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What ICANN is Doing Wrong

Stéphane Van Gelder

A couple of recent articles have caught my attention because they offer scathing criticism of ICANN.

The first is a long and convoluted article by Kieren McCarthy on the .JOBS debacle. Kieren has basically written a feature that only a seasoned ICANN insider can hope to understand and that's a pity, because the points he makes appear very valid. Namely that ICANN is incapable of looking at itself in the mirror and admitting when it's wrong.

The second is an op-ed that makes it clear ICANN often has no-one but itself to blame for the bad press it receives.

Take the long list ICANN directors this article points its finger at as having a stake in the new gTLD game. Anyone not well-versed with the ICANN process would certainly look with some discomfort at the fact that several industry people sit on the Board of the organisation that is approving the Internet's biggest expansion ever. And, be thankful for small mercies, author David Rowan has apparently not heard of previous ICANN Chairman Peter Dengate-Thrush's damaging move to a new gTLD firm minutes after he'd led the Board to an approval vote for the program last June. Otherwise he would have surely painted an even starker picture of ICANN…

As it stands, the picture is bleak, and yes it is one-sided. The truth is that the reason the governance model that ICANN embodies is so strong is in part because it involves industry insiders. For that read people who actually understand what they're voting on! A welcome change from traditional politician-driven governance bodies where the decision makers don't know the slightest thing about the market they're looking at.

But ICANN has not been tough enough with itself in the past, and thus left itself wide open to such attacks. Under existing ICANN rules, Dengate-Thrush did nothing wrong. But that doesn't make it right, because there's a difference between doing what you're allowed to do and doing the right thing. ICANN has since beefed up the onus on its directors to disclose potential conflicts of interests and is asking them more clearly not to benefit directly from Board decisions. It should have come sooner.

Up until now, ICANN has also made a very poor job of explaining how it works, and the benefits it brings. Instead, when it doesn't work, ICANN just gets all upset and sulks, treating critics with at best disdain, at worst outright arrogance.

And that's a pity, because its public/private sector-led governance model remains better suited to something as fast-evolving as the Internet than some sclerosis-riddled organisation who's members might sometimes value state control more than individual freedoms or public service.

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Chairman, MILATHAN

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

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Comments

Pas de question Antony Van Couvering  –  Jan 14, 2012 9:59 PM PST

I'm getting even more sick of the ICANN-bashing than I am of how ICANN operates, and that's saying a lot. It's pretty clear to me that Kieren has an animus against Beckstrom and ICANN that is destructive to his journalism, and I know I'm not alone in this feeling. 

And now this article from you, which among the rotten redolent tripe that passes for punditry in the domain name world is the stinkiest piece of corrupt stomach lining I've seen for a long time. 

When we hired Peter yes there were oohs and aahs from those who realized that the forces that hate ICANN would use it against them, as they use any weapon at their disposal.  But the fact is that the man toiled for many unpaid years to help ICANN and the Internet, and both he and our company have been punctilious in respecting his commitments and engagements.  We hired him because of his leadership abilities, his knowledge of domain policy and history, and because I have liked and admired him for many years.

Now, Stefan, you have written this sanctimonious twaddle, a retread of a hundred other articles about ICANN ethics that have flowed so piously from armchair moralists.  Normally I would just let it go. 

But it is just too too rich coming from you.  Do you remember the .PARIS RFP?  I do. You approached me and asked Minds + Machines to participate in the bid for .PARIS. You told me that you had been hired by the city of Paris to help find the right candidate.  Having lived in Paris for many years and having a great affection for the place, I was delighted. I labored to produce a response, and paid a translator to improve my mediocre French. This document provided you, and whoever else saw it, with inside information about our company.  A few weeks after submitting the RFP, we received a note from the city of Paris that, désolé, we were not chosen for .PARIS. Instead, it was given to a JV between CORE and AFNIC.

It wasn't until much later that I found out that you were actually working for AFNIC when you approached me and during the entire time of the RFP.  The company that won the bid was the one and same that sourced the candidates.  Quel coincidence!

You, ahem, neglected to supply me with this little piece of information.  When I called you to ask about it, you told me that there no question at all of conflict, absolutely not, inconceivable, pas de question. Whatever. I let it go.  Haven't mentioned it since.

