A wonderful thing is happening on the ICANN public comment board. Public interest groups from all over the world have mobilized to express support for the NCUC charter proposal. What seemed to be an obscure procedural issue months ago has attracted worldwide attention. Civil society groups are objecting strongly to the ICANN management's attempt to manipulate and control its allegedly “bottom up” policy making structures.
These are not your standard ICANN public comments, “I support this, I hate that.” These are not your usual commenters, the same ICANN insiders who have held the same positions in the GNSO for 10 years. The entries are from new people, many of the comments are unusually long and articulate, and motivated by a sense of disbelief and injustice.
A dissident Chinese blogger, Isaac Mao, wrote in to compare ICANN's staff to China's “50 cent army,” the name for bloggers paid by the Chinese state since 2005 to post comments favorable to government policies to skew the public opinion on Internet message boards. Dr. Laura DeNardis, of the Yale Information Society Project, sternly told ICANN that “whether or not this was ICANN's intention, allowing a public comment period on the ICANN staff-developed charter is being construed as an attempt to paint a veneer of legitimacy and grassroots participation on a fundamentally non-democratic document.” An Indian Professor marvels, “It is rather paradoxical that in administering the internet which wired the whole world together seamlessly, ICANN should be …creating divisions!”
From South Africa, Andrew Rens, Director of Freedom to Innovate, a major NGO there, warns ICANN that their action “undermines efforts by a number of organisations in the developing world which have advocated engagement with ICANN in the face of considerable scepticism. Appropriate participation of civil society in ICANN is an absolute minimum requirement for civil society organisations advocating engagement with ICANN, rather than the construction of alternative organisations by developing world governments suggested by some critics.”
And aside from the civil society activists, the only other comments are from prospective members of the new Commercial Stakeholders Group who have also been shafted. Staff chose not to unilaterally rewrite the proposed charter of the Commercial Stakeholder Group (CSG), which was designed to prevent any new constituencies from being formed. (It would require new constituencies to gain the approval of the existing constituencies, and since any new constituency would inherently take voting seats on the Council away from the new constituencies, this is a guarantee that the tiny group of business-trademark interests that have controlled the Business constituencies for years will be insulated from any diversity and new representation.
To read these comments is to wonder, how did ICANN ever get this warped? and: how can they not listen this time? Unfortunately, those familiar with ICANN's policy staff know that it has never learned how to listen and respond fairly to public comment. Ignoring or dismissing it is part of their culture. But if wiser, higher-level Board and management are paying attention, it will be hard for them to ignore this. And if they do, they may have a firestorm on their hands at the Seoul meeting. This issue will not go away.
The Association for Progressive Communications, a global NGO and a leader of civil society in WSIS and IGF, concluded its comments on a hopeful note: “We are of the view that if ICANN were to adopt the NCUC's NCSG Charter, this would signal to civil society that ICANN takes civil society participation seriously and is turning over a new leaf with civil society groups. This is an opportunity for ICANN as an institution to take forward the GNSO reforms on a positive basis.”
Are you listening, Roberto Gaetano? Are you listening, Rod Beckstrom? The issue is very simple. Your staff and Board Structural Improvements Committee made a mistake, a bad one. It jettisoned a year-long consensus-based process and it unilaterally imposed its own structure – a badly designed one that will cause everyone huge problems in the future. They did this without even any explanation, not even an attempt to answer the arguments or recognize and address the support for the alternative it rejected.
Fix the mistake. We urge President Beckstrom to intervene and pull the plug on this budding disaster before any further damage is done.