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Meet Frank Fowlie, ICANN Ombudsman

Canadian mountie, Olympics organiser and now the internet's physician

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Interview It would be very easy to paint the newly appointed Ombudsman to Internet overseeing organisation ICANN as a heroic figure. The fact that he hasn't been is either a missed trick or a reassuring sign that substance is more important than style - we can't be sure which.

A former Canadian mountie, UN peacekeeper and Olympic Games officer, Frank Fowlie is also a keen swimmer and photographer. He has worked at the hard edge of social services, drugs enforcement and finance for 20 years and yet the man who can't believe he's got a cold while sitting in the Cape Town sun when he's more used to freezing weather in Ottawa, is jovial and jokey.

It is ICANN's 20th conference and four days earlier, he had been introduced to the world as the man who would act as the eyes and ears of the Internet. As Ombudsman designate he would be able to question any decision made by ICANN, its board and staff, have unlimited access to people and files, and have direct board-level access for his findings.

It is a role pushed onto the organisation two years ago but which ICANN has stubbornly failed to fill, while those involved in running the huge underlying infrastructure of the Internet have grown increasingly frustrated. It is a complex, difficult, daunting and controversial task. He appears unfazed: "Everybody's been asking me: 'Have you got your first complaint yet?' It's been the question of the day," he quips straight off.

In fact, he hasn't. But neither has the newly published "framework" on how he intends to do the job attracted a single public response yet, three days after it was first posted. It may have been a very long time coming but it seems that no-one, including Frank himself, has any idea what to expect now that the Internet community finally has a formalised complaints process.

"It could be a mile wide and an inch deep. Or three feet wide and the bottom of the ocean. Or the bottom of the ocean wide and deep," he says about the expected workload. "I have no idea whether there will be lots of small issues, or two or three really deep issues."

Empathy and understanding

What is envisioned though is a sort-of one-man crusader who will take on whatever problem is thrown his way, piece together all the information, listen to all sides, come to a conclusion and then let it be known to the wider public. "I'm an intermediary. Alot of this job is a matter of translation. Very often alot of the issue is being able to talk people, get the different points of view and resolve them so each party has a real good understanding and a little bit of empathy for the other party."

He fears that he may have come too late to the party: "The unfortunate thing is with ICANN that there are probably a number of cases in litigation now where the parties could have benefited from coming to an Ombudsman first." That doesn't mean he won't listen to complaints now. So long as no paperwork has been sent on the issue, he is prepared to review it. "The future will indicate whether there are opportunities for people that feel similarly angered," he muses. "Let's hope that they do."

This is not a high-powered job, though. Frank will be working purely by himself in his home town of Ottawa, although he is soon moving to the West coast of Canada to be in the same timezone as ICANN's headquarters in Marina del Ray, California. He has no secretary, no PA, and will personally deal with all complaints that will arrive via email through an interactive form on ICANN's website. "I want it to be accessible to anybody in the world, and wherever I am travelling I will be able to see it over a secure server," he explains.

On top of his salary, he has drawn up a draft budget that will include his stay, travel, peer involvement of the US Ombusdman Association, the costs of investigative facilities, translators and start-up costs for his office's infrastructure. He will be visiting Marina del Ray on a "weekly or bi-weekly basis because that's where all the staff and the files are", but his independence is vital and has been frequently referred to by ICANN's CEO Paul Twomey as evidence that it isn't just setting up a yes-man operation.

Casting his net

He already has his own Ombudsman page on the ICANN website at http://www.icann.org/ombudsman, where Frank claims to be able to post whatever he likes. "My intent is to make it as open and transparent a website as possible," he tells us. Although at the moment, the Web-based form is on hold while he finds and installs some decent case management software. As for whether he intends to set up his own, separate website (www.icann-ombudsman.com is free, we tell him), he says not. "People will look to me first through ICANN, there is a natural linkage."

But while the set-up seems fine (although we would prefer a separate site, linked to by ICANN), the real issue is over what the Ombudsman can do, will do and can pressure ICANN into doing.

"ICANN is not a goverment, and I am not a governmental Ombudsman, I am an executive Ombudsman," he explains. "A lot of the stuff I have said about governmental Ombudsmen is to underline the independence of the office." The difference, he says, is that if, say, the government of California had appointed him, "it would be really difficult for people from the other 259 countries to see natural justice, to look on the process as having any sort of fairness." He has, he argues, "globality".

Globality or not, what powers does he really possess and what can he do in the event of a serious and upheld complaint about ICANN decisions in the future? "The powers that I have are very much in line with those of a governmental Ombudsman in Canada - to make recommendations. If something goes wrong and I am really worried about it, I can do two things: one, notify the board, give them notice that something is wrong; and two, make recommendations, saying there is a systemic issue here that needs a solution and the recommendation I have is..."

And if the board ignores him? "They can accept it or reject it. But if I feel it is rejected with no good reason, I have the power of moral persuasion to go to the ICANN community in my annual report, or whatever, and say 'I've made this recommendation and you're not following it'. And certainly the ICANN community as I've seen it is not a quiet one."

A community effort

He says that in the talks he had with the board prior to being appointed, and with Paul Twomey in particular, that the feeling he got was very much that his job was to say what he thought and stand by it. "That's why they hired me. Whether issues arise that cause me to have to do those sort of things, that is very much down to the community."

If ICANN and another party do get stuck in intractable problems, that is where he steps out and the case goes either to ICANN's Reconsideration Committee (made up of Board members) or the still-untested Independent Review Panel.

"I am as much a tool of empowerment to the community as much as I am an adjudicator able to say you must change something," he surmises. "The important thing is that people know I'm here."

With any luck, they will soon, and the long overdue accountability issues with ICANN will finally have a proper forum. However successful they are however, depends almost entirely on the personality of the light-hearted Canadian that ICANN has just appointed. ®

Related links

The ICANN Ombudsman page
The Ombudsman framework

Related stories

ICANN selects its wardens
ICANN works Harry Potter magic on net
ICANN pitches the internet's future

Internet Security Threat Report 2014

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