Guest post by Ayden Férdeline (@ferdeline)
It’s a simple message: the At-Large Advisory Committee isn’t fit for purpose. That’s the conclusion that external consultants ITEMS International have drawn in their draft report, now out for public comment, on the review of the ICANN At-Large community.
The 90-page report draws on face-to-face interviews with over 100 ICANN staff and community members and the results from a multilingual, global survey to conclude that At-Large is “excessively focused on internal, procedural matters” and is “perceived to be run by an unchanging group of individuals … who have struggled to make end-user input into policy advice processes a reality.”
The report is less an explosive exposé and more a call to action – and some of the actions it calls for could make the problems it identifies worse.
One of the Internet’s most powerful characteristics is its capacity to disintermediate. It allows us to do away with pointless degrees of representation in favour of more democratic processes. Yet the At-Large of today is essentially a trade association of Internet Society chapters, and, according to this independent review, ill-positioned to speak knowledgeably on behalf of actual end-users of the Internet. Indeed, three-fifths of survey respondents said that At-Large participants were “more concerned with pushing forward their own agendas than striving to represent the interests of the global Internet end-user community”. That has led ITEMS to recommend that At-Large do a better job of helping Internet end-users aggregate their interests into a policy agenda by allowing individuals to join At-Large and to vote individually.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea. ICANN has long sought to position itself as an open and representative body whose bottom-up decision-making processes are built on consensus and inclusivity. But At-Large never walked the walk. It was more akin to a pyramid scheme, where the At-Large Structures exist to recruit more At-Large Structures into Regional At-Large Organisations (RALOs), which in turn select five At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC) members, which is where all the decisions are made. The influence of individual users, in other words, is diluted and filtered through a thick organisational hierarchy. Inevitably in such a pyramid, a small group of individuals take on most of the leadership roles, dominate its agenda-setting and decision-making processes, and administer At-Large in a top-down manner. ITEMS, in its review, notes this widespread “perception that At-Large leaders are involved in a game of leadership position ‘musical chairs.” Incredibly, At-Large is either unable or unwilling to practice a bottom-up, multistakeholder model of governance in its own structure.
Judging from the ALAC leadership’s shocked reaction to the review, it is a novel idea to suggest that At-Large practice what it preaches. Expanding membership to include actual end-users would give At-Large more of a mandate to serve as the organisational home for individual Internet users in the ICANN ecosystem. However, this proposal is undermined by ITEMS’ calls for “ICANN staff to be more proactively engaged in support of the [At-Large] Community’s policy work.” One At-Large member is quoted as telling ITEMS, “There should be more than one person concentrating on policy. This is a single point of failure — when this person is on holiday, everything stops.” At-Large cannot serve as an independent watchdog over the work of the ICANN community and organisation if it is entirely dependent on staff support to develop its positions, and to draft its documents. But more staff support for policy development is not a solution. It is a symptom of the bigger problem.
The report says, “While ALAC advice tend[s] to be somewhat shallow and generic, ALAC leadership c[an] rapidly develop a firm view at very short notice when required. This surely could not represent bottom-up grassroots opinion.” That sounds a whole lot like At-Large is a puppet of ICANN staff; they draft up a statement, send if off to a mailing list, and the lack of a response from an ordinarily disengaged membership is seen through inertia to be a show of support. As a collection of individuals who lack the financial incentive and sometimes the knowledge to stay abreast of the domain name industry, it is understandable that At-Large will not be able to fully contribute to the community’s policy development work. That is why they are an Advisory Committee, and not a Supporting Organisation empowered through the ICANN bylaws to develop policy. It therefore raises eyebrows to see ITEMS recommending that, “At-Large should encourage greater direct participation by At-Large members in ICANN Working Groups.” It is the role of At-Large to provide the ICANN Board with advice on issues being discussed within the ICANN community which have implications for end-users. It is not the role of At-Large to be directly participating in the GNSO’s policy development functions, not least with significant aid from ICANN staff.
Indeed, one of the most serious problems created by the lavish amount of budgetary and staff support that At-Large receives is that the positions of the At-Large leadership are often very close to and supportive of those of the ICANN Board. This was especially noticeable during the IANA transition process, when ALAC representatives consistently sided with the ICANN Board and against the rest of the community in pushing for weaker accountability mechanisms. How can At-Large be a part of the community that holds the Board and staff accountable if it is totally dependent on them?
