ALAC report: Barriers to meaningful participation

West Lake Consulting Limited recently published a draft of its independent review of the At-Large Advisory Committee to ICANN (summary; full report). The comment period closes 27 June.

Key points:

  • ALAC was in the institution building phase, and therefore unable to make significant contributions to policy development.
  • In order to increase its effectiveness, ALAC needs a formal planning process.
  • ALAC needs permanent staff to aid the RALOs (1 staff member per region)
  • It has been difficult to recruit independent individuals interested in policy making due to the following factors, including: language barriers; Technical complexity of some of the big policy issues; and the extended, and often robust, nature of discussions on some of the At-Large Email lists, a style which does not sit comfortably with some more consensus based cultures.

The authors made an interesting observation, which I found to be particularly true when I attended the NCMR:

“Individual Internet users regard the Internet increasingly as essential (and largely invisible) infrastructure, similar to telephones, electricity and postal services. As long as these continue to function, most users do not give them much thought…is there sufficient interest, among the 1.4 billion individual users of the Internet, for them to participate to any significant degree in the specialized technical role of ICANN?”

That is an important question. How many 'independent' users can afford to spend the time and money necessary to effectively engage in this activity? Given the fact that the costs are challenging obstacle to those from developed countries, and barriers to those from less developed countries, how could anyone meaningfully contribute unless they were financed by concentrated economic and political interests?

For those who are interested in Internet governance, ICANN has set up a Policy Issue Briefs web page in order to help people get up to speed on major discussion topics.

[update]

A number of ALAC community members have taken the opportunity to post comments on the report, in addition to providing feedback during the ICANN meeting in Paris. One of the more important points that I failed to touch on was the recommendation that ALAC not be given voting rights on the ICANN board. This upset many of the members of ALAC, who consider full voting rights to be an essential element of meaningful participation in the Internet governance process.

The consulting group provided two reasons why denying voting rights to ALAC members would have positive benefits:

  • It would create a healthier board environment; boards that operate on consensus building are healthier and more effective than boards that work on majority votes. Giving ALAC voting rights would drive ALAC members to take the latter, less healthy approach.
  • It would allow ALAC representatives to continue to faithfully represent the needs of their community. Currently the “ALAC Liaison to the Board can participate in Board affairs and receive all Board information, but retains a total commitment to representing the ALAC cause. If this Liaison became a voting board position, the influence of the ALAC would be diluted, rather than increased, since the member would have the duty… to act in the interests of ICANN and not as the representative of the ALAC.”

I understand how consensus building is healthier than confrontational, majority seeking approaches. What puzzles me is how providing voting rights to some members of the board while denying rights to others promotes a consensus building environment. What I see instead is that it creates a two-tiered system in which larger groups of independent, and less organized individuals, watch as small, well organized and financed interest groups (e.g., intellectual property groups) wield undue influence on the policy making process. That is not shared or consensus based governance; when a select group of interests are able to repeatedly bypass the consensus building process then shared governance does not exist.

Some will argue that independent and non-commercial users are given indirect voting power vis-à-vis the GNSO, but as recent events have demonstrated, that may be coming to an end. The outcome of the debate in the next several weeks will have a significant impact on the representation of those constituencies.

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