But now, after all that, I have to read, from you of all people, this:

"Under existing ICANN rules, Dengate-Thrush did nothing wrong. But that doesn't make it right, because there's a difference between doing what you're allowed to do and doing the right thing."

Thanks in part to his (unpaid) leadership of a strong ICANN, you built a company that made you millions. But never mind that — you saw a chance to write an article and get your name out there by sullying someone's reputation!

Does this stale hand-me-down grandiosity come easily to you? It's so easy to kick someone when they're down. So easy to rehash a convenient morality tale that has been pandered by your betters for over six months (for which, I hope, they are heartily ashamed). So easy, apparently, to hold yourself up as an arbiter of morality.

Well, you're not. How dare you casually pass judgment on PDT. He's done more for the Internet than you could even conceive of doing. You have no credibility whatever.

Hi Antony,I can understand your knee-jerk reaction, Stéphane Van Gelder  –  Jan 15, 2012 5:17 AM PST

Hi Antony,

I can understand your knee-jerk reaction, as your company has probably been the target of much criticism since you hired Peter. I think it's unfortunate that the weight of that criticism has you spilling over into making false comments and the kind of savage attacks that actually only adds weight to the anti-ICANN arguments.

Kieren, in his response to my post here (http://kierenmccarthy.com/2012/01/13/my-analysis-of-the-broken-icann-culture/) says "Even if you were to raise it as GNSO Chair at the next ICANN meeting, you would likely be shouted down or told it is not in the GNSO’s remit, or be put under enormous peer pressure to keep it out of the public sphere."

Your words here just make his argument for him.

I would also add that I have never worked for Afnic. And that I was one of the first to make the argument that PDT had devoted a lot of his life to ICANN (in your quest to try and get your facts right, you may want to read this post that I wrote back in July http://www.stephanevangelder.com/archives/373-ICANN-needs-an-independent,-paid-Board!.html).

But that still doesn't alter the fact that PDT's move to your company so soon after the June 20 vote has in some people's eyes damaged ICANN. If you can't handle the truth from me, then I suggest you go back and read all the official letters that ICANN has received since then. Whenever anyone, be it a politician or an opponent of the new gTLD program, has been looking for a chance to criticize ICANN, they have used that.

Since then, ICANN has shown more ability to heed critics than you apparently possess by putting in stricter conflict of interest rules for its Board and has also decide to compensate Board members, a move that I (amongst others) thought was necessary to avoid the hypocrisy of asking Board members to devote so much time to an organisation, while the organisation itself gives nothing back. There is obviously still a lot more to be done in this area, and a lot more discussions to be had by the ICANN community.

Lastly, I would say that I find your last paragraph surprisingly tyrannical, even for a well-known "vocal bully" such as yourself. Perhaps Kieren is right after all. By your logic, being able to voice an opinion depends on the amount someone has done for the Internet. I disagree as I believe anyone should be able to voice an opinion. Being an ICANN veteran such as yourself does not give you the right to shout someone down because you disagree with them. And I fear that kind of attitude will not help ICANN draw in the participation from newcomers it badly needs, and is striving hard to get.

Stéphane

Oh please. "I have never worked for Antony Van Couvering  –  Jan 15, 2012 6:00 AM PST

Oh please. "I have never worked for AFNIC."

http://www.afnic.fr/en/about-afnic/news/general-news/2613/show/new-board-of-directors-and-activity-report-2006.html

StephaneI must compliment you on your well Michele Neylon  –  Jan 15, 2012 6:20 AM PST

Stephane

I must compliment you on your well balanced and thoughtful article. ICANN has got to do a lot of work to improve its perception and the issue with the former chairman of the board going off to work for an entity that could gain from the new TLD program has, as you said, caused the organisation and its supporters a lot of headaches in recent months.

I'm also very impressed with the calm and reasoned response you gave to such a petty and childish attack from Antony Van Couvering.

Antony - the domain name industry is not a particularly large industry and the tone and manner in which you are dealing with this is highly unprofessional and hardly does you or your company any good.

