Beyond words: Diverse voices and miscommunications

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A few days ago, I sat in a meeting here in Ottawa with our IT Director and Director of Marketing and Communications. These are two highly intelligent people working on the same team, for the same company, talking about a common subject. And yet, something was amiss in achieving mutual understanding. Each was seeing things from his own distinct perspective and as such, speaking his own language. As I reflected on my team’s internal dynamic, I began to see parallels in areas that have an even more direct impact on the Internet ecosystem.

Recently in Dakar at the meeting of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), different languages (and I mean that figuratively) were clearly being spoken and mutual understanding was not achieved. Phrases like ‘very, very disappointed’ were used, voices were raised, and the tension in the room was palpable.

While fireworks often happen at ICANN meetings, there was a new sense of urgency displayed.

A lot happened behind the scenes, and it was, in my opinion, symptomatic of a few challenges facing a maturing organization.

ICANN is made up of many – sometimes – disparate voices. That’s the beauty of the multi-stakeholder model – those who should have a voice do have a voice. However, disparate voices can also lead to some severe, albeit unintentional miscommunications.

I live in Ottawa, and as anybody who has lived or worked here knows, government folks have their own language. It goes beyond a vocabulary rife with acronyms; every message, every sentence (to us outsiders, anyway) is nuanced and massaged. Contrast this to the direct nature of private sector players, Registrar and others, in the Internet world.  These are “chronic entrepreneurs,” folks who look for the most efficient, pragmatic solution, often bred in the wide open early days of the Internet. When these two groups get together, the potential for miscommunication is enormous.   Each speaks the same language, but the “dialects” of their cultural groupings can be quite different.

The law enforcement community has been calling on Registrars for a long time to curb criminal use of the domain name system. This issue has finally come to a head with the blowout at the meeting of the GAC and the GNSO, who represent the interests of the Registrar community at ICANN, and subsequent meetings between the GNSO and other groups.

Law enforcement first introduced a set of recommendations in a document called, appropriately, ICANN Law Enforcement Due Diligence Recommendations, to curb illegal activity on the Internet in 2009, and these recommendations were endorsed by the GAC in 2010.

The Registrar Stakeholder Group, a sub-group of the GNSO, had a discussion at the ICANN meeting in Singapore in June 2011 about implementing the law enforcement recommendations. There was a clear miscommunication at that time, because in Dakar the GAC were convinced that the Registrars would be returning in Dakar to report on progress toward implementing in short order nine of the 12 recommendations.

When the Registrars came back with an update on implementing just three of the recommendations (and at that, they were the three most minor of the bunch), the GAC was understandably upset.

In the government’s world, the appearance of making progress can be just as important as progress in and of itself. There’s no point in doing something if you can’t show that you’ve done so.

The Registrar Stakeholder Group, I’m sure, believed they were reporting a major success. They have a point. The fact is, even if they adopt all 12 of the recommendations and shut down nefarious activity originating in their respective countries, a Registrar somewhere else in the world will likely just fill that void. Why make investments, time and money, if it’s likely not going to make a difference?

In the minds of the Registrars, they think they’ve made real progress. If you can’t get 100 per cent, there’s no point in wasting time and energy trying. Most of the good guys are already taking appropriate steps anyway. The GAC is going to have to go back to their respective countries, where some of them are facing a good deal of pressure to have Registrars implement the Law Enforcement recommendations, and let their leaders know Registrars won’t voluntarily adopt them and self-regulate.

Fine, you can’t get 100 per cent, but you have to give us something, the GAC seems to be saying.

This was seen by both the GAC in particular, and as a result the ICANN board, as having some pretty severe consequences, and they let the Registrars know their disapproval.

But what’s the GAC really saying here? It’s a metaphorical scream for help. It’s a, “Guys, help us so we can help you!”

Why?

Because governments want – need – to curb criminal activity on the Internet. If the current structure that oversees the Internet is ineffective in helping them do so, another model for governing the Internet will start looking more attractive to them.

Bodies like the GAC, who have been, for the most part, supporters of the multi-stakeholder model, are trying their best to protect that model from external pressures, often coming from governments. Fact is, governments are flexing their muscles, and all of the players in the Internet governance ecosystem better listen. There are expectations placed on GAC members by their home governments, and when they need to deliver, they need to deliver.

And there are a few options that are gaining awareness around the world, such as in moves by the International Telecommunication Union to exert their control over the Internet, and more recently we’ve seen it in the form of a proposal commonly referred to as the IBSA proposal.

The IBSA is a proposal developed by India, Brazil and South Africa (thus, the acronym), calling for the development of a new global body, within the current United Nations system, that would oversee the technical development and operations of the Internet. In other words, it calls for the dismantling of the multi-stakeholder model for governing the Internet.

Fact is, the IBSA is the sound of the bolts being tightened around the key players. Although it’s unlikely to succeed, there will be other proposals that will follow, and if something doesn’t change soon (as in, start listening to each other, Registrars and GAC), eventually one of them is going to succeed.

In a way, this really puts the Registrars in a no-win situation. If they’re not willing or able to materially self-regulate, regulations are going to be imposed by governments. And, it’s in their best interest to self-regulate. This course of action will be the best for everyone involved because it will be the path to protecting the multi-stakeholder model.

Many of the Registrars need to better appreciate that the Internet isn’t the Wild West anymore. It’s a maturing industry, and it’s an industry like no other – all of the disparate stakeholders have a (more or less) equal say. And, more and more governments around the world are starting to take notice.

At some point the Registrars need to realize that they need to start really listening to what the other stakeholders are trying to say to them. This not only means listening to the words being spoken but also really hearing the meaning of what is being said. It’s in their own best interest. I can promise you one thing – if the multi-stakeholder model is dismantled, whatever replaces it won’t have nearly as much room for a voice from private sector actors like Registrars (or any other non-governmental agency, for that matter).

Coming back to my team at CIRA; we are increasingly sensitive to the idea that we need to listen closely to each other’s dialects so that we don’t miss the meaning of what is being communicated. A net gain is achieved when we broaden our view point beyond what directly impacts us in our own disciplines and really approach at the situation holistically.

What do you think? Am I understanding the GAC and Registrars’ respective points of view or am I also interpreting through my own lens?

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