Some of the support that At-Large receives is reasonable. Few would object to translation and interpretation of documents and meetings being available, and most people would recognise that a reasonable amount of travel support for hard-working volunteers levels the playing field, bringing voices to the table that would not otherwise be there. But there is an imbalance across the community between the sheer volume of resources made available to At-Large. At-Large is the beneficiary of six-digit capital investments in website updates, ‘outreach’ cocktail receptions, multi-million dollar Summits in beach towns. No one wants to bite the hand which feeds him or her, and on subsequent calls discussing the independent review, the inextricable leaders of the At-Large community say they accept the recommendation that they be more involved in policy work. Indeed, they are already moving full-steam ahead implementing that recommendation of the draft report, even though it’s still out for public comment. Between an initial version of the draft report being published in December 2016, and the official draft being opened for public comment less than four weeks later (the only real difference between the two documents is the inclusion of flowery language praising At-Large leadership; the recommendations do not differ), a new ICANN staffer, Evin Erdoğdu, had been hired to “provide policy-related support to the ALAC/At-Large community.”
At-Large has been heavily dependent on ICANN support for over a decade now. They need staff to draft their letters, coordinate their diaries, provide access to a check book. Now they need someone else to step in and “randomly” appoint individuals to leadership roles too, because their elections have historically turned into popularity contests rather than merit-based appointments. For the 15th seat on the ICANN Board, ITEMS has suggested “simplify[ing] the selection” by having the Nominating Committee “vet nominees to produce a slate of qualified candidates from which the successful candidate is chosen by random selection.” This is an imperfect idea, because even when individuals are appointed at random from a pool of qualified candidates, one person is going to be a better fit than someone else or bring a more diverse perspective, but it is better than the status quo. After all, the current method of electing a Board member lends itself to petty politics: it entails ALAC screening the candidates and arguably stacking the deck, and the RALOs – not individual end-users – casting votes for their favourite.
It’s easy to see the same thing happening for the newly proposed rapporteur positions, where 10 individuals, after three months of membership in the At-Large community, will receive a year of travel support to attend ICANN meetings and to feed Working Group input back to the ALAC. In an ideal world, a community-driven Nominating Committee would screen candidates, evaluate their qualifications, and make informed recommendations as to who should serve in this capacity. In the real world, positions that come with funded travel, which cannot be revoked for poor performance, and which are not awarded through elections, tend to have their value diluted by politics. The power that comes from awarding such a role becomes an aphrodisiac that erases responsibility and common sense. So it’s a good idea that ITEMS has proposed that rapporteurs also be appointed through random selection, even if it does seem unlikely that an At-Large participant, potentially with as little as three months knowledge of the ICANN ecosystem, will have a comprehensive understanding of the relevant policy issues. Then again, for those who believe that the current organisational structure of At-Large was nothing but a Trojan horse created in 2003 to marginalise the voices of non-commercial Internet users in the ICANN ecosystem, the potential lack of understanding of the issues that the rapporteurs may possess might be seen to be by design.
There’s one other area where the report suggests the community not be fully involved: in the allocation of the auction proceeds raised through the new gTLD programme. The authors suggest that these funds be raided and that At-Large “initiate discussions with the ICANN Board of Directors with a view [to] gaining access to these funds in support of the At-Large Community.” At present, there is a Cross-Community Working Group determining the methodology for disbursing funds, within which the ICANN Board has instructed participants that, “there should be [a] clear separation of those deciding the general direction [of how the auction proceeds be allocated], those choosing specific projects, and those receiving the funds.” Even if it had the discretion to do so, it would clearly undermine the bottom-up, multistakeholder model of governance for the Board to ignore the work of the Cross-Community Working Group and to unilaterally decide how to allocate these funds.
At-Large isn’t fit for purpose, and much of this report captures that. It is true that At-Large has neither support nor name recognition from the very community of Internet users it claims to represent and to speak knowledgeably on behalf of. But the fact that At-Large speaks only for a few and not the many is not accidental. Structurally it was never intended to be independent. It was established so that ICANN the organisation would never again have to suffer the pain of an elected Board director who would rock the boat. The eclectic collection of characters who were the leaders of At-Large in the beginning, and remain so today, are all too happy with the status quo. No one needed a review to tell them to be “more judicious in selecting the amount of advice [At-Large] seeks to offer” – they’ve been offering less and less advice year-on-year: ALAC responded to 56% of ICANN public comments in 2012, 54% in 2013, 53% in 2014, 39% in 2015, and 35% in 2016. And no one needed a review to get At-Large onboard with the recommendation that they receive funding to “participate in Internet governance / policy-related conferences / events (IGF, RIR ISOC) in their region.” What At-Large needed a review to tell them was that they were nothing but pawns in a bigger game of chess. They do not represent end-users, and their claims to do so while being hijacked and infiltrated by special interest groups harms the broader interests of Internet end-users. Let’s see if they listen, and take this feedback to heart.
Guest post by Ayden Férdeline