Last week Yours Truly attended the 43rd ICANN meeting in Costa Rica. The gathering had a heavy agenda with more than 200 sessions, and the discussion was centred towards the issue of the new generic top level domains (gTLDs), which will allow the open registration of domains beyond the current crop of gTLDs (.com, .org, .net, .biz). If only i had the cash to apply for the .llama domain… but I digress.
From a personal standpoint the meeting was quite an eye-opener. This was my first experience at ICANN, it was nice to meet some new people, to see old friends, and to meet virtual acquaintances and finally be able to put a face to many avatars. I have always found ICANN quite interesting, having taught international institutions for several years, I was reasonably informed about its general structure and mission, but nothing could prepare me for the indiscriminate barrage of acronyms that make up the first sessions. When you finally manage to distinguish your GNSO from your NCUC, there is a certain feeling that one has been introduced to the Great Acronym Brotherhood. May your GAC be fruitful, brother!
The first thing that struck me was just how much effort is spent on openness and transparency. The registration is free, and with the exception of a few closed meetings, all of the sessions are open to anyone brave and willing enough to walk in. Most meetings are transcribed and webcast in virtual rooms for everyone to see. This openness is both refreshing and daunting, but it has an interesting downside. According to Costa Rican press, 600 locals registered for the meeting; having attended several sessions, I can truly say that I really didn’t see many of my compatriots present, not even when they were supposed to be there. Moreover, those few in attendance seemed completely confused by the proceedings, probably puzzled by the jargon and arcane session structure. The few that I saw participating seemed not to know what to make of the meetings, but it was good for my personal game of Conference Bingo, “won’t anyone think of the children” was the highlight of an otherwise uneventful session.
The openness and transparency are a result of the careful balancing act that is ICANN. When you remove all of the complex institutional structure, ICANN is at its heart a corporation associated with the US Department of Commerce. From the start, it seems clear that the DoC had a clear choice with regards to Internet governance, they could close the process and retain a tight leash, or they could involve various other countries, stakeholders and industries to try to maintain control. This is because it could have been possible for the international community to attempt to wrestle the reins from ICANN, and give it to a UN agency. Adopting a multi-stakeholder model allows ICANN to make a good case for continuing to be the controlling body of the Internet. It seems clear to me that losing this position is still considered to be a nightmare at the US government, as a hilariously over the top article in the Wall Street Journal by the FCC Chairman proves. The fact is that the ITU has no plans to take over the Internet, but it seems like reminding us that the reds are coming and want to take away your freedoms is still a popular tactic as it was during McCarthyism.
Churchill famously said that democracy was the worst form of government, with exception to all the others that have been tried. After attending the ICANN meeting, I would have to say the same about the multi-stakeholder model: it is deeply flawed in some ways, but it seems to work for now. Having been to some UN bodies that shall remain unnamed, I would not want the Internet to fall into similar hands.
By the way, I was serious about the .llama, anyone has some spare $185,000 USD?