ICANN50 Reflections & Thoughts
This is to report and reflect on the experiences and various interactions in the ICANN50 meeting in London. In essence a week of intensive meetings, at least from the time management point of view while not always so in the sense of the subject itself. The report has been written sometime after the conference week ended, as time was needed to dissolve the findings and feelings from the event so that something could be said out of it. This participation was financed completely by the participant himself, and the report is offered here for the reader in favour without any strings attached or obligations.
The author had participated earlier to a part of an ICANN meeting online, but never to a full conference week onsite. Also, he has attended various other security, management and governance-related seminars and conferences during the past 20 or so years. This conference, in contrast, was for many participants part of their career or they just were told to attend that because of their obedience to their superiors, some were sent on the behalf of their sovereigns to advance and protect their interests and matters. In this way having the rare opportunity to observe and participate in the conference without much of an agenda or someone to represent, was found a good way to implement de facto multi-stakeholderism.
The conference venue was very posh, but understandably so as it did form a part of the performance for the legacy governments to participate in the global process, so the settings needed to be properly decorated and according to the status of the participants. However, for the conference as such, it was highly impractical due to the spread-out layout of the session rooms. That might not have been such a big of a problem if you did happen to belong to a stakeholder group holding its meeting in one specific place for all the week and that you did not need to find and adjust yourself to the agenda. Nevertheless, for a participant, whose numbers should in the course of the multi-stakeholderism raise, it was rather exclusive. This form of exclusions and securing the inclusion did materialize also at the time and during the arrangements of the various evening social programs. Publicly the agenda was set and everyone invited, but at the same time, smaller groups collaborated and run their own agendas sometimes with fluid substances sometimes with just behind closed doors.
In a way, the conference seemed to rehearse multi-stakeholderism, but at the same time did not dare to do it in real as various stakeholders did more or less use the occasion to interact with their peers instead of mingling across the boundaries of the constituencies. Saying this does not mean that certain amount of privacy could not be granted to some groups should they wish so, but that the nature of the multi-stakeholderism is rather vertical that horizontal, meaning that opinions and interests are not seen as in the past in the representative silos, but openness and inclusion in practice. These things won't change in a day, not even a thousand year, maybe, but it's worth of noting still what is the course of the governance.
However, it needs to be noted, that in many sessions attended (those that did allow entrance) the chair of the meeting openly and actively encouraged all the people to address and speak out whatever they had in mind. This did not lead to a case where one single opinion or person would dominate, but rather a multitude of good and sometimes revealing comments were presented. Even all the session rooms did follow the hierarchical and standard-setting of a row or two of tables for formal delegates and then a multitude of plain chairs for attendees, they mostly did not mind when plain delegates moved to the tables but vice versa never happened as far as seen, which is understandable. Again what must be stressed here is that the chairing of the sessions was mostly very professional, diligent and well-mannered which might have contributed to the audience behaviour. Strong opinions and even direct accusations towards ICANN and organisers were heard, but they did not cause any damage to the process or endanger the meeting itself. For some of those comments which did not fit to the category of comfortable questions, they were put off due to time or other constraints and thus not had to be discussed longer. One needs to remember that it's not about giving straight answers what matters, but upholding the proper questions and concerns. Some participants here in this conference but also elsewhere demand clear cut answers (did you do or did you not) to some specific questions, to which they at the same time know that the organisers or responsible might be able to answer in that way. There is always the other side of the coin, so demanding or giving out a clear, systematic and simplistic answer as well as question always carries along with covert meanings. People do sense the motivations behind the words, or at least that these won't match. Therefore in the multi-stakeholderism as well as other human relations, the only way is to engage in dialogue, be honest and open and face upfront what comes about. Hiding behind fabricated stories, organisational positions or words of wisdom won't any more do in the time of the multi-stakeholderism and the collaboration and interaction it requires.
Another main theme in the conference to be raised here is the distinction between legacy nations and other 3P actors, such as non-governmental or other non-state-liked governmental bodies. This was crystallised to a tragic spectacle of some nations trying to demand protection to their trademarks in the global naming system (implying that new post-national top-level domain holders should obey the legacy national trademarks and implement their protection). In this sense, and while this comic did appear as a symbol of the issue itself, they have misunderstood the multi-stakeholderism to be some kind of intergovernmental Olympic game, preparing to move the abstract Internet governance to ITU under the umbrella of governments representation. However, when doing so they inevitably demonstrate that they have resigned from the globalisation and falling back to nationalism. To this one needs to quote a government representative who at the smoking place opened up of the feelings on this particular matter, saying that while they did not accept what the others were demanding, they acknowledged that nations are bound to international trade agreements, and therefore they are obliged to accept one's irrational spectacle around one specific instance raised in order to bring about conflict on the issue and to form a preemptive solution for any further cases. I commented him back later on, that this matter is not about Internet governance, nor ICANN, and it cannot be solved at this level, and the main argument back is to move the discussion of the applicability to trademarks or any elements of national pride to other intergovernmental instances should they wish to accept such a topic. Clearly the time is not for competition between governments, but merely shared development and commitment to create and form the postnational “spheres of influence” as they say (to not to lean back to Khalifa, though).
