May 21, 2007
ICANN's At-Large Process: Exit, Without Voice

ICANN seems to be out to re-prove Hirschman's theories of exit, voice, and loyalty by driving all of its good people to exit rather than giving them meaningful voices. Thomas Roessler, a long-time advocate of individual users' interests on the interim ALAC now suggests it's Time to Reconsider the structure of ICANN's At-Large, as he feels compelled to promise himself not to get involved with ICANN again.

Roessler and Patrick Vande Walle both express their frustration at interference and infighting in the formation of the European Regional At-Large Organization. Here's Roessler:

To this day, I still occasionally dangle my feet into these waters, though I've again and again promised myself not to do it again.

To say I'm disappointed by what I've seen recently would be an understatement: While I'm happy there is a number of people who, presumably, really want to move things, I'm appalled to see how discussions among both European and North American participants take on an increasingly divisive tone. There isn't much to be seen of a common goal to advocate users' interest in ICANN -- rather, a lot of fighting for table scraps (when there's more than enough work for anybody who wants to gamble some of their time on ICANN and its at-large activities!). ALAC's ICANN staff support seems most interested in staging pretty signing ceremonies and press events, one per ICANN General Meeting.

The result? Artificial and rushed time lines, premature consensus calls, and a lot of bad blood and mistrust among participants who really ought to be working together (and have been able to talk reasonably to each other before they got into fights around ICANN). Also, the ability for ICANN to pretend that there's real end user participation and representation, when there are really very few ways (if any) for ALAC to make a real difference in policy decisions -- even though the committee has some limited power to help shape ICANN's policy agenda.

And Vande Walle, concerned that a push for "diversity" became a stereotyped exclusion of experienced participants:

All this for the sole purpose of pushing on the side those who invested a lot of time over the years into ICANN and ALAC processes. If this is an added value to ICANN and ALAC, I do not know. Frankly, I am skeptic. Time will tell.

From now on, I will watch from the outside. So long, guys.

Hirschman notes that exit and voice are alternative means of expressing dissatisfaction with organizations in decline. The smart organization listens and reverses course, the stupid one just declines further.

ICANN needs these people. They have good ideas about how to respond to the public interest in domain name management. But, controlled by commercial interests who'd rather raise prices on their domain-name monopolies or shield trademarks against potential dilution, ICANN doesn't have the inclination to listen to the individuals who make up the public. It keeps sending us back to play in sandboxes building complex structures upon structures, all to shield the organization from having to hear our voices.

So, as the opportunity costs of attempting to deal with ICANN grow too great, good people exit. ICANN asks for bottom-up development, but when there's no way for the bottom to connect with the top, we get frustrated down here and find better things to do with our time.

To students of political economy, at least, the exodus from At-Large should send a louder message than any public comments or advisory committee efforts ever do.

Posted by Wendy at May 21, 2007 02:22 PM | TrackBack

Wendy, I would like to point out the fact that the ICANN staff did an examplary job in trying to keep the process progressing, despite the perseverance of some to try to bend the rules to fit their own agenda.

In my opinion, the RALO model is fundamentally flawed in that it tries to bring together organizations with very different cultures, priorities and agendas.

Additionally, the regions model in ICANN is artificial, leading to a tendency to create sub-regions within the RALO.

In the end, all these strange bedfellows cannot live together. How can we make this better ? I do not have clear proposals yet. But indeed, the theorical RALO model does not work, once it is facing the day-to-day reality.

Some considered the ALAC review was coming too early, due to the fact that RALOs had just been established. The latest events prove that the review is most welcome now, if we want to change the model before it is too late.

Posted by: Patrick Vande Walle on May 21, 2007 03:58 PM

Patrick, I agree that we're talking of strange bedfellows here. Bringing these kinds of communities together takes skill and time, but it is ultimately possible -- and frankly, when we all met in Frankfurt last year, we were on the right track.

The fact that a number of the European At-Large Structures felt that they were being rolled over by the process (and I gather from your comment that this feeling was present in both camps, *sigh*) to me demonstrates that some critical trust-building and community-building hadn't yet happened, and that consensus was proclaimed when there was insufficient buy-in.

And that, in turn, is a mistake that I mostly blame on Nick, who took a chair-like role in this critical phase, while at the same time catering to ICANN's publicity needs.

No real surprise in here, except, maybe, about the amount of personal bitterness that resulted.

PS: Wendy, posting a comment from the preview form doesn't work.

Posted by: Thomas Roessler on May 21, 2007 04:27 PM

I should add to my previous comment that the way in which this process derailed despite some promising beginnings indeed suggests a systemic problem in ICANN, as an organization.

Posted by: Thomas Roessler on May 21, 2007 04:37 PM

Thanks. I agree with you, Patrick, that the ALAC review comes none too soon because the current model is broken. Like you, I submitted comments on the Terms of Reference, asking the reviewers to take a broader view of the ALAC's role and whether current structures best serve to engage and provide voice for the at-large Internet-using public.

I hope those comments are heard and the review takes a hard look at better alternatives.

Posted by: Wendy on May 23, 2007 11:58 AM
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