ICANN Meeting blog: Indecision and insults
Riddles, fiddles and diddles in British Columbia
Vancouver According to my computer's calendar, I have been in Vancouver for three days. And according to a search on the Internet, I have written six stories about events at the ICANN conference here.
Which is all incredibly useful because on sitting down in the press room at the Westin Hotel, my horribly jet-lagged mind casually informed me of two conflicting facts: one, I had most likely only arrived today and had to write stories; and two, I had been in these diamond-wall-papered rooms for my entire life and I should get out and see what other people in the world get up to.
Without the Internet, how could I have known the reality of the situation? It's a good job this Internet thing is so smoothly and coherently run. Just imagine what a nightmare it would be if it was no more than a loose confederation of warring tribes sowing disinformation while attempting to bypass everyone else in their bid to create their own version of this revolutionary medium.
Bags of personality
It's an incredible eye-opener to be at such events in person. Despite the Internet making it possible for people to communicate and co-operate extremely effectively while thousands of miles apart, there remains the human condition. Tiredness being one element of course. But also personality. And the ICANN world is full of personalities. Leaders, pleaders, fixers, mixers, hippies, suits, anarchists, capitalists and loonies to name but a few.
The only thing that binds them is a passion for and about the Internet. Christ only knows how it works, but it does, despite many people's intense efforts otherwise.
Everyone knows exactly how best to run the Internet if only everyone else would listen to them. As a reporter, that's exactly what you do. And after eight hours of listening to highly intelligent, very coherent people give you 15 different perspectives on the same topic, you end up so exhausted with the mental churning that the temptation just to run with your gut feeling is almost overwhelming. That or to run screaming out the building to the nearest bar.
And it is in that vein that all the bad decisions made by the ICANN Board over the years (and there have been quite a few) suddenly make sense.
I spent yesterday (today? Wednesday?) following the ICANN Board around the conference as it went into separate constituency meetings to ask for their opinions on the pressing topics of the day. At this particular conference, that meant almost exclusively the proposed new dotcom contract with VeriSign.
The big message that the ICANN Board got was: we don't agree with you. The registrars didn't agree with the pricing, or, actually, with the whole agreement. The country-code managers didn't agree with how it had been done. The At Large committee didn't agree with the implications for the future. No one agreed with anything in fact. To the extent that if the Board actually walked into a meeting and found everyone there agreeing with them, they'd immediately smell a rat.
ICANN chairman Vint Cerf is trying a new tack. Having been confronted with 20 strongly held, coherently expressed and utterly incompatible suggestions, he has started asking people to produce actual real words to insert as alternatives to the ones in the current dotcom contract. Rather oddly, that request has stumped virtually everyone.
After a while, sneaking cynicism starts creeping in. Everyone has agreed their position and they want to be heard by the ICANN Board. But actual changes - changes that will be able to get past all the other disparate communities - come hard. You start switching off as passionate participant number 89 tells you what's wrong with the agreement, and suddenly you grow attached to the very words that everyone is abusing.
Once all the thunder and lightning is over, it's no surprise that the original text is the one thing that ends up going through. After all, it's the one thing that everybody could agree on. They all hate it equally.
The net effect of this process however is that the ICANN staff are imbued with a tremendous amount of power, even though they consistently deny it. Maybe they're too exhausted to realise.
At the same time, they have developed a strange paranoia. Having watched the Board get thrown around the room, ICANN staff like to keep things quiet and under wraps, release them with as little fuss as possible and hope no-one notices. People often mistake this nervous pragmatism for conspiracy.
And nervousness it is. If this reporter so much as turns up at the door to the ICANN staff room, eyes flicker across, fingers hover over minimise buttons, conversations quieten. I made the mistake of strolling into the room to ask someone a question and there was a yelp - seriously - as if my mere presence was enough to bring in the hordes of moaning maniacs frothing about outside, keen to impart their wisdom on how the Net should be run.
Mind you, they don't help themselves. One ICANN staffer let slip that they all have a 7am meeting - christ knows what about - every morning. As "luck" would have it, the fact that my body hasn't the slightest idea whether to be awake or asleep, meant I was actually in the conference building at 7.15am this morning. I stuck my head round the door to see whether it was true. And there the poor sods were. So tired that the normal journo alarm failed completely and not a soul's pupils dilated.
There's another weird aspect to being a reporter covering such a dynamic situation with so many passionate and diverging views: confidences.
People will happily talk, and deliriously gossip, but often only on the condition that you don't tell anyone it was them that told you. The more you respect this confidence, the more people will tell you. Press relations trainers always tell executives that there's no such thing as "off the record" with journalists, but that's bollocks. It happens all the time and as a level of trust is built, increasingly frequently.
The problem is that having soaked up huge amounts of information and stored them separately into: what you can relate to others, and what you need to keep confidential - or, at least, anonymous - you suddenly find new phrases have taken over your life: I understand that; I'm afraid I can't tell you that but; is it true that; that's not what I heard.
Retaining these confidences sees you forever steeping off to the side, muttering in low voices, and more often than not talking in bizarre riddles. I'm seriously considering a straight-as-a-die-day where I refuse to listen to anything not stated publicly in a very loud voice. The stories wouldn't be as good but then it would probably delay my future onset of Parkinson's by a few months.
After all these shenanigans, you'd think that everyone would be ready to party. Maybe they were but the big bash at the Hyatt Regency on Thursday night didn't give people much of a chance.
You'd think if you'd hired the enormous ballroom at a top hotel in the centre of the one of the world's most famous cities, you'd make an evening of it. And the organisers did - so long as you consider 9.30pm bedtime.
To save everyone embarrassment and unnecessary fiddling, the organisers helpfully also refused to take money at the assorted bars. No money needed - just give us your invite and you can have a free drink. One drink in, you suddenly realise though that you were only given one invite.
The next evening's bash looked equally as unpromising and so, armed with a local's knowledge of the city (step forward ICANN Ombudsman Frank Fowlie), there was a brief respite from the world of Internet politics and into the peculiar world of $7 beers and women dressed as if they're going to some kind of slutty opera.
God knows what the system is in these places but if you're paying £4 a drink it would appear that it's the done thing to then have to wait in a queue for someone behind a desk to show a set of bar stools that you're allowed to sit on.
Highly priced insults
Unaccustomed to such sophisticated ways, this British reporter and his Aussie drink partner created a minor diplomatic incident in the world of over-priced bars by simply walking in, going up to the bar and sitting down on the first two available seats which no doubt had been reserved two weeks earlier by prior invitation to a couple of muttons-dressed-as-lamb.
Vancouver also appears to have retro-UK licensing restrictions. As it hits midnight, you are obliged to stand out in the cold until either the bouncer decides you are humble enough to enter, or you pass out through wind-chill - whichever comes later.
Even the hotels have failed to escape the conspiracy. Having spent the last part of the night before walking round in a giant panoramic circle 40 floors up in my hotel, failing with each revolution to find a welcoming barman with a wide range of Scotch just itching to be paid for at exhorbitant prices, I took up the invitation of one-woman social hub Desiree Miloshevic to return to the Westin hotel and join the assembled masses of drunk delegates.
To no avail though. Even the Westin had just closed the bar at 12.30, despite the heavy contingent of Net-heads that were clearly capable of drinking through to the next morning's meetings. But all was not lost amid the rare honour of being insulted by a worse-for-wear ICANN president who mistook my approach as a wish to tackle him about the finer points of policy. Unfortunately, it was his more charming drinking companion I was hoping to talk to. They do warn at the bar that the locally-produced beer is a heady brew.®