So ICANN 42 is over and it was, I think a great meeting. Senegal was a great host and the yassa chicken was delicious. There were some technical hick-ups, but nothing major enough to disrupt the ICANN-style debate. And, it was a pretty important meeting too. It was Dr. Crocker’s first meeting as the Board's Chair and he had to manage a Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which over the past year, in particular, had proven to become a threat to ICANN's miltistakeholder model.
And, there is not a more important time to preserve multistakeholderism! In a time where governments shut their ears to the rule of law, they give in to excessive lobbying and they appear to disregard processes based on checks and balances, ICANN (along with the IGF) are the only true and remaining environments that support multistakeholder governance arrangements. So, it was interesting to see how the relationship between Dr. Crocker and the GAC would play out. I think he did a pretty good job. He asserted his role without distancing the GAC or becoming their puppet. He has a technical background, after all, and he understands (perhaps better than the most of us) what the imposition of bureaucratic processes can potentially cause. But, that doesn't mean that he can make the GAC problem disappear.
The wish of the GAC to acquire a more decisive role within ICANN is getting more real and more threatening. The relationship between ICANN and the GAC has always been awkward, but became particularly problematic at the latest stages of the new gTLD program over intellectual property and competition issues. This time, although the tones were somewhat lower, they followed the same pattern of disruptive behaviour. The GAC had an issue with the way Registrars were not willing to implement a set of recommendations driven by the Law Enforcement Agencies (LEA). The Registrar community was not willing to accept these recommendations without initiating a Policy Development Process (PDP), a justification that left the GAC unimpressed and pissed them off.
Suddenly, Registrars became the most controversial group of ICANN 42. The GAC sought to recalibrate and assert its place by taking this issue straight to the Board, seeking to bypass the miltistakeholder model of the GNSO. This action by the GAC is problematic and manifests its inability to adapt to the new governance reality of the Internet. In general, governments find it difficult to accept that the processes have changed, having moved away from the bureaucracy associated with them; the decision-making process has been taken away from the hands of the governments. But, that shouldn’t mean, at the same time, that governmental input is not required. It does mean, however, that governments should accept the processes established by the community and participate ‘on an equal footing’.
In general, the ICANN community does a pretty good job in monitoring and fighting for the multistakeholder model. In contrast, it is the actions of the GAC that confuse and frustrate the multistakeholder community. Last year, this frustration had to do with the GAC's intervention on the trademark issues and its disappointing failure to support the multistakeholder model of the Special Trademark Issues (STI) team; in Dakar it was the GAC's wish to bypass the processes of the GNSO.
The GAC is proven to be a highly dysfunctional body. But, this follows the general pattern that governments have decided to follow in the context of Internet governance - a denial to see that they have entered an uneven battle with the Internet itself, its evolution and capabilities. The disappointing fact is that the GAC appears neither willing to adapt nor, at the very least, give a try to the multistakeholder model. It continues to adopt an arrogant attitude of superiority over ICANN although so far it has failed to provide good alternatives to the various issues; it continues to stall the various processes and create a negative environment amongst all ICANN stakeholders, who end up feeling de-valued; and, it continues to operate on what seems the position of a handful of governments.
This latter issue is rather troubling. Although reassurances are made every time that the GAC position represents consensus, one cannot help but wonder how real a consensus this is. In the open sessions, many of the governments do not even speak; in some instances, GAC positions are drafted only by one government; and, unreasonable and mistaken requests are made to satisfy certain and known interests. For example, after the Registrars turned down the GAC's request and the issue was brought to the attention of the Board, the US Government made the following ridiculous suggestion, citing an unverified discussion, which took place at the ICANN meeting in Singapore and which suggested that something like 20% of Registrars may be bad actors. I was told in Dakar by some Registrars that this was not a statistical fact, but a random figure. Based on this abstract example, in Dakar, the US Government publicly demanded that ICANN de-accredits these 'bad actors'. Just like that - without proper evaluation, without the courtesy to request an investigation on the issue. This is a problem. The fact that Governments are making these suggestions without realizing the potential impact they might have, is – by itself – a testament to their ignorance.
So, here we are fighting for multistakeholderism and the ability of the community to participate, succeed, fail, get angry, get passionate, get active - in one word ENGAGE. The GAC may appear as a collective body right now, but this is because they all appear to fight for the same goal. I am wondering whether once they achieve to ascertain their control over ICANN, this collegiality will continue or whether (a most likely scenario) we will go back to a dysfunctional, intergovernmental structure that doesn't understand the Internet and is all about sovereignty and dirty politics.
Participating in ICANN, therefore, becomes crucial. And, ICANN should encourage this participation and seek to support those policy directions that are made by – and for – the community.