“The global community has proven that the multi-stakeholder model works”

Thomas Rickert on the work of the CCWG Accountability

This interview appeared in German on 23 March 2016 on domain-recht.de – the Domains blog. Reproduced and translated with the kind permission of lawyers Florian Hitzelberger and Daniel Dingeldey <http://www.domain-recht.de>

Lawyer Thomas Rickert from Bonn is Director of Names & Numbers at eco – Association of the Internet Industry e. V. and Co-Chair of the “Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing ICANN Accountability” (CCWG). After almost two years of work, more than 200 meetings and around 14,000 emails, the CCWG presented a proposal on the “IANA Transition” – which is destined to revolutionize the model of Internet administration – at the 55th ICANN meeting in Marrakesh a few weeks ago.

Congratulations on this success, which is being described by ICANN as a “milestone”. But to be honest, will Internet users be affected by the IANA Transition? Why is the IANA Transition necessary? We could just stay with the old model, true to the adage “never change a working system”.

In practice, the user should notice just as little by the IANA Stewardship transition as previously – namely, not at all. The Internet, or rather the Domain Name System, (DNS) should just simply work.

But let’s have a look at history to get a better understanding of its importance. When the Clinton Administration christened ICANN, the US Government was only meant to supervise the IANA functions for a brief transition period, because there was a desire to have a closer look at the multi-stakeholder model before releasing such a critical resource into independence. For the Bush Administration though, the task of supervising IANA was – I would say – not a priority. When several governments started thinking about “disengaging” from the global Internet as a result of the Snowden revelations, the Obama Administration struck out for liberation and offered to relinquish supervision – if the global community could submit a suitable proposal for how, after the withdrawal of the US Government, the security and stability of the DNS could be guaranteed, the openness of the Internet could be ensured and individual or multiple governments could be prevented from taking control. As a result, the liberation of the IANA functions from the US Government has enormous symbolic and political importance.

“Fundamental Bylaws” or Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees” – if you click through the ICANN website and read through the innumerable documents on the IANA Transition, it often seems confusing and non-transparent. Could you explain to us who will govern the Internet in the future and how this model works in practice?

Until now, the US Government has remained quietly in the background and had a merely notarial role with regard to the root zone management, when it came to the delegation or re-delegation of top level domains. However, the US Government always had the power to take operation of the IANA functions away from ICANN if the organization “got out of hand” – for example, due to corrupt directors or something like that. We have now developed a concept to take on the function of the US Government, and the result is that we give the right to the ICANN community to, in particular, call the directorate to order. Until now, the community could not dismiss the directorate. We have changed this, so that now the ICANN community is able to exercise certain rights in a strongly formalized process. It can have board decisions examined through an independent review panel if there is suspicion that the directorate is acting in breach of the ICANN statutes. In addition, individual directors or the entire board can be dismissed, and the community can exercise influence on changes to the statutes and the budget, as well as the strategic planning.

These rights can be exercised through what we have christened the Empowered Community. This consists of ICANN’s Supporting Organizations and Advisory Committees – the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO), the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO), the Address Supporting Organization (ASO), the At Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) and the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). Behind these names are a range of interest groups, from governments to the academic sector, and on to various industry circles and user representation. Everyone can find their home here and get involved.

Who is behind the CCWG, and what was your role within the CCWG?

In the CCWG, we have developed proposals for the improvement of “Accountability” at ICANN. Other groups worked on proposals for the technical functions (protocol parameters, IP addresses and names). In our group, around 200 people from all areas of the community at ICANN worked in cooperation. I was responsible for the project leadership together with my colleagues Mathieu Weill and León Sanchez. The objective of the project was the development of a consensus proposal which would be supported by the entire community. When you consider how different and – to an extent –opposing the interests of individual representatives were, you can see that it was not an easy task.

What can we understand as the practical work of the CCWG?

In addition to a range of face-to-face meetings, the work took place mainly on the telephone and through mailing lists. We established several sub-committees and appointed spokespeople. We were also supported by around five ICANN staff and two specialist US chambers. The timing of the telephone conferences (as a rule, two hours per week, but considerably more closer to the deadline) was rotated, so that everyone had the occasional inconvenient time for a call. We used virtual meeting software which, alongside the speech function, allows documents to be shown, has a chat function, live minute-taking and also allows the administration of requests to speak. This enormously simplifies the work of such a large group. All telephone calls were recorded and transcribed, so that everyone could follow the process. We published our interim reports for comment and so ensured as best we could that the wishes of the community were taken into account.

