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When Having a Voice Isn't Enough

Steve DelBianco

In Brussels on Friday, an esteemed panel of experts got together to discuss the challenge of improving ICANN's accountability. It's just too bad nobody from ICANN came by to hear it.

Co-sponsored by the Washington-based Technology Policy Institute and the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, the panel focused on ICANN accountability. Four of the panelists — Shawn Gunnarson, Milton Mueller, Lawrence White, and Tom Lenard — have published proposals for new accountability mechanisms.

While their prescriptions varied widely, the panelists were remarkably similar in their diagnoses — namely, that ICANN has yet to meet the fundamental challenge of making its board and staff accountable and answerable to the community that it is intended to serve.

It's a message that's been delivered to ICANN many times before, from many different stakeholders, but one that the staff and board of ICANN don't want to hear.

With the Accountability and Transparency Review now underway, the ICANN community gets another chance to make its collective voice heard about the accountability issue. But as panelist Milton Mueller pointed out, sometimes voice isn't enough.

Quoting from his 2009 paper, Mueller contends that ICANN has effectively substituted "voice" for other, more impactful mechanisms of accountability.

As members of the ICANN community we routinely voice our concerns, but when it comes to implementing real change, or holding the organization to account for its decisions, we're left on the outside, looking in.

Hundreds of us devote substantial time and resources following the ICANN world-wide tour of meetings. We take weeks away from our day-jobs and families to participate in the "bottom-up" process that's theoretically driving DNS policy. And we desperately want to believe that our participation makes a difference.

But a substantial number of stakeholders are questioning whether their participation really matters. While ICANN's board and management may not mind if there are fewer stakeholders going to the microphones during public comment periods, the organization must know that its credibility depends on stakeholders believing they have an impact on the process.

In meetings between ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (GAC) and the Accountability Review team yesterday, government representatives wondered why ICANN isn't requesting their advice more often, and gave examples where GAC advice wasn't duly considered in Board decisions.

There's a common-sense saying, "Don't moon the giant." Alienating nongovernmental stakeholders is one thing, but ICANN is risking its very existence if influential governments feel alienated or ignored. That's because governments have options other than ICANN. They can turn to other venues where their voice is law, such as the United Nations and ITU. If that happens, we'll find out how tenuous ICANN's grasp on authority really is.

In Today's opening ceremony, CEO Rod Beckstrom said that ICANN invited the voices of stakeholders who might be critical:

By bringing in diverse and even contradictory voices, we are driving toward even greater innovation and openness and laying the path for the Internet of tomorrow.

But when one is disagreeing with proposals being pushed by ICANN staff and management, just having a voice isn't nearly enough.

By Steve DelBianco, Executive Director at NetChoice
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Related topics: ICANN, Internet Governance
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