Still another juicy detail which did appear at the time of the starting of a governmental session, there was a blackhat present at the back-right corner, one who I had met before somewhere but did not just realise where. Blackhats are always easy to approach, and they are spotted from the crowd, faced to discuss him and his description on what he is doing here was, “doing a threat analysis”. In this, he might have referred to other assignments too, but when questioned more he pointed out that the further actions and dialogues of the governmental actors are decisive but also could be dangerous, so, therefore, he used the term threat analysis for him to form a picture of the level of the threat they possess to the internet governance as a whole but I would extend it to the globalisation altogether of which the digital infrastructure is a crucial part.
For this question on intergovernancy and globalisation, something that in political theory is often written as between seeing the European Union as intergovernmental forum rather than a sovereign body, the same question applies here, whether or not we see it either-or. In some sense, the former represents the past and the latter the present and future.
Another large stakeholder group, but not so an active one, was the various delegates from the multitude of new TLD’s, which for some reason were classified as distinct from governmental and “civil society”. This is a growing group, not only in the terms and matters of the internet governance but more and more institutions, things, people and businesses, even khalifs, are not identifying themselves by the legacy national identities but rather via something which might not be fully global either but something different from what it used to be. This is what Ulrich Beck stresses, don’t lean on methodological nationalism! I did comment in the meeting on various occasions that it is not a vital classification to divide groups (any more?) based on their commerciality or civility. Commercial stakeholders are also civil, governmental are commercials and civil are governmental etc. This is the root question, whether or not one can create the global classifications and if so based on what and who defines. This issue was also highlighted during the WhoIs renewal consideration session, where it was discussed somewhat about the interest of some law and enforcement actors to access more detailed information than what publicly is visible. Specifically, the discussion tried to relate to a recent report which proposed and drafted a central database which implements those “gated access” to the privileged information.
However as it was noted from the audience, and as I did too note, there is the inherent impossibility to centrally define global authorities who would be granted such privileges, who would revoke them when needed etc. Surely it's not governments, as the world is more diverse than ever, and there is no reason to expect that at the time of the introduction of new WhoIs it was rather less. My gut feeling is that there will be new WhoIs implemented for new gTLDs, but that old national and other top-level domains host their own WhoIs services as so far. This new WhoIs will be distributed, but synchronised across the peers and that it would include rather simplistic gated access avoiding the question on who to grant the permissions and who not. This gate would therefore here mean only trackability, which in effect equals to publicity but satisfies the stakeholders' requirement to have “privileged” access. The world of proxies and uncertainty of the WhoIs data would remain, so no freedom of speech issue here as someone in the conference tried to raise it to be as such. This question on the definition of the law and enforcement as an institution was acknowledged in the sessions on various occasions, and it is also highlighted by the closeness of the respective sessions onsite. It seems that ICANN has decided to remain silent on this matter, as facing it would be too difficult. In this time it's rather common to choose silence instead to speak out, that might have something to do with old legal structures where remaining passive would always be better if unsure what to do. Let me be wrong on this though, and don’t sue me on false prophecies later on when things turn to be rather upside down!
Finally, one thing to reflect here is that the conference experience was stuffed with the ambition to participate and speak out whenever needed to rational urge to do so. Maybe it is due to the ageing but earlier I never had the courage to step on the stage and say aloud what was needed to be said, but during this conference, it really paid off to speak out. I even met some fellow Finnish colleagues, who said having been attending numerous ICANN meetings before, but for some reason, they never were found to say spontaneously anything in the sessions and if they did so when provoked, their words were put in the way which revealed they still were quite stuck to the national and representative point of view, if I may, with all respect, lacking some core nature and experience on the multi-stakeholderism. This tendency is something from which all the legacy nations should quickly strive to get out, face the challenges of the world and go out to taste how sweet the sour is, things might not look as bad as they could. Sadly, if they don’t do so, they won't be able to cope in the post-national world.
So then, at the end of the conference, we have the .wine, we have gated and central WhoIs proposal, we have competing nations, we have black-box and closed session of L&E, some random cc/gTLD’s drinking at the gala dinner, no .int, .mil, .gov though met there. Like as a compensation to my efforts to be active, I was requested to take part of the cross-community working group which aims to formulate a process and means to launch and run through a working group dealing with some issue/s which spans across the internal borders. In the meeting of the group, I questioned whether they have actually considered properly if the group should be temporary or permanent, as they seemed to wander around the concept of temporal group. My contribution there was then to highlight that such interactions, if real, were rather common than unusual, and therefore a permanent group might be better of serving the purpose. It is still unclear whether and how the working group will organise herself, but looking forward to taking part in the process and contribute what I can.
Kristo Helasvuo, Guest Author.