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Monday, October 22, 2012
by Thomas O'Toole
I had the opportunity to participate on the "What the Journalists Think" panel at last week's Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers meeting in Toronto, and that was enjoyable, and flattering, and I had the opportunity to meet a few other folks that I have admired for a long time. All good, eh, except for the fact that the panel moderator didn't ask many of the questions he said he would ask. So now I have several pages of "unused" notes. Unused until now.
There aren't many frustrations covering ICANN, actually. Covering ICANN is a treat compared to covering Congress. At ICANN, the discussion topics are interesting and thoughtfully explained by experts in their fields. Nobody is going to describe the internet as a "system of tubes," or deliver long-winded commentaries about irrelevant topics1, or pander to humanity's basest motivations, or treat the audience as if it were composed entirely of third graders.
At ICANN meetings, nearly everyone from ICANN officials to attorneys to networking techies will take a question from a journalist. Even on mundane "I can't believe you don't know this" topics.
I have a few small frustrations, however.
Frustration #1. The ICANN multi-stakeholder model (businesses working together to reach consensus outcomes, with direction from government and input from the internet user community) takes a long time to produce results. My publication has been writing about WHOIS reforms, negotiations over the registrar accreditation agreement, and the new top-level domains initiative forever.
Frustration #2a. At ICANN, the "news" comes from many sources: email lists from constituencies and working groups, reports, correspondence and wiki pages, to name just a few. This makes tracking ICANN a long slog at times. The new MyICANN website, published as a beta at the Toronto meeting, appears to reflect a recognition on ICANN's part that following its activities can be challenging.
Frustration #2b. In the early ICANN days, I did not think our readers were all that interested in ICANN news, save for discussions on possible changes to the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy. Today, however, there are numerous policy development processes taking place at ICANN that affect the practice of law:
The "frustration" aspect of all this is that important sessions now occasionally overlap, and it is no longer a viable coverage strategy to merely follow the ICANN board or its Government Advisory Committee from room to room.
Frustration #3. Among attorneys, the BNA brand is well-known. Outside the legal profession, however, a source's initial response circa 2000 was invariably "Who are you with? Is that government?" The brand recognition issue was a hurdle for reporters during the early days of our ICANN coverage. Subsequent developments have pretty much erased the brand recognition issue, however. First, we are working the ICANN beat a lot harder than we used to; we attend every meeting. Second, Bloomberg's acquisition of BNA in 2011 raised considerably the profile of the "Bloomberg BNA" brand outside the legal profession. Third, there are a lot more lawyers at ICANN meetings these days! The "Who are you?" factor is still there, but not so much anymore.
The question is an invitation for ill-informed, vapid punditry/prognostication, a staple of modern journalism. Thank you, don't mind if I do. I wrote down a lot of these predictions, and some of them are quite stretch. However, in these sorts of events, it is good idea to write down both strong and weak ideas in order to guard against the prospect that prior speakers will catch all the low-hanging fruit.
No, and the absence of the "man on the street" from domain name policymaking might be a good thing. Hear me out on this.
Good thing. ICANN can focus on the technical and policy aspects of DNS management without dealing with grandstanding by lawmakers.
Bad thing. Without public engagement, domain name policy will skew toward whatever outcome is most revenue-enhancing for the domain name industry.
Good thing. Public engagement attracts Congress. The quality of the discussion and eventual policy outcome to emerge from ICANN will be superior than whatever result might come out of Congress.
ICANN could be more transparent. And it could pay more attention to conflicts of interest, and in building confidence and trust in its operations. Yet I think this is not quite the right question. I would ask: Is ICANN more transparent than any likely alternative?
The answer to this question is definitely yes. ICANN is definitely more transparent than the Department of Commerce, or Congress, or the International Telecommunication Union, or ICANN's own Government Advisory Committee. None of these entities make public who is lobbying them, they are all expensive to lobby, all except Congress operate behind closed doors, and all of them operate for the benefit of businesses and governments. At ICANN, internet users are explicitly recognized as a constituency and an important source of policy views. The ICANN internet user community is a frustrated lot (they do not prevail on most issues), but their voices are heard.
All in all, ICANN is not a bad forum for the internet user, especially when you consider the alternative.
By Thomas O'Toole
Follow me on Twitter at @tjotoole.
Long-winded commentaries about irrelevant topics are reserved for the Public Forum, a regular ICANN meeting feature that takes place just before the ICANN board meeting. ↩
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