What are, in your eyes, the most important regulations in the CCWG proposal? Where was the greatest need for reform, and what were most discussions about?

Apart from the above-mentioned possibilities for the community to dismiss directors and have influence over the budget, strategic planning and statutes, the reform of the independent review panel should be mentioned. There is already an independent review process, but this only considers the observation of procedural aspects. This led in the past to situations where the reviewers determined that the decision of the directorate was wrong, but could not undertake anything, as there had been no breach of the stipulated processes. In future, complainants will also be able to turn to it regarding board decisions which, in their opinion, are in breach of ICANN’s statutes. There was a particularly large amount of discussion about the role of the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). While some governments are disappointed that, in their eyes, the possibilities for influence are not strong enough, the proposed form given in the concluding report goes too far for others. Seeing as they are all equally dissatisfied, it looks like we’ve found a suitable compromise.

Can you explain to us what will change for ICANN and what specific tasks are coming up for ICANN if the proposal is implemented?

The ICANN statutes are currently being heavily amended, in order to incorporate the reforms. If all goes well, alone the rights for the community will be sufficient to ensure that it never results in an emergency. We have also made sure that a dialog between the board and the community is mandatory for all matters of importance. This should minimize the risk that, for example, problems arise with the budget only after the board decision, rather than before. But aside from that, our work is not yet finished. We’re working on a second work-stream covering topics like human rights, transparency of the organization, and diversity. Through this, ICANN will continually improve as an organization.

Wouldn’t it have been wiser in the interests of a functioning Internet to create a strict separation between the purely technical IANA functions and ICANN’s administrative, economic and political functions?

Unfortunately, no. Especially because it’s about a stable and functioning Internet, accountability reform was necessary. ICANN is too important to undertake any experiments. In our discussions, the worry was often raised that ICANN could become a sort of FIFA– which must be prevented. We developed more than 30 stress tests for our proposal in order to examine whether the organization is armed to defend itself against all conceivable risks from within and without. Imagine if the root zone were to fall into the wrong hands.

The GAC, and with it certain countries like Brazil and Peru, have threatened until recently to block the CCWG proposal. What, in particular, were their concerns? In your opinion, are further blockades or attempts to be expected from the GAC or individual countries?

I’ve already said a bit about the variety of perspectives on the role of governments. I do not expect that there will be further problems now. The GAC gave us authorization to submit our report. There was no blockade. Just dissatisfaction.

Was the German Federal Government also involved, and did it have any influence on the future model of Internet administration? Is the CCWG proposal in accord with the views of the Federal Government?

The cooperation with the German Federal Government will have left many other countries envious. The Federal Government often organizes public information and discussion meetings before ICANN meetings. The IANA Stewardship Transition was a topic for these on many occasions. eco organized a range of events on the topic with the involvement of the Ministry for the Economy, and we managed very early on to develop and publish, with the Federal Government, a common position with a range of stakeholders from Germany. This has not happened anywhere else. I cannot speak for the Federal Government, but I assume that, at least to a large extent, our report would meet with their agreement. The lovely thing about consensus work is that no one gets everything, and everyone needs to work towards the others’ interests.

What obstacles will the proposal for the IANA Transition be faced with in the next step, and what can still go wrong? Is there a timeline?

Our proposal is now at the NTIA, the responsible authority, for examination. The result there needs to be positive. In addition, the amended statutes need to be finished quickly, so that the complete package can be transferred by the NTIA to the US Congress around the middle of June. If that works, and there are no problems there, then the contract between ICANN and the NTIA can come to an end in September 2016.

Do you expect the CCWG’s proposal – at least its essence – to be implemented?

Yes. We have made a sound proposal. As far as ICANN is concerned, everything will be implemented as proposed in the case of the US Government’s approval. I cannot say whether there will be demands for changes from the US Government.

Could the current presidential election campaign have an impact on the IANA Transition?

That is certainly possible. But I wouldn’t want to speculate here. Adherence to the above-mentioned timeline would definitely not be detrimental to the success of the project.

Looking back at the intensive work of the CCWG, is there anything that, in your entirely personal opinion, has not or has hardly been noticed publicly?

The community has come closer together. Where it used to be the case that nasty letters were thrown over the fence, personal contact, trust and even, on occasion, friendship has developed through the intensive cooperation of the representatives. At the ICANN meeting in Marrakesh, for example, the governmental committee did not negotiate their communique behind closed doors – for the first time in ICANN history. Regardless of how the US Government decides, the global community has – in an unparalleled show of strength – proven that the multi-stakeholder model works.

Mr Rickert, thank you for talking to us, and we wish you further success into the future.

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