ICANN 47: Policy debates and cautious optimism

A strange feeling came over me after I got home from ICANN 47 in Durban, something I haven’t felt after an ICANN meeting before.

The feeling? Optimism.

I’m optimistic, albeit cautiously so, about the future of ICANN and by extension, hopefully that of Internet governance in general.

If the meeting in Durban is any indication, we’ve come a long way in the past year. There were no outbursts of the type that characterized previous meetings. There were no indicted war criminals invited to dinner. And though it may be too soon to say for sure, I don’t think a letter will be sent to the government of South Africa about the quality of the hotel.

For a number of reasons, I think we have reached a turning point in the effectiveness of ICANN in the Internet governance ecosystem.

The meeting in Durban was very well organized. Although much of the heavy lifting in organizing an ICANN meeting is done by the local host, I can tell you from my experience as the host for ICANN 45, the staff at ICANN plays a large – and important – role in making sure the event is a success. Durban certainly was.

There was even difficult work accomplished – both the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (RAA) and the Registry Agreement (RA) were approved – a big step forward and a sign that ICANN has moved beyond some of the past tensions and sticking points with regard to the launch of the new gTLDs. On the importance of the RAA and the RA, Fadi Chehadé said it best: “We can see the last mile before the first new TLD is activated in the Internet’s root.”

I also have to give a nod to Fadi for putting together what appears to be a high-performing team – something I identified as a key priority for Beckstrom’s replacement last summer. In a relatively short period of time, key positions have been filled, and as far as I can tell from both the quantity and the quality of the work coming out of ICANN, the team has gelled under Fadi’s leadership.

I found the tone of the dialogue to be more respectful.

The Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), a body that has a history of not being heard or understood, received credible, timely feedback from the ICANN Board about its advice on new gTLDs and the New gTLD Program. This is the sign of (dare I say it?) a respectful dialogue between the two bodies – not something I expected based on past experiences.

While I’m on the subject of new gTLDs, one of the striking events for me at ICANN 47 was the handling of the .AMAZON application. The GAC’s advice was clear – the .AMAZON TLD should not be awarded to Amazon.com, Inc. as it can be confused with the geographic region – and in all likelihood, ICANN will follow this advice.

While this is the right decision in my opinion, it didn’t stop the Amazon.com, Inc. representatives from publicly criticizing ICANN and the entire gTLD process.

Not surprising. However, what was surprising was how we were all able to listen, and to move on with the business of the day. Keep in mind, this is a large and powerful multinational corporation (who happens to hold the trademark for the name) calling out ICANN. It’s a sign that the organization has matured.

Having said all of this, I must stress that ICANN is not above criticism. Even if we’ve reached a turning point, the fact remains it will be a while before the old tensions dissipate and all stakeholders show up to meetings in the spirit of openness and trust. But, we have to give credit where credit is due. ICANN has been making a significant effort to reach out to the broader community, and is generally listening to feedback and adapting to it where applicable. It showed in Durban.

Fact is it was a relatively boring meeting, but boring in a good way. The fireworks that characterized past meetings have been replaced with substantive and respectful dialogue on policy issues. And you know what? That’s exactly the way it should be – it shows the multi-stakeholder model can work.

I’m looking forward to ICANN 48 in Buenos Aires.