Regards

Michele

Exactly right! I was elected to represent Stéphane Van Gelder  –  Jan 15, 2012 6:37 AM PST

Exactly right! I was elected to represent the registrars on the AFNIC Board. I have never worked or been on AFNIC's payroll. I know you've never understood this and I'm sure it's easier to blame others when people decide not to work with you, but I suspect that the reason AFNIC were chosen by the City of Paris is simply because they were felt to be the best. Simple as that.

Some realities Kieren McCarthy  –  Jan 15, 2012 7:03 AM PST

What an extraordinary outburst - and one that doesn't do you any credit, Antony.

I suppose I should respond to the aggressive comments aimed at me personally.

Re: animus toward Beckstrom. Well, I do think he has been a disaster for ICANN. And I took a conscious decision to break what had felt increasingly like self-censorship when I wrote an article critical of him some months ago. 

I can even tell you what prompted it: his decision to fly to Dubai, or somewhere similar, rather than stay in Brussels for an unscheduled but vital third day of meetings with the Board and GAC over new gTLDs (the one incidentally where Peter, your chairman, unwittingly nearly blew up the whole program by acting like a prosecuting barrister rather than a chairman).

I was so amazed and appalled not only that Beckstrom had flown off, but that no one said anything about it, that I decided enough was enough and it was time to start outlining all the many, many issues that I knew existed with his leadership.

But here's the thing: I also knew that writing the truth, in public, was going to cause me no end of grief because of the culture of secrecy that pervades ICANN. Whatever you do, don't say in public what everyone is saying behind closed doors. 

The false logic currently in place is that any criticism of ICANN damages ICANN. And that there simply has to be a malicious reason for it - you just need to find out what it is. If you can't find a financial reason, then there has to be a personal reason. 

A good example of where this stretches beyond me and my articles is with the Swedish GAC rep. She repeatedly feels the need to point out that she actively defends ICANN when outside the organization. Why does she need to point that out? Because any criticism that she makes inside ICANN is portrayed as anti-ICANN.

The organization has developed a culture of aggressively not listening to people if it doesn't like what they say.

 As such, I knew that writing negatively about the CEO would cause ICANN staff to turn on me - as it duly did. Perfectly reasonable questions have been repeatedly treated with disdain or mockery (I have to persuade third parties to ask questions if I want an answer). I constantly hear about snarky comments and criticisms bordering on libel made about me, making the whole place look more like Louis' Versailles than a bottom-up global multi-stakeholder organization. 

It even got to the point where some staff started pressuring third parties to not attend a conference I was running - a quite extraordinary thing if you think about it.

But this is nothing new. If you are a journalist long enough you will always come across a company or an industry that has too big a sense of its own importance and has descended into petty corruption, almost always without realizing it. 

If you start writing some of the unpalatable truths the response is always to shoot the messenger. 

But the truths remain there. And the more you air them, the harder they become to ignore. 

The other thing is that once you have crossed that line and started acting as a critical voice, you don't really have much of an option but to keep on going until you see real change. 

People give you information they wouldn't normally because they know you have the courage to publish it. And once you are in the habit of looking too closely, it becomes very difficult to ignore what you see. 

For example, the ATRT recommendations are being fudged, and the budget is  at least $1m too high. The crucial RAA discussions behind closed doors are a mess but there is no one there who can afford to say so. The compliance department is hamstrung by its overlords in the legal department. But even a letter from the FTC and a series of recommendations from an independent review can't make ICANNers discuss the issue openly.

The senior staff are willfully ignorant of the global Internet governance picture, so ICANN is yet again being protected by those that the organization refuses to listen to. 

The NomCom is hideously outdated as a concept yet remains fiercely protected by those that have sway over it. The list goes on.

Eventually from somewhere groups build up enough courage to confront the problem. 

But before they do, there are always powerful people in the status quo who put themselves in the spotlight and try to shout down the criticism. 

This response to Stephane, who dare to put his head above the parapet, looks dangerously like that kind of response, Antony.

So, if I understand this correctly, Stephane, Antony Van Couvering  –  Jan 15, 2012 7:37 AM PST

So, if I understand this correctly, Stephane, you were on the AFNIC Board, and you were tasked by the City of Paris to help them find a registry.  You found candidates, who submitted to you confidential information, without mentioning that your organization was also in the running.

