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Get on with it! Uncle Sam's right-hand man schools ICANN powwow

'How many of you feel really great about all the progress you've made today?' *silence*

After a fruitless and frustrating day of discussion in Los Angeles, US Assistant Secretary for Commerce Larry Strickling had clearly had enough.

"I've been trying to decide whether to come up and say anything or not, but the issue was forced by the fact that I'm leaving in 15 minutes," he said.

"So if I was going to say something, it had to be now."

He was addressing a meeting of 80 people who had flown in from all over the world for two days to thrash out what changes needed to be made to domain-name overseer ICANN, which will soon be given control of the top level of the internet.

Strickling is in overall charge of the handover of power from the US government to ICANN, and has to deliver the finished plan to Congress. Earlier this week, he published a blog post reflecting on where the process was at, and giving some heavy pointers over how to reach agreement.

It was categorically ignored, and ICANN slipped into its default mode of presentations, classroom-style seating, and long, rambling, unfocused discussions. When the room broke for lunch, nothing at all had been achieved. By the time it hit 3.30pm, and with a flight to catch, Strickling had clearly had enough.

"If this were easy, it would have been done long ago by other people, but for whatever reason, this is the group that's come together to try to solve these issues," he eased into his intervention.

"Let me ask you this: you came together for two days, today and tomorrow, and I'm not quite sure what everybody's expectations were [about what] would get accomplished, but how many of you, right now, feel really great about all the progress you've made today, raise your hands."

Not a soul raise their hand.

Two tribes

"Okay. There's a lesson there I think for all of us ... I feel as much as the rest of you the importance of making progress and trying to come to a conclusion. And the fact that nobody raised their hand would suggest that the discussions today were important and every time people come together and talk it's good, but are we really organized? Are we really progressing in a way this brings the group to bridging the gaps and reaching consensus?"

He continued: "I don't think anybody should harbor any illusions you're going to reach agreement on everything by the end of the day tomorrow. But if you could at least polish off a couple of these issues..."

At the heart of the problems is the fact that the internet community has proposed a number of changes to the organization that would limit the staff and the Board's powers and, under certain circumstances, allow them to be overruled.

This does not sit well with ICANN Corporate, and they have both dismissed those efforts and proposed their own approach instead. That in turn riled up the working group who has worked on its report for a year.

In short, ICANN Corporate is split into two groups. There are those who genuinely want to keep their power because they wield it, think they are the best people to wield it, and believe they can power their way through the process by calling the community's bluff. And there are those who are not opposed to reasonable constraints but can't help but see in the vague proposals what looks like a power grab without responsibility.

The ICANN community is likewise split between those who want effective controls of those trusted with running the corporation; and those who, if they were on the Board, would be opposing their own plans.

Strickling is clearly not happy that after 10 years, ICANN still hasn't figured out a way to exclude the wrong groups.

He noted: "The whole point of this is that the community is being asked to step up and play the stewardship role. So you shouldn't need the United States being the steward of this discussion ... Given the time we're dealing with, simpler is better. You have to meet the needs of the community, I'm not suggesting you shouldn't. You have to meet our criteria, but if you have different ways to approach it, the one that allows us to go forward with the least amount of churn, change, confusion, misunderstandings that will occur in the future, the better. Because that's what we're trying to accomplish here."

He then left. The group has one day and one hour to heed his warning. ®

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