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Is ICANN Entering a Bold New Era?

When Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush and became America’s 44th president, it seemed he could do no wrong. But this was arguably more a consequence of the perceived inadequacies of his predecessor than a realistic reflection on his own abilities. A fact highlighted by Obama being awarded the Nobel peace prize a mere nine months after taking office, before he’d had any real chance of having an impact on America or the world.

When Fadi Chehadé was formally introduced as ICANN’s next CEO, at the organisation’s 44th international meeting in Prague last June, there was an undeniable Obama effect that stretched to more than just a numeric coincidence between the number of meetings ICANN has held and the number of presidents America has elected. Just like Obama before him, Chehadé was looked at in light of his predecessor’s shortcomings.

Replacing arrogance with humility

But once the honeymoon feeling starts to wane and the rose-tinted glasses come off, what will this change of leadership at ICANN really bring? Will Chehadé usher in a new golden age where ICANN’s very existence is no longer questioned by governments, its mission is clear to all (starting with itself) and its methods hold true to the ideals upon which it was founded?

Chehadé himself is on a crusade to make the world believe that. “It’s a new beginning and a new season at ICANN,” he told attendees at the recent 7th meeting of the UN-supported Internet Governance Forum (IGF). “One of the things we are committed to do is to open ICANN to the world.”

That message is very much inline with what we’ve seen of Chehadé‘s style so far. He may live in the US, but Chehadé‘s keen to show everyone that he’s a citizen of the world (he speaks 4 languages and was born in Beirut, Lebanon, to Egyptian parents). A smart approach to washing away the perceived US-centric arrogance that has long tainted ICANN.

Chehadé knows how to tone down the arrogance. For IGF attendees, who politically have the potential to be ICANN’s deadliest enemies, his message was clearly more we-are-part-of-your-world than we-want-to-rule-it. “Our mission is a limited mission,” he explained during the opening ceremony. “It’s an important mission, but it’s a limited mission. We belong to an ecosystem of organisations that have roles in the Internet. We do our part, they do their part.”

The other organisations Chehadé was referring to are the Internet Society (ISOC), the technically minded Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)... and the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU), considered by many in the IGF environment as the most desirable option to replace ICANN’s multi stakeholder free-for-all by a government controlled leviathan.

Walking on ice, or water?

Knowing how to sooth your audience’s mistrust is important. But is it enough? Judging from the way that, beyond talking the talk, Chehadé has also started walking the walk, he knows it’s not. He has used his Obama-effect to the full, moving quickly to introduce significant change at ICANN before the complaints start coming in.

To give himself more time before that happens, Chehadé has worked on getting critics on-side. He spent the time since Prague understanding ICANN itself and identifying the potential troublemakers. He then embarked on a “seduction tour”, talking to all of ICANN’s main groups. Each time, he used the same verbal formula of his commitment to upholding their ideals and his desire for action. And so far, this rather obvious pandering to everyone’s wishes seems to have worked, although no real substance has yet been shown. But because his predecessor was almost universally decried, right now Chehadé could walk on water and no-one would probably raise an eyebrow. But the new CEO still needs to tread carefully, lest that water ends up turning to ice.

Chehadé has touted an ambitious 4-point plan to “right” ICANN. In a November 5 letter to the ICANN community, he stressed his goals to 1) deliver operational excellence, 2) make ICANN more international, 3) evolve the multi stakeholder model and 4) reaffirm ICANN’s purpose.

The style is spot on, but what about the substance? Sprinkled in Chehadé‘s letter is an ambitious vision that might ruffle a few ICANN veterans’ feathers. For example, Chehadé outlines the creation of a new gTLD services department which “will also shadow the policy development process to ensure we are developing ‘implementable’ policies before they are finalized.” Right now, everyone may have glossed over the letter. But soon, some might begin to resent these undertones of ICANN staff control on what is supposed to be a community-driven process.

Policy versus implementation

Chehadé has already seen the kind of resistance ICANN can generate against change. At the October ICANN meeting in Toronto, he pledged to get personally involved in fixing the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH), a key step in delivering the new gTLD program on time and in a way that does not rub trademark owners the wrong way.

Current Rights Protections Mechanisms (RPMs) built into the program are the result of true community bottom-up multi stakeholder consensus-driven policy development. But some don’t feel they go far enough. During the Toronto meeting, a couple of ICANN groups sent the CEO a proposal for additional measures. Other groups were dismayed to see Chehadé organise two invitation-only meetings on the TMCH with suggestions that these proposals would be discussed there. The first meeting happened in Brussels in early November. The second is set for November 15 in Los Angeles.

Groups representing non-commercial interests in ICANN have been up in arms about the meetings, sending letters to Chehadé warning him not to dent the bottom-up model by caving in to what they perceived as lobbying to reintroduce policy development into discussions about implementation.

Chehadé was careful to appear as transparent as possible, blogging about the Brussels meeting and highlighting the implementation work accomplished there. And in truth, this kind of a hands-on approach might be what ICANN needs to finally get away from the demons that have plagued it for so long. But Chehadé needs to remain cautious of applying business management solutions to an entity that isn’t a business.

Believe it or not

No-one can argue with the need to act. ICANN has lived in its own dream world for too long, creating policies with only English-speaking insiders at the table, launching into their implementation without first measuring their possible impact…

Chehadé wants to take ICANN away from this narrow view, both in terms of geography and operational ability. “We will proceed to re-organize ICANN staff under the new leadership team using a matrix structure,” he says. “Integrating global/regional/local roles to enable the internationalization of ICANN’s mission and reduce departmental silos that hinder efficiencies.”

Matrix organisations are typically for businesses. ICANN may not be a business, but it does need to get better organised. It also needs to man-up and admit, to itself before trying to convince others, that it can be the trusted and efficient technical regulator of the global Internet.

Today no-one, inside or outside ICANN, believes that. ICANN’s own failings have done more to damage its reputation than build it. But if ICANN can feed off the drive of a confident CEO, one that leverages the goodwill that has been handed to him free of charge by a failed predecessor, then perhaps it can start believing in itself, and getting others to believe as well.

Now that would really be a bold new era for the democratic ideal of “one equal voice for everyone” that ICANN should not only embody, but enact.

By Stéphane Van Gelder, Consultant

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