You say this is not a conflict of interest. Perhaps not. But let me quote:

"...that doesn't make it right, because there's a difference between doing what you're allowed to do and doing the right thing."

That is my point. You are in no position to lecture anyone about perceptions of conflict of interest. 

@Michele - I agree that our decision to hire Peter caused ICANN some headaches. Lots of things cause ICANN headaches.  That's a different thing than moralizing about what's right or wrong from a compromised position.

@Kieren - You are no doubt correct in your facts.  You're smart and thorough, and I would be the first to agree that there's a lot of mushiness in how ICANN approaches its obligations.  But as I have read your stuff I have noticed more than a few gratuitous jabs — something that I am particularly aware of because its one of my own besetting sins — which have weakened the effectiveness of your argument. Your note about self-censorship, by the way, is to the point, because I have been listening for months to an extraordinary array of moralists talk about Peter's decision even while they blithely ignore the conflicts of interest that are all around in this (as Michele points out) small industry. Like you, I'm tired of it, and I'm going to say my piece.  I think you're wrong about Stephane putting his head above the parapet, however - he is just repeating what has been said in public by a whole slew of pious folk.  He is on perfectly safe ground.

AntonyTrying to dismiss the gravity of the Michele Neylon  –  Jan 16, 2012 7:49 AM PST

Antony

Trying to dismiss the gravity of the problem by belittling Stephane and others genuine concerns does you no favours. None at all.

You can try to brush off the size of the problem by making flippant comments like those in your replies to me and others, or you can try to cast aspersions on people like Stephane. I honestly don't think either will work.

Regards

Michele

Gratuity not included Kieren McCarthy  –  Jan 15, 2012 7:02 PM PST

Re: gratuitous jabs at Beckstrom. I assume you mean the gossip pieces on .Nxt.

And yes, you're right in the sense that these appear in the same way as serious stories and analyses and that's a problem. Every industry publication worth its salt has fun gossip pieces, but they are always clearly differentiated, and that's harder to do online than in a print publication.

There is a little differentiation in that they are written by Dee Inez (http://news.dot-nxt.com/author/Dee Inez) and I'll made a confession: Dee Inez is not a real person. She's no more that a pseudonymous cover.

It's also true to say that most - although far from all - of the pieces are written by yours truly. But they clearly need to be broken out more clearly - a different colour or a clear graphic at the top.

It is also true that the gossip pieces to date have tended to focus on the Rodster. But only because he's such a good character to lampoon. I'll actually miss the bugger for that - when he's gone, who else can fill these shoes of comic material?

So yes, point taken. We'll come up with something this end to make the divide more obvious. And then the nose-tweaking, ego-pricking and wild rumour mongering can continue unhindered.

Kieren

List of new gTLD projects. Jean Guillon  –  Jan 16, 2012 3:32 AM PST

A list of new generic Top-Level Domains projects is available at Registries.tel

Re. ICANN governance model Ram Mohan  –  Jan 16, 2012 11:08 AM PST

Stéphane,
As one of the "insiders" who is deeply involved in governance activities (I serve on the Board Governance Committee), your observation resonated with me:

"The truth is that the reason the governance model that ICANN embodies is so strong is in part because it involves industry insiders. For that read people who actually understand what they're voting on!"

The Board has been trying to be more direct and specific in explaining the rationale behind its decision-making, while clearly aware that it cannot please all.  There is greater focus on three areas - conflict of interest, ethical boundaries and code of conduct - than at any time in my past 2.5 years on the Board.  We're trying to be consistent - even to the point of taking Board expertise out of the room if there is the hint of a problem in the 3 focus areas mentioned above.

On your other point:

"Up until now, ICANN has also made a very poor job of explaining how it works, and the benefits it brings"

There is such a variety of opinion on how best to do this task.  In my perspective, this is a staff-led function, with strategic direction coming from the Board and input derived from the multi-stakeholder community.

At the end of the day, ICANN is a servant of its community; its Board members are first and foremost, in a community-service role.  So long as we keep that in mind, execute crisply, communicate extensively, and manage the "shop" conservatively, there is a future ahead of us.

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