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Multi-Stakeholderism Revisited: ICANN, We, Can Do Better

ICANN, the private, non-profit, US-based organization is a key player in the global Internet governance ecosystem because it coordinates the Internet’s unique identifiers and domain name system. In addition, ICANN develops policies that govern the DNS and addressing system of the Internet. For this reason, and the very model on which the organization’s work is based, many countries take participation in ICANN very seriously.

The multi-stakeholderism that isn’t

To hear ICANN tell it, their work is based on a “bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder model.” The approach, they say, is inclusive and treats the public sector (including governments), the private sector, and technical experts as peers. Non-profit organizations and individual Internet users are also important ICANN groups that get to have their say. Furthermore, ICANN says, all points of view considered on the basis of their own merits. The multi-stakeholder model is one of ICANN’s strengths, as it often points out, with alacrity.

To implement the model, the ICANN community is organized into various stakeholder groups, which form the DNA of the multi-stakeholder model of ICANN. It is through its various advisory committees (ACs), supporting organizations (SOs), ICANN’s leadership and staff, and other groups that organization’s work is done, and the Internet shaped for all of humankind.

Although theoretically sound, the implementation of the multi-stakeholder has not been perfect. To paraphrase George Orwell, although all groups are seen by ICANN as equal, some are more equal than others. The inequality also extends to the inner workings of the individual stakeholder groups, because not all eligible target groups participate equally in these groups. And therein lies the weakness of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model.

The less equal

One group that is particularly handicapped when it comes to effective participation in ICANN are the developing countries, especially the least developed countries (LDCs). As of 2012, there are 48 LDCs, with an overwhelming majority of them (33), being in Africa, 14 in Asia and the Pacific, and 1 in Latin America. The participation of developing countries in ICANN’s constituencies is an important issue for various reasons, including the need for these countries to articulate their concerns themselves, and help enrich the work of the ICANN community.

Developing countries are an important part of the global community of nations, as exemplified by the numerous conferences to address their needs, and the fact that many UN agencies have special initiatives and/or divisions focused on these countries. ITU, for example, has a division to help it better serve the needs of developing countries. Since the Millennium Declaration of the UN IN 2000, there has been a global focus on the attainment of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015; yet another manifestation of the importance the international community attaches to addressing development challenges. It is thus disheartening that the promises of ICANN’s multi-stakeholder model are yet to be fully met for developing countries.

How to look like a smug hypocrite

Starting with the constituencies, only 23 of the 54 African countries, or less than half of them are members of the GAC. Similarly, the ccNSO has only 29 members from Africa. The situation is even worse at the GNSO, whose Commercial Business Users constituency which, with 72 percent of its members coming from the US, looks more like the Des Moines, Iowa, Chamber of Commerce, than an entity whose constituency spans the globe. Given that Africa has only 5 ICANN-accredited registrars, and no gTLD registries, it is not surprising that the GNSO Registrars and Registries constituencies have no African members.

Other ICANN constituencies that also belie that ICANN multi-stakeholder model are the DNS Root Server System Advisory Committee (RSSAC), and the Technical Liaison Group (TLG). These organs, by their very nature preclude the active participation of developing countries in ICANN’s affairs. RSSAC, for example, includes representatives of organizations that operate the 13 root nameservers around the world, and other organizations that help ensure the stable operation of the authoritative root server system. Given that none of the 13 root servers are in Africa, which only has a few Anycast instances, it is not hard to imagine the limited role the continent has in the RSSAC.

In the same vein, the TLG consists of four organizations, namely, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Sector, World Wide Web Consortium, and Internet Architecture Board. Although three of these four organizations are international in nature, and theoretically open to participation by Africa, there is no doubt about the European focus of the ETSI, and it is clear that organizations from Africa and other developing countries have been left out.

A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words, and in this regard, the ICANN multi-stakeholder model does not look pretty. The pictures of the leadership of the GNSO Registry, Registrars, and Commercial stakeholder groups tell the ICANN multi-stakeholder story poignantly, and not flatteringly. You just take a look for yourself.

Truth and consequences

The failure of ICANN to implement the multi-stakeholder model has important consequences which must be addressed in the interest of ICANN, the community, and the viability of the multi-stakeholder model itself. First, the glaring shortfall in the participation of African and other developing countries in the GNSO, the industries they represent, as well as the GAC and other ICANN constituencies makes ICANN’s claims ring hollow, and bereft of sincerity. The multi-stakeholder model is then weakened, making it difficult for ICANN to get support and traction in developing countries.

The inadequate participation of developing countries in the policy development processes of ICANN also reduces the ownership of these policies, and negatively impacts their implementation. ICANN is also robbed of the contributions that could have been made by developing countries to ICANN’s work. This can potentially lead to an Internet that is sub-optimal, and does not adequately address the needs of all of humanity, but rather, only those of a privileged and resourced few.

Fixing the problem

ICANN would be well advised to seek to address the problem of inadequate participation of developing countries. As a former member of the Public Participation Committee of the ICANN Board, I am very aware of the efforts that have been done in this regard. But the reality is that more still needs to be done.

Fortunately, ICANN has a number of approaches it can adopt to help in this regard. At the organizational level, ICANN should take its cue from organizations such as the ITU, and establish regional office in Africa, and other parts of the developing world. In addition, ICANN should develop and strengthen relations with the international development community (e.g. relevant UN agencies) to work with them on mutually beneficial programs such as improving remote participation. Other important organizations ICANN should seek relationships with include regional organizations such as the African Union, and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. ICANN should also revamp its outreach efforts to developing countries.

The ICANN community also has important roles to play in this regard. For example, the community should resuscitate efforts to map out a strategy for strengthening relations with developing countries. Although some initial work was done on this issue last year during my tenure on the ICANN board, I do not particularly relish my memories of the pushback on the matter from the ICANN board. ICANN constituencies should also initiate or redouble efforts to increase membership of developing countries, and their participation in the work they do.

We can do better

In conclusion, it should be emphasized that ICANN has a lot more work to do to increase the participation of developing countries in its communities and work, and strengthen the multi-stakeholder model that is oh so dear to our hearts. Fortunately, the keys to addressing this issue lie in ICANN and the global community that makes it work, and to which developing countries belong. We just have to decide that the matter is important enough to warrant the effort, resources, and time we are going to need to address it, and get to work! We can do better.

By Katim Seringe Touray, International Development Consultant, and writer on science, technology, and global affairs

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