[At-Large] On a "consumer" agenda for ICANN

Garth Graham garth.graham at telus.net
Fri Sep 2 18:12:50 UTC 2016

On Sep 2, 2016, at 2:27 AM, Evan Leibovitch <evan at telly.org> wrote:
> On yesterday's briefing on the topic of ALAC's setting a "consumer" agenda I made a number of points which I felt were either not well received or well-understood. Having the opportunity to reflect I would like to try to express them here in a way I hope may be better accepted.

While I do agree that Evan is raising an important issue, I don’t agree that it’s THE issue raised in Garth Breun’s draft on creating a consumer (i.e. user) agenda.   He begins by noting that the Corporation shall operate for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole and therefore needs to describe how a particular policy change or project would affect the Internet user in advance of the decision.

I felt that the meeting drifted off topic.  In yesterday’s chat, I commented that the issue in the draft is accountability, not communication.  I still feel that ICANN’s accountability can be used effectively as a link to ICANN’s acceptability to the ordinary Internet user.

Yesterday wasn’t the first time I’ve raised this possibility.  When ICANN first initiated a discussion on enhancing its own accountability in the absence of its historical contractual relationship to the U.S. Government, I contributed the following comment:

“ICANN’s open processes of policy development and decision-making provide a basis for an important dimension of accountability that’s not usually recognized – ACCOUNTABILITY BEFORE THE FACT.“

Not unexpectedly, my comment evoked … nothing at all.

Conventionally, being accountable is assumed to be about answering for actions after the fact. But the public comment processes that ICANN already follows allow its internal communities” to explore future organizational intentions and the impact questions of who benefits and who pays to a more intense degree than most organizations. Those conversations can be the basis of a formal explanation of intentions and their expected impact (of a equity statement described as such at the conclusion of policy formulation) before the fact. This provides a scale of measurement of successful achievement of results that emerges from within the issue or situation that provoked the suggested policy change, which can be applied after the fact of its implementation. 

To the degree that ICANN answers to its own internal communities, such a statement and measurement scale would represent a summary of (rough?] consensus and a standard to judge the consequences of running (i.e. implementing) the code(ification) of policy. It might also simplify the problem of explaining ICANN’s actions to a “global” public.

During the ICANN50 meeting in London, June 21-26, 2014, sessions on accountability were being held all across ICANN’s constituencies. I attended several of them, including in particular ATLAS II’s Thematic Group 4: On ICANN Transparency and Accountability. Various people were pondering various parts of the elephant of accountability and describing what they thought it was. 
As I listened to these expressions, it seemed to me that the balance of ICANN’s preoccupation with accountability tilts toward an inward focus. Given the reality that ICANN does assist in the coordination of a global resource, I sensed that the consensus about ICANN’s primary enemies being within is probably quite dangerous. At that point in the evolution of ICANN’s 
own governance ecosystem, perhaps the need for internal trust was greater than the need for internal verification.   Maybe that’s still true.

In the ATLAS II Thematic Group 4: On ICANN Transparency and Accountability, the definition I pressed for was:

"Accountability is the responsibility to answer for how you got done what you committed to do."

I meant that definition to operate in the context of self-organizing complex adaptive systems, where there is no answering to external authority and outcomes cannot be predicted in advance. It’s more of an antiphonal call-and-response, like the Internet when the packet header asks, “Did you get that?” and the receiving server answers, “Yes, I did.” That’s a difficult context to convey in a roomful of strangers seeking consensus on a complex issue.

In that definition, what you commit to do occurs before the fact. That's what I meant by pointing to accountability before the fact as a methodological component. Statements of impact, or intentions before the fact define the elements or scale of measurement after the fact. By being open and transparent, ICANN has a huge advantage in being accountable over organizations and institutions that are opaque. Its commitments are very readily visible now, and can be made more visible for the purpose of future answering. In that sense, accountability and transparency are rendered self referential, and the scales of measurement emerge organically out the issues and challenges themselves.

When Thematic Group 4 concluded its sessions, nobody signaled that the real debate would then continue online among people more expert in ALAC’s processes than I am. There were subsequent objections to that definition related to the felt need for external control and punishment.
  People objected that my definition,” doesn’t say what happens if you don’t meet the target. What makes the world comfortable that someone is looking over ICANN’s shoulder?” So, in online discussions in the Group 4 wiki that occurred after the face-to-face sessions and preempted them, the definition got changed to:

The responsibility to explain and justify all decisions and actions in light of ICANN’s responsibility to act in the public interest.

Clearly the second definition ignored the possibility of accountability before the fact as an operating principle.

ICANN knows that to account is to answer. So it is asking itself the “big question.” In a “global” context, who receives ICANNs answers?  But a moment’s reflection on the nature of the Internet Governance ecosystem as a complex adaptive system tells us there is not, and must not be, anyone or anything that “represents” the global context. To centralize control is to seek to stabilize the system by external means and, in complex adaptive systems, the only stable state is death. That big question about global answering blinds us to the fact that it’s the wrong question. What matters to the distribution of functions in a complex adaptive system is the “willing collaboration between.“   To fix ICANN’s status in concrete terms by reference to an external authority is to kill its capacity to evolve its functional role in the Internet governance ecosystem. In terms of ICANN’s role in the Internet Governance ecosystem, what is going to matter is the quality of the feedback loops that allow both ICANN and the ecosystem to self-correct their fit to the changing environment.

I have tried to describe what those feedback loops might mean inside ICANN in several different ways and all of them seem to be at odds with the culture of ICANN. I provoke reactions like, “Too abstract, and too theoretical,” to be of use. Even in the case like the definition of accountability, where I thought I’d got something into the record, arcane practices of online debate stripped it away. Yes, those practices are transparent, but only if you knew they would occur and where they would surface.   My thanks to Garth Bruen for, I think, providing me with one more chance to clarify the significance of accountability before the fact in addressing the critical impact question of who benefits and who pays in the context of the ordinary Internet user.



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