Highs, lows and sickos
The unspoken side of the Morroccan meeting
ICANN Marrakech ICANN Marrakech is over, save the board meeting. And this fact was - as it always is - sufficient reason for everyone to head to the bar and mull things over while consuming (un)healthy quantities of booze.
What was the upshot of this week-long meeting in Morocco? Well, the general consensus was that not much had happened. Except, really it had. And the feeling was that it had been a very amiable meeting. Which, in a deeper sense, it hadn't.
The reality is that ICANN Marrakech has, albeit pleasantly, lived under the shadow of the US government's MoU renewal. What really is shameful is that there wasn't a single public meeting in which this vitally important contract was discussed. Instead, we have had a semi-official, parallel and secret ICANN process instituted to discuss the matter, and a long series of constituencies pondering how best to deal with it, which will most likely contribute little or nothing to the final result.
While I'm being negative and grumpy about a meeting that most people seem to have enjoyed, here's a list of wrongs.
- No public meeting about the MoU
- Poorly attended and poorly run open board sessions
- A failure to recognise and prioritise what people were trying to say about ICANN
- A lack of plain speaking and a series of fixed debates (excusing the excellent domain name workshop)
There are more, but it's best not to dwell. What everyone noticed - and the reason why they are still coming to these meetings - is that things are beginning to change (again). ICANN has bought in a lot of new and talented staff, and since the recruits haven't had time to soak up the staff bunker mentality, there is a refreshing feeling of optimism and openness.
ICANN staff have managed to gain some respect from the wider community for the first time in a long time. The new head of IANA, David Conrad, is widely seen as the right man to grasp the poisoned chalice. Tina Dam is gradually winning people over. The new regional liaisons had a dramatic effect on people by speaking in the languages of the regions where they have been assigned and then instantly translating it into English. The new head of communications has been listening to people. There is a real sense that ICANN might just been transforming into something to be pleased with and proud of, rather than appalled and disgusted with.
And ICANNWiki has come of age. In fact, it is now probably the best source of information on the net about ICANN and it has come about with the simple application of small bits of efforts from large numbers of people. Yes, remember that? It used to be called internet culture.
The weak point of ICANN, however - and it remains dangerous to even mention this - is the man who has become the figurehead of this organisation and, in many respects, the internet itself, Dr Vint Cerf.
ICANN Marrakech is the first meeting where I have seen people openly - albeit still in relatively hushed tones - criticise the "father of the internet". The fact is that the commanding respect that Vint has enjoyed for so many years is ebbing away. This always happens with strong leaders. They are effective by being single-minded but the single-mindedness separates them from the current of thought, and leads to their eventual usurping. Dr Cerf is out of touch and it is beginning to show, and people are beginning to comment on it. He has noticed this and reacted aggressively, which has, of course, only reinforced the feeling.
The good news is that Vint will stand down next year as no one is allowed to serve more than three terms. Since this is widely known, and because it isn't too far away, Dr Vint Cerf will get the rapturous applause and respect he is due when he does indeed step down without the ugly confrontation that came with, for example, Margaret Thatcher's demise. But there may be some unpleasantness in the meantime.
The ice! The ice!
Talking of unpleasantness, there has been a long series of illnesses in Marrakech. Following the Tuesday Chez Ali meet-up, a number of people decided to spend the next day in their bathrooms rather than the conference centre. The same happened following the Wednesday .mobi event at a local restaurant, and a number of ICANN regulars were spotted the next day looking very tired and green.
This led to a regular exchanges as people attempted to locate the culprit: did you eat the chicken in the cous-cous? Did you eat the skin of the lamb? What did you drink? Were you sitting on the toilet, or clutching it? And so on.
Eventually, it was Mrs Michael Palage - who had spend the night nursing her husband while feeling rotten herself - who figured it out. The ice cubes! she cried. And sure enough, the culprit has been found. A moment's silence then for all the bodily fluids expelled in the past few days thanks to dodgy frozen water.
Jon Postel repercussions
ICANN is in for some very, very big changes in the next few years and everyone is trying to get a handle on it. My response has been to consider "what ifs..."
Jon Postel "what ifs" are the most intriguing. The biggest: what if Jon Postel had not died when he did? Dr Postel believed that the internet space should have been hundreds of top-level domains right from the word go. Just imagine how different the net would be now if there was a .news, .house, .glass, .mac, .monkey, .sleepy-bye-bye. I have a rough estimate that 60 per cent of all the controversy created on the internet and forced upon ICANN since 1998 has come about through unnecessary scarcity of domain names, and the resulting power plays by rich companies keen to defend their position.
Another big one: what if Jon Postel had had a sturdy lawyer when he was told by Ira Magaziner that he would face criminal actions when his "test" shifted half the internet out of the control of the US government? If he had told Mr Magaziner where to stick his threats, the US government would never had gained control and another 30 per cent of the internet's woes would have been avoided.
What if ICANN hadn't decