ICANN’s grand remote experiment

ICANN’s grand remote experiment

How a foundational internet policy maker responded to a global crisis—and where it goes from here.
Part of
Issue 15 November 2020


It’s mid-February in Los Angeles and Göran Marby has convened a call with over 100 stakeholders to discuss whether a conference in Cancún can safely proceed in two weeks’ time. Marby is president and CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private body that develops policy for the broad constellation of interests affected by the domain name system. Marby outlines three concerns he has about the meeting proceeding: Could there be discrimination against any attendee perceived as coming from a country affected by the novel coronavirus? Could there be the risk of a “cruise ship” scenario which necessitates the mass quarantine of all attendees and local support staff because a suspected or confirmed case emerges during the meeting? What if an attendee does contract the virus and ends up taking it home to their family, organization, and community?

At this early stage of what would soon be declared a global pandemic, there are confirmed cases of the coronavirus in just 18 countries. “If we were so extremely unlucky that something happened at this meeting, who would come to the next meeting?” Marby ponders.

Stakeholders on the call—among them a former professional hockey player, a U.S. ambassador under the Obama administration, and an array of senior attorneys representing the motion picture industry—are dialing in from around the globe. There isn’t a clear consensus on what should be done. Some have safety concerns about holding an in-person event and lobby for the meeting to be held remotely. Others are skeptical a virtual meeting would be an adequate replacement. In lieu of canceling the in-person meeting, proposals for adding hand sanitizer stations, a mandatory face mask requirement, and an on-site medical team draw wide support. Maybe bump up the public liability insurance, one person suggests.

But the next day, the long-scheduled policy forum is canceled and ICANN’s governing board instructs Marby to begin planning a remote-only meeting. While the decision becomes easier for many to swallow as companies begin halting nonessential business travel, moving the event online comes with significant challenges. With delegates from over 100 countries, the inconvenience of time zones alone is a meaningful barrier. What’s more, several working groups have tight deadlines they fear will be missed if too few stakeholders join remotely.

Despite these concerns, going remote is begrudgingly accepted as the best possible alternative to an in-person gathering. This unwitting experiment in holding a virtual event, the first of its kind in ICANN’s history, would bring many aspects of the conference into question, from the dynamics of who can sit at the table to whether ICANN’s work can be accomplished remotely.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that an organization that exists to ensure the internet’s stability and security hasn’t primarily used the internet to get that job done. Rather, three times a year, thousands of engineers and policy wonks hunker down in luxury hotel conference rooms for a week at a time to pen policies and procedures. Although many working groups and committees meet virtually between in-person sessions to develop meeting agendas or wordsmith documents, important decisions and votes are almost always made face-to-face. ICANN’s working practices, like ICANN itself, originated in a very different world.

ICANN was founded in 1998 as a private transnational institution and was an experiment in a new democratic mode of corporate governance. Back then, just 147 million people accessed the internet at least once a week—worldwide. Microsoft was a fledgling presence on the Hill; Sun Microsystems didn’t yet have a Washington office. Other players didn’t exist, and no one had smartphones. One can surmise that the value and future impact of the internet on society was not yet clear.

It was also the year that the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology was considering a proposal to move the A root server, a network of hundreds of servers that maintain the authoritative list of top-level domain names, to Geneva.

The White House soon intervened: The A root server wasn’t leaving the United States. Instead, a white paper proposed the creation of a new not-for-profit corporation under contract to the United States Department of Commerce to independently coordinate and manage the domain name system. ICANN was born.

In 2014, the United States government announced it would shift oversight of ICANN to the “global multistakeholder community,” a transition finalized in 2016. ICANN now retains its legitimacy to govern by inviting those who are impacted by its decisions—including stakeholders in business, civil society, government, and the technical community, as well as ordinary users of the internet—to shape how those decisions are made. It facilitates this participation by assigning various actors different roles in different supporting organizations and advisory committees. Though ICANN’s structure and allocation of responsibilities are both somewhat arbitrary, by blending together various interests, ICANN recognizes that no one stakeholder group alone should manage a global public resource. As a result, ICANN allows for more open participation in agenda-setting and decision-making processes than other comparable international organizations.

In ICANN’s early days, those who chose to participate in its working groups, committees, and councils typically had a vested interest in the resulting decisions. For example, maybe you wanted it to be easier to take down a domain name that contained a trademark, so you actively worked to change the existing policy to reflect this preference. Early ICANN policies closely aligned with the desires of those who penned them—and this lack of neutrality eventually came to be recognized as a bad governance practice.

Scholars have started to whisper that ICANN is a regulator in need of antitrust oversight. The United States Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division wrote to ICANN in 2008 to say “ICANN’s general approach … should be revised to give greater consideration to consumer interests.” Expanding participation in ICANN processes to include previously underserved or underrepresented communities of stakeholders has been key to ensuring decisions are made in the public interest, and not by those with a personal pecuniary interest.

Another pressing concern: Unless a new generation of leaders in domain name policy emerges, some business leaders have privately expressed that they feel there may be trouble ahead as industry veterans retire, leaving no one in the pipeline to do the work. Civil society practitioners believe the current volume of work exceeds the ability and bandwidth of volunteer policy makers to meet demand. ICANN has matured from its early days as an engineer-led side project to a resource-rich organization; its budget has grown from $5.9 million in 1999 to $137.7 million in 2019. ICANN is also tackling more issues than ever before, including making domain names available in non-Latin scripts and fending off alternatives to the domain name system as nations like Russia question their dependence on a resource managed by an American not-for-profit. If ICANN is to continue to survive well into the future, most people familiar with the organization agree it must find a way to attract new and diverse voices.

“Ultimately, ICANN needs to attract volunteers in order to support a policy-making process for the global domain name system that is heavily dependent on volunteer input and energy,” says Kathryn Kleiman, a law professor at American University who was a part of the group that formed ICANN two decades ago.

ICANN now has roughly 3,000 active community members staffing up working groups and committees across three supporting organizations and five advisory committees. According to calculations based on research by Afnic, a French nonprofit that manages France’s country code top-level domain .fr, in 2016 ICANN’s leadership positions were held mostly by men (74 percent), native English speakers (63 percent), and residents of North America or Western Europe (59 percent). If ICANN is to govern a global public resource equitably, it must work to ensure the makeup of those developing policies are representative of the public being governed.

However, there are obstacles to broadening participation if ICANN continues to operate as it did before the pandemic. A significant barrier? Travel. While ICANN funds travel for a large proportion of meeting delegates, the time commitment involved in spending three or four weeks a year, for years on end, hunkered down in a conference room far away from home is prohibitive for many.

“I think the ICANN community definitely favors those participants who can travel the most and those who can participate in the most labor-intensive policy processes,” says Kiran Malancharuvil, a senior consultant at Open-i Advisors who has attended ICANN meetings for a decade. “I can’t be that kind of participant as a single mother.”

Travel can be difficult for people who are caring for family members, have disabilities, or are employed in a field unrelated to domain name system policy work. For those who have ethical concerns or feel unsafe traveling to certain locations, it can be out of the question altogether. The locations of ICANN meetings tend to be dictated by a government’s willingness to host and fund the event rather than its record on human rights. Recent meetings have been held in several regions with hostile anti-LGBTQ legislation, including Abu Dhabi and Morocco.

Even for delegates who can accommodate travel and who do not fear persecution in a host region, there can be other obstacles. Geopolitical issues between countries, for instance, can make it difficult to obtain visas. Visas can often only be obtained following a personal interview in a major city, and not everyone lives in an urban area or can easily get to one. A delayed flight or temporary detainment on arrival can hold up an attendee for so long that they miss important parts of the conference altogether. These are not factors that ICANN writ large has directly addressed before—perhaps because its largely Global North contributor base has not been heavily impacted by them—but they hinder broader participation.

In March 2020, rather than boarding planes to Cancún, thousands of meeting delegates joined Zoom meetings and dialed into conference audio bridges. A grand experiment had begun. Could ICANN’s policy development work be accomplished virtually? And would a remote meeting change the dynamics of who was involved in these processes?

“We’re on the brink of a milestone in ICANN’s history,” Marby declared during the meeting’s opening ceremony. “We’ll see success and challenges arise throughout the upcoming week. But I’m looking forward to being a part of something unprecedented and new. We have a unique opportunity to demonstrate to the world the internet’s ability to bring people together in the face of problems.”

Naturally, there were some teething problems, including a Zoom-bombing, geoblocking issues, and time zone snafus. (An event targeted to the Asia-Pacific region was scheduled—like every other session—in a North American time zone, when the intended audience was likely asleep.) Still, by and large, the bulk of the 65 sessions went smoothly.

In all, 1,752 people from 130 countries attended. “The community as a whole has become more diverse in terms of geographic representation,” says Brian Winterfeldt, founder and principal of intellectual property law firm Winterfeldt IP Group and former president of ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency.

Winterfeldt notes that “on core ICANN matters [like policy development and information sharing], the meeting was effective.” But he adds that the first virtual meeting could stand to improve in building bridges and social connections between different corners of the stakeholder community.

“Speaking as the owner of a smaller law firm, it is certainly easier for my team and me to juggle other client work during ICANN weeks when travel is not required,” Winterfeldt says. “At the same time, for those who really rely on close industry relationships, it is going to be harder to build and maintain those relationships without an in-person component to a meeting, particularly if there isn’t a substantial effort made to include virtual social activities in addition to the substantive sessions.” By ICANN’s second attempt at a major meeting in June, the social element had been reintroduced.

When asked if the remote March ICANN meeting had been fruitful, Kleiman says the jury is still out. “Both of the working groups in which I participate were able to continue at a rapid clip,” she says. “I attribute a lot of this success to hard work by everyone and [the fact] that we’ve already been meeting for four years now.” The situation might have been different had members of the working group not worked together before, however.

“When someone raises their hand” in a working group that has met for several years, Kleiman explains, a remote meeting does not change the dynamic because “we know what they’re going to say. We know who they represent. So continuing with that kind of working group, it’s a steam train.”

In June, ICANN’s grand experiment in remote participation continued. The policy forum, originally scheduled to be held in Kuala Lumpur, also went remote.

This time, ICANN made intentional moves to support a more inclusive environment. High-attendance sessions had digital timers so each participant could only speak for a maximum of two or three minutes at a time, enabling more people to talk. Thirty-four interpreters provided live interpretation into seven languages—Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish—for sessions that were expected to attract a more global audience. (The previous meeting only offered live interpretation in French and Spanish.) Live captioning was also provided in an array of sessions to help attendees multitask, which had the benefit of broadening participation for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. ICANN’s ombudsman, an impartial mediator tasked with enforcing ICANN’s Expected Standards of Behavior and Community Anti-Harassment Policy, joined sessions expected to attract more heated discussions or disruptions.

Some attendees noticed a disconnect between participants at the in-person event and those who signed in virtually. “Physical meetings keep people focused, courteous, and delivering,” says Farell Folly, who chaired the information assurance working group of the United States Africa Command as a major in the Benin Armed Forces. “When people or companies spend money or time to travel and participate in meetings, they either contribute or take something back.”

Steve DelBianco, president of the tech trade association Netchoice, adds, “Online sessions are not nearly as useful as face-to-face meetings when it comes to negotiating difficult compromises, since the lack of personal interaction seems to harden each side’s position.”

But there were upsides, notably an increase in participation. “Starting this year, I’ve seen more and more new people being active in meetings compared to when we have had physical meetings,” says Ephraim Percy Kenyanito, a senior program officer at the nonprofit Article 19 who has been attending ICANN meetings since 2013. “From the African continent, I’ve seen more people that I know set aside time to engage and participate actively in the deliberations.”

Accessibility issues remained, however. For example, the cost of connectivity is so high in some countries that people have to consider whether they can afford to participate in an entire virtual conference series, or if they can only attend a few sessions, Kenyanito says. “The cost for one gigabyte of data has to be considered.”

Data from the Alliance for Affordable Internet shows that in 2017, one gigabyte of mobile data in Africa cost 8.76 percent of average monthly income. (Mobile broadband is the most common means of accessing the internet in Africa.) A participant from Nigeria, for example, attending four full days of ICANN meetings remotely at current average costs per gigabytes, might see mobile data charges come to over $50; participants in South Africa using the same means of connection could see costs of more than twice that. While a global corporation like ICANN might not consider this a significant expense, it’s a sizable amount of money for individual volunteers from the continent.

“The money that is spent to sponsor people to travel should go towards creating local hubs and access points for people,” Kenyanito says. These access points could include, for example, renting a local hotel conference room where delegates can join the meeting in parallel and make use of its WiFi, or offering to reimburse connectivity costs.

At the end of the day, Kenyanito says, “people want to engage.” The numbers support that claim: ICANN’s own data for the June meeting shows an increase from 1,186 to 1,585 participants, 33.6 percent more than the face-to-face meeting a year earlier.

This increase in participation hasn’t hindered ICANN’s efficiency. ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), the body within ICANN that represents the governments of 178 countries, was able to produce its communiqué more swiftly than usual: Because the remote setup enabled members to work across their local time zones, sign-offs on language from internal ministries could happen more efficiently. Virtual attendance solved another problem: ensuring there were enough people in any given meeting to reach a decision. “[It] released us from worrying about the quorum,” Manal Ismail, the chair of the GAC and a representative of Egypt, said in a public meeting. (For certain discussions, it was agreed matters could be negotiated over email.) Achieving a quorum in face-to-face environments can sometimes be challenging: Coffee breaks run over time, phone calls have to be made, queues for washrooms can be long, rooms can be difficult to find in large and unfamiliar convention centers. These little human realities that can influence schedules and cut into productive time were virtually eliminated.

One key change from the March virtual meeting was the introduction of virtual fika—Swedish for coffee and cake breaks—during which participants could join breakout rooms to discuss quarantine DIY projects and their favorite movies.

According to Bruna Martins dos Santos, a strategist with Brazilian nonprofit Coding Rights and chair of ICANN’s Noncommercial Stakeholders Group, the virtual fika allowed her to get to know community members with whom she normally just talked shop. “I mean, I could never imagine one person speaking about her appreciation for video games in any coffee break,” she says. Indeed, from this writer’s perspective, coffee breaks at conferences are somewhat notorious for being mere extensions of the work you’re there for—virtually, they’re deliberate events for human connection and softening the intensity of the policy-making process.

But what does the future hold?

“I would be surprised if, post-pandemic, ICANN returned to more than one annual face-to-face meeting,” says Sam Lanfranco, professor emeritus at York University.

But he says it’s a mistake to think of large-scale remote participation as a substitute for face-to-face meetings. “In a crisis, webinars operate as a stopgap measure, but going forward, remote participation has to be seen as part of a portfolio of venues for work and interaction—for policy scoping, policy planning, and implementation.”

Lanfranco says ICANN should develop a meeting strategy that includes both large-scale and small-scale events that are dispersed in more regions of the world so that access to venues can be more equitable. “It is better to have teams brainstorming in their own mix of synchronous and asynchronous venues, and having a large-scale event to share progress before going back to work on the task at hand,” he suggests.

While virtual meetings and enhanced remote participation won’t disappear once the pandemic is over, Kleiman cautions that the monopolization of knowledge remains a large barrier to contributing at ICANN.

“Clearly, more people can participate in ICANN if the meetings are held remotely,” Kleiman says. “But will they? ICANN is a difficult world to enter. It is full of technical information and it has a complicated process of policy development.”

