ICANN Board Meetings Should be Webcast Live

ICANN has just announced that, starting with the June meeting in Prague, the ICANN Board will no longer meet and cast votes on the final day of its three annual public meetings (http://www.icann.org/en/news/announcements/announcement-30apr12-en.htm). We think this is an ill-advised step backwards from ICANN’s commitment to transparency and the accountability that accompanies it. We also believe that ICANN should have told “the community” it was considering this major change and asked for public comment before making such a decision.

Just because all the ICANN meetings we have attended since ICA’s formation ended with a Board meeting doesn’t mean that particular scheduling is sacrosanct. But we think it’s very beneficial for the global Internet community that ICANN serves to be able to view its decision-making process – and that it’s a big plus for ICANN’s credibility and reputation to open that process to public view. Those of us who regularly attend ICANN meetings have some opportunity to mingle and converse with Board members. But that’s quite different than being able to observe their group interaction, especially when there’s a tough vote on a controversial issue. Last year, it was beneficial for all that the Board debate and vote on .XXX in San Francisco, and on launching the new gTLD program in Singapore, were done in the light of day and before a live audience. As Board members stated their positions on the vote before them they knew their arguments were being weighed not just by fellow Board members but by the public at large. The sharp open exchanges enhanced the legitimacy of the resulting vote.

We also think this decision is particularly ill-timed, given that ICANN has just embarked upon the most ambitious and risk-prone program in its history – the near-simultaneous launch of thousands of new gTLDs. Given that even the application period has been marred by the TAS shutdown, any Board action taken to deal with that glitch or any additional new gTLD problems or issues should be discussed in full public view.

ICANN’s stated rationale for the decision to go opaque is We believe that the removal of the Friday public Board meeting and its replacement with two Board community sessions will improve the effectiveness of both the Board and the staff and increase the time that the Board has to interact with the community.”. We enjoy our interaction with the Board, but we don’t see how voting in private increases the Board’s effectiveness – and it certainly runs counter to ICANN’s stated commitment to transparency.

Nowadays any public policy body that makes its decisions behind closed doors is going to be perceived as having something to hide. Here’s a thought experiment: Controversial as they were, imagine if the Board votes on .XXX and new gTLDs had been made out of public view and announced after the fact. Would ICANN have been more or less effective today as a result? 

In reacting to this news release it struck us that, just as we’ve taken it for granted that every ICANN meeting ends with an open Board session,  we’ve also accepted that the majority of Board meetings take place in private and are underreported. Indeed, the only Board meetings for which transcripts are ever released are those that have already taken place in public. All the rest are reported, tardily, only by dry minutes that convey very little of what actually took place (see http://www.icann.org/en/groups/board/meetings).This is in stark contrast to every ICANN constituency and working group, which release mp3 audio recordings within hours after each meeting – so why should the transparency that permeates ICANN stop at the Boardroom door? In 2012, in the age of Web 2.0, this does not strike us as acceptable – especially for the technical coordinator of the DNS charged with serving the global public interest.

There’s a lot of U.S. DNA in the DNS. ICANN was created by the U.S. government and is a California non-profit corporation. Even though the U.S. has officially terminated direct oversight, the technical foundation for ICANN’s DNS policy decisions is the IANA contract currently being re-considered by the U. S. Department of Commerce. Sessions of the U.S. House and Senate, and virtually every hearing and markup of every Congressional committee, are now Webcast in real time and then archived for future viewing.

ICANN should do no less. Every official ICANN Board meeting should be webcast in real time. When the Board is meeting telephonically then the Web audiocast should be available simultaneously. And all should be archived for future access and review. Only limited redactions should be made, such as when the Board is discussing internal personnel matters or when the proprietary and confidential information of a contracted party might be revealed, and then only if a rationale is provided. ICANN’s continued authority ultimately rests upon the consent of the networked, and in 2012 the networked expect open access to information about vital decisions with broad repercussions. And, as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

We still think that ICANN should reconsider its decision to end open physical Board meetings. But, regardless of whether it reverses course, all future Board meetings should be open virtually.

It’s past time for the public body that manages the global DNS to start using the tools of Web 2.0 to achieve complete transparency of process and decision-making. The global Internet community that ICANN serves should expect nothing less.

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