More top-down manipulation of the policy process

Rod Beckstrom really has his work cut out for him. ICANN’s well-paid policy staff, which is supposed to merely facilitate an open, bottom-up process of policy making by you, me and other stakeholders, has once again taken advantage of the organization’s lack of real accountability to put itself in charge of deciding who can and cannot participate in making critical policy decisions.

This time the topic is “Internationalized Domain Names” (IDNs) or domain names in non-Western scripts like Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, etc.

ICANN got off on the wrong foot a few years ago, when it set up a Presidents Advisory Committee (PAC) on IDN. This was a favorite tactic of the old Twomey regime: take the really important policy decisions out of the representative processes and rely on hand-picked, exclusive groups, like the Presidential Strategy Committee that dealt with the crucial issues of ICANN’s future relationship to the US government. The Presidential Advisory Committee on IDNs was also an exclusive, invitation-only group that excluded key stakeholders and completely bypassed ICANN’s supposed bottom-up policy making entities. The IDN Committee even excluded the inventors of IDN technologies, who were actively involved in ICANN and willing to serve.

So (surprise, surprise) ICANN’s policy output eventually came out deeply flawed. Among other problems, its initial policy decision dictated that all internationalized domains had to have at least three characters (directly contradicting a GNSO subcommittee’s recommendation). This arbitrary requirement is a major problem for users of ideographic languages like Chinese or Japanese. One or two characters in those scripts can say a lot, and requiring three to be used just doesn’t work. Protests were duly sent to ICANN by East Asian groups.

ICANN has responded by hurriedly forming what it calls a “working group” to resolve this problem. But you will search the ICANN web site in vain for any notification of the existence of this working group. Nor will you find notice of the existence of this group in any minutes of the GNSO, the entity supposedly responsible for representing people to make policy. Instead, the WG has been created by ICANN staff Tina Dam, who is busy issuing exclusive invitations to whomever a small cabal within the organization chooses. And once again, many involved people with a direct interest in the issue are excluded.

When one excluded person asked to get involved, Ms. Dam replied, “this is not a working group per the normal definition of working groups in the GNSO or elsewhere within the ICANN community. It is a list of people that ICANN have asked for help in implementing the gTLD process. This is standard practice for ICANN staff when there is need for external expertise in implementing policies decided upon by the community (such as the GNSO).” Note her use of the old dodge: it isn’t really a policy issue, it’s “implementation.” But this claim is directly contradicted by everyone involved in the discussion. The Japan, Korea and Taiwan joint engineering team, for example, stated in their request for a reconsideration, “We understand that removing the three character restriction is a major policy decision.”

One of the people excluded from the WG summed up the attitude and the process perfectly: “We are ICANN staff. We have the self-appointed authority to appoint anybody we like in any select manner on any topic at any short notice and exclude anyone we don't like in order so may they advise us. While doing this we can at will simply use the term “Working Group” liberally so any casual ICANN observer assumes that this is a “bottom-up” WG like most else. We can then use the participant's (selected in perception to mirror whatever community we want) name and portray that we have the
support of whatever community we want to claim we have the support of and imply that it is the usual bottom-up supported WG to casual observers (perhaps even the Board of Directors). Then there will be a hurried quick Public Comment process we will ensure that most miss in time and detail as we will bury the important stuff in appendices deep within 500 pages and then ignore whatever comments are made and arm-twist the Board (or maybe under instruction of select members of the Board) to agree and pronounce verdict.”

Harald Alvestrand and Ram Mohan, two Board members who are generally good people, seem to be involved in this farce; they, along with the new CEO, should come to their senses and put a stop to staff-made policies. They need to understand not only that it produces bad policy, but has a corrosive effect on the legitimacy of the organization.

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