Some thoughts on ICANN’s next CEO


Rod Beckstrom has announced (via Twitter) that he’s leaving ICANN as of July 2012. Whether or not the decision was Beckstrom’s, the Board’s or mutual is their business. As the President and CEO of a ccTLD, my focus now is on Beckstrom’s replacement. Ten months is not that long to find the right person for the job, and it is now a very important job to fill.

While there has been much controversy regarding Beckstrom’s tenure, we can’t forget that ICANN accomplished a lot with Beckstrom at the helm. Though it’s true that many of these initiatives have been underway for years, it was under his watch that many of them were either completed or there was significant progress made.

Consider the approval of Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), new generic top-level domains, signing the Affirmation of Commitments forward (even if not as far as many would like) and you realize that some important work was completed in  the past few years. And, Beckstrom’s work isn’t done yet – let’s not forget that the IANA contract with the U.S. government – the agreement that gives ICANN the authority to coordinate the DNS – is up for renewal in March, four months before his announced July departure.

For what it’s worth, the following are some of the major challenges I think ICANN’s new leader will face.

The hurdle the new ICANN CEO will face is to take the organization to the next level of operational, organizational maturity – all of this in the face of increasing criticism, threats to its existence and hostility.

If ICANN is to remain at the core of the governance and coordination of the Internet, it needs to come a long way in a very short period of time. One of the first steps, in my opinion, will be to enhance ICANN’s communications and marketing activities to effectively get its message out to its stakeholders.  There’s no use in implementing a vision if you don’t have the means, the creativity and the capability to tell people about it. And it is absolutely essential to fostering an open and transparent culture – something that has never been up to par in ICANN’s history.

In my opinion, the next CEO will have to not only defend the multi-stakeholder model of governance, but will have to become its ambassador and advocate as well. The Internet governance world is at a crossroads and the next leader will have to make sure we all follow the right path. What does this mean? That he or she will be diplomatic in approach and a consensus builder (especially after the last few years of rocky relationships).

They will have to be able to work with – and stand up to – those whose actions are not in the best interest of the Internet. They will have to get out there and promote the multi-stakeholder model as the most effective and efficient one to run a dynamic entity like the Internet. They will have to be present at events like regional and national Internet governance fora, the UN-coordinated Internet Governance Forum, and the International Telecommunication Union. In short, they will have to defend the multi-stakeholder model to those who would rather see a treaty-based approach to governing the Internet.

All of this will depend on building a solid foundation at ICANN.

The leadership team is not fully built yet.  Currently, there’s no CFO and ICANN’s internal/external reporting needs a significant tune-up. A real team needs to be built at the highest levels, and processes that have been sorely lacking – such as reporting – need to be put in place to ensure the rest of us (Registries, Registrars, governments, the private sector, academia, and so on) are comfortable moving forward with ICANN as we move into the next phase of the Internet’s development. There needs to be a significant realignment of organizational priorities with a focus on relationship building and maintenance, as well as on stakeholder communications. ICANN has been around for almost 13 years. It’s time it started operating like the mature organization it needs to be.

Fundamentally, there have been a number of great accomplishments, but now is the time to really put them into effect, execute them and gain support and buy-in from the rest of us. The next leader will have to be a doer – someone who can be diplomatic, but think strategically and execute on the ground.

What do you think? What challenges will ICANN’s next leader face? What skills will they require to succeed?

In the meantime ICANN, and its CEO Rod Beckstrom, will need the communities’ support as it moves forward on some of these major endeavours.

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  • Rob

    So when do you apply Byron ?

  • Kieren McCarthy

    A diplomatic and insightful post Byron.

    Let’s be honest, it is a difficult job. But I don’t think it’s *that* hard for the right person. And it would be exhilarating as well for that individual.

    There is actually a huge amount of support out there for an ICANN CEO that reflects the organization’s true self. And oddly enough, everyone pretty much agrees what that true self is: an organization that listens to all stakeholders, that believes in openness and transparency; that believes the Internet’s issues are best sorted out through a consensual approach within technical boundaries.

    With support from the G8, OECD, USG and EU over the multi-stakeholder model, an ICANN CEO that focuses on that model and making it work is in a powerful position. And has a platform.

    You can take the principles that ICANN has – and are in the bylaws – and apply them in making decisions. Rather than make decisions for short-term political reasons; use those principles to make decisions and deal with the short-term repercussions.

    But to do that does mean tackling several things that for historical and cultural reasons are fiercely resisted internally – you’ve noted them:

    * Transparency and accountability – as a default. It needs to be viewed as the power behind the multi-stakeholder model, not a hassle or something to be got around. Staff and Board should be going out of their way to tell people what they are doing.

    * Outward facing communication. The question should always be: how do this impact the community? Not ‘how does this impact my arbitrary deadline or my workload’. The point of public comment should be to ask what people think; not to get over a procedural hump or provide defense for a decision already made.