This is not a new issue. ICANN has long struggled to attract new volunteers to its policy development processes. An independent review of ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee, the body representing the interests of internet end users, concluded in 2017 that “a small number of dedicated … volunteers take on a majority of the roles … and dominate its decision-making processes.” There’s been little pressure to change this because ICANN has found it so difficult to recruit new volunteers.

According to Kenyanito, ICANN is enmeshed in an ongoing game of musical chairs in which the same people rotate in and out of leadership roles, while newer participants are not given sufficient runway to develop the knowledge they need to effectively engage in domain name policy work.

“There’s no continuity in engagement,” says Kenyanito. “You’re expected to immediately, fully understand the system and to take up a leadership position, and there isn’t the support in place to allow someone to build up engagement over a longer window of time.”

Winterfeldt says the onus needs to be on ICANN veterans to mentor and include new voices, particularly in remote environments where it’s easy to join a Zoom call and go unnoticed.

“There needs to be an effort from longtime members of the ICANN community to be very welcoming to newcomers, to ensure they can make the kinds of connections that the in-person meetings previously afforded,” he says. “If this effort isn’t made, there is a strong possibility that the issues before ICANN will seem even more esoteric and inaccessible to those outside the relatively small group of core community members.”

Winterfeldt, who is gay, remains optimistic that the ICANN community is more cognizant of diversity and inclusion than it was when he attended his first meeting about a decade ago.

“There is certainly more LGBT representation now,” he says. “As LGBT acceptance becomes more prominent across many global jurisdictions, I think we are going to continue to see more attendees who are out in their professional lives.”

Malancharuvil is also hopeful that strengthening remote participation will make it realistic for more voices to be included in policy deliberations.

“I have seen a slight increase in the overall number of women participating,” Malancharuvil says. “But I know from experience and from fellowship with other female participants that it remains difficult to travel and participate meaningfully with small children.”

She says the future might lie in deconstructing conferences into many pieces and not scheduling one-week blocks of daylong meetings, which has been the approach so far this year.

“We can figure out how to make [remote] ICANN participation part of normal life, instead of needing to carve out several weeks of the year for grueling travel, meeting, and social schedules,” she suggests. “Social may seem frivolous, but it’s a huge part of an in-person meeting. If ICANN participation could be more easily integrated into real schedules, and ‘real life,’ I think we could attract a wider range of participants.

“If you’re not traveling, chances are you’re still on the hook for regular work, childcare, and home life, and that’s especially challenging if your children are home and you’re managing distance learning,” Malancharuvil says. “To make a remote meeting work, we must significantly pare down content to essential topics and hold sessions in short bursts of time spread out over a longer period and across time zones.”

At the time of writing, ICANN’s October meeting in Hamburg was scheduled to go remote, too. ICANN could save as much as $8 million in travel and event costs this year, which the board has partly redeployed to subsidize broadband connectivity costs for community members joining Zoom calls in countries where internet connectivity is often unaffordable. And those working groups with tight deadlines for delivering their final reports? They all got their reports out in the end.

“Every day, we navigate the challenges of a new reality that none of us were prepared for,” Marby said in a recent video. “One thing has remained constant: the willingness of the ICANN community to adapt and rise to the occasion. With every twist and turn, the ICANN community has demonstrated it is ready to do what it takes to fulfill our mission.”

Working remotely is still an experiment for ICANN, one being embraced by those who put in the hours to edit and review policy proposals. “Face-to-face ICANN meetings create a level of friendship and fun that is hard to recreate in online settings—but it’s possible, I’m sure,” Kleiman says. “We’re just learning how to do this.”

About the author

Ayden Férdeline is a public interest technologist and a former technology policy fellow with the Mozilla Foundation. He researches how digital policy-making processes around the world can become more representative and inclusive. He is based in Berlin.


Artwork by

Pete Gamlen


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