical expertise. Equally important, given the concerns I raise above, these groups often have an abundance of the social capital and good will that ICANN itself lacks. They are, in a word, trusted, and this is an essential prerequisite to building a grassroots outreach effort that is truly inclusive.

Examples of such groups include the Africa Network Operators Group, GrameenPhone in Bangladesh, and the Open Forum Information Exchange in Cambodia. That’s just a tiny sampling. Many, many more exist, and perhaps the first outreach step that should be taken is to identify other such groups, and to conduct an analysis of their current capacity and needs.

None of this is to suggest that ICANN should have no role to play whatsoever in the outreach effort. At the end of the day, ICANN’s involvement and co-operation will be critical. But it does mean that, at the very least, co-ordination with existing groups in developing countries is essential. Ideally, these groups would run the show, with ICANN providing only technical and financial support. This would draw currently excluded groups and individuals into ICANN; it would extend the sphere of ICANN’s membership beyond the narrow circle that already knows about ICANN or is already somehow involved in DNS management.

It would, in other words, truly reach out beyond ICANN. The ultimate result is likely to be greater legitimacy for ICANN, an outcome that serves the organization’s own interests as much as those of the wider Internet community.

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Re: ICANN and the Developing World: Examining The Outreach Program MichaelD  –  Jun 20, 2003 12:58 PM PDT

I strongly agree, but unfortunately there still seems to be no mechanism in place to either persuade or force ICANN to act in it's own best interest. 

My own experience extends primarily to Latin America.  When I think of the groups that have the kind of diverse business and private leadership needed, one of the best options is the open source and educational community.  The open source community has the experience in advocating and leading new ideas - the educational community has considerable respect, independence and speaks to emerging leaders. 

Unfortunately however, the budget cited is so low it is unlikely anything will ever be done.  If you have a few experienced, senior leaders - the travel and other expenses would barely support one or two.  If you rely on a group of part-time local advocates, the results will be uneven and hard to manage.  Just from that fact alone, it appears to me there is no serious intent in the proposal.  If you are not willing to put forth a serious funding proposal, you do not value the results.

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