    * Embrace the community and especially the volunteers. View them as the lifeblood and ask them how to make things work better. And then be inventive and innovative enough to try new things to move ICANN processes into the Internet of 2011 rather than 1999

    * Inject some innovative thinking and support those that do so. The organization is *extremely* risk-adverse. Even the smallest change is given a hammering. After a while, people giving up trying and keep their heads down.

    * Give people authority to make decisions. The culture internally reflects the culture externally – everyone has to be allowed to provide input on everything. But when it comes to efficient running of an organization, you have to give people clear authority to make decisions in their area of expertise. And then hold them accountable for those decisions.

    If the new CEO pulls all that off – a statesman for the multistakeholder model; a catalyst for effective management and a defender of change and innovation internally; and a genuine advocate for the community of volunteers – then the only thing left to deal with is a Board culture that always has another reason why the discussion needs to be had behind closed doors.

    I hope none of those thinking of applying for the job read this comment. It may put them off :-)

  • Jim Fleming

    This is an ideal time to DISSOLVE (MERGE) ICANN into the rest of their COZY Eco.System.

    That merger could delay new gTLDs for two more years. Derailing competition for a couple more years would enrich {{ the Insiders }} even more.

    No matter what ICANN does, there will be major changes coming to {{ The Industry }}. People have been deprived for far too long. The Genie is out of the bottle, more than one person can see the future can be “better”.

    Several “fractures” in the .NET are likely in the next couple of years. The legacy Internet is showing its age. No ICANN CEO or Board
    can stop the wave that is coming. The “Insiders” could probably figure
    out a way to fund their retirements from the tens of millions in
    reserve cash. They could buy an island and sit and watch the Next
    Internet emerge, without them.

  • Byron

    You are a funny guy:)

  • Byron

    Thanks for the response.

    I think you make a very good point about the G8, OECD et al. These are organizations that seem to be predisposed to supporting the multistakeholderism. ICANN really needs to find a way to leverage this support and be catalytic in enabling them to help reinforce multistakeholderism.

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  • Marc

    In my book, the next CEO must be non-US. We ought to have ICANN be seen as less US centric and it starts with its CEO.

  • Richard Sexton

    The original US Government charter for ICANN all but mandated a membership, that paid dues and could vote. That was to be the whole point; “multistakeholder” is rubbish, it just means you have a voice – but a voice is not a vote!

    How long has ICANN heard people at the microphone voice a near universal concern only to listen and then say “next” and that’s that. All it’s life, that’s how long.

    Any notion of “measuring the consensus of the community” went out the door in 1999 when Bob Shaw of the ITU sprang them on an unsuspecting audience who when quickly polled showed 13 out of about 1000 thought this was a good idea – this is in the Berkman archives.

    ICANN was created by the US government, in secret, and then tasked with three things: 1) devolve the NSI monopoly, 2) do something about trademarks and 3) create a process to expand the tld-space. It managed to do those first two in six months. A decade later it’s still true that new TLD’s are two years away from whenever you ask, although given the final publication of the handbook one could argue they’re done. The net worked fine before they existed and they were only created to solve one problem and now they’re done.

    Canada, CIRA and .ca do not need ICANN. As Canadians we have to ask ourselves, what do we get for the money we put into ICANN? To say nothing of the millions of dollars Canadians put into the NSF “intellectual infrastructure” fund in the pre-ICANN era. I was happy to pay into that fund, created by NSF staffer Son Mitchell – who intended it to keep the “IETF process pure by funding workshops, plane tickets and so on. It, however, was absconded by Mike Roberts for his EDUCAUSE/INTERNET2 project and was only of benefit to American universities.

    So now we instead pay ICANN. And for what? If ICANN were to vanish tomorrow, you could still get your email and you could still download NYAN cat videos from YouTube. TLD server NS record changes? Give it to the diplomatic corps or CSIS, isn’t that what we pay them for? To preserve integrity of information and guarantee it gets to who it’s supposed to get to? Although, given the state of cryptography today, you could tweet the NS changes if they were appropriately signed. Getting 16 numbers to the NTIA once every few months really isn’t a big deal

    Don’s fund was supposed to drive innovation, and it didn’t. I can’t imagine who would have ever thought back in 1999 that ICANN might one day become a slow moving parody of the worst of government bureaucracy that couldn’t even manage to create new TLD’s before Duke Nukem Forever came out and perhaps it is only a coincidence that it’s first CEO coined the term “vaporware”.

    And as Canadians continue to throw millions of dollars a year into the giant sucking black hole which is ICANN and all its related entities in the I* ecosystem the question again needs to be asked: shouldn’t that money be used for Canadians? Where’s our root servers? Where’s our version of ISC? Where are our versions of the American I* franchise?

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