The all-important direct meeting between the ICANN Board and the Noncommercial Users Constituency (NCUC), which represents civil society in GNSO, took place today. It cleared up a number of misunderstandings, providing a sobering reminder of how badly things can go awry when bureaucracy mediates between the Board and ICANN participants.
The room was crowded: almost all Board members and the CEO were in attendance and NCUC fielded a contingent of 30 members from Korea, Brazil, Tunisia, Kenya, Pakistan, Mauritius, the UK, China, Singapore, Switzerland and the USA. The Board was clearly impressed with the growth and diversity of the NCUC. Board Chair Peter Dengrate Thrush and NCUC Chair Robin Gross opened the one hour meeting; Avri Doria, a new arrival to NCUC, presented this set of slides to the Board.
The presentation explained why noncommercial groups want to participate in ICANN as part of an integrated structure. An integrated Noncommercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG), in which members join the NCSG directly, was contrasted with what was called the “Constituency-silo” model of organization, in which civil society is fragmented into separate, competing Constituencies that are automatically given seats on the GNSO Council. Doria explained the advantages of an integrated NCSG model. It makes it easier for newcomers to understand how and where to get involved in ICANN's domain name policy making process. It fosters consensus-building within the Stakeholder Group by putting all noncommercial groups under the same roof. It empowers the membership by permitting direct elections of Council representatives. It actually makes it easier to form a greater number of diverse constituencies because the groupings are decoupled from Council seats. And it makes it easier to implement geographic diversity requirements on the elected Council representatives. Doria also explained the disadvantages of the Constituency-silo model: it doesn't scale, it pits groups against each other, it rewards factionalism over consensus.
The Board response was quite receptive. While there were questions about certain aspects of the integrated model, the Board seemed to embrace the basic premises and goals of the proposed structure. The meeting confirmed that the Constituency-silo model, which the NCUC spent months trying to fight off, seemingly with no success, is dead. It seems to have died, in the Board's Structural Improvements Committee's (SIC) mind at least, some time in March or April, but neither the SIC nor the staff did a good job of communicating this to the rest of the world.
In retrospect it actually seems to have been the ICANN policy staff – not the Board, and not even the SIC – who insisted that any proposed charter for the NCSG had to conform to the Constituency-silo model. Since that model was obviously pathological in its effect on civil society participation, and the SIC transitional NCSG charter, approved by the Board in charter was mistakenly thought to endorse that model despite overwhelming opposition from civil society, tensions were aggravated. The existing, transitional charter was explained as a temporary expedient to ensure that the GNSO reforms could be implemented at the Seoul meeting. It is clear that the Board has no problem with finding a way to evolve to a charter for an integrated SG, and that the NCUC's integrated model is on the table as a viable option.
As for next steps, the Board seems to have agreed to establish a meeting/negotiation process to define a way to move from the interim SIC charter to a more integrated model. Some key Board members do not think there is any need to hurry and that new constituencies can be recognized as this goes on. We have concerns about that. Unless it is clear that new constituencies will be sub-formations of an integrated Stakeholder Group, it could be divisive and confusing to throw them into operation now, without any clear and common understanding of their status. Indeed, the trend now is to question the need for “Constituencies” in the traditional sense altogether, and to speak of these groupings as “Alliances” or “Special Interest Groups.” There is a small contingent in ALAC that still seems to have its heart set on the Constituency-silo model. Since that option is off the table, those people need to be encouraged to develop an alternative proposal. ALAC needs to be included in these negotiations to ensure that unity and cooperation are achieved. Any such discussions should recognize, however, that ALAC is composed of both commercial and noncommercial organizations and users. It does not, therefore, have the same standing as NCUC in shaping the future of a Noncommercial Stakeholders Group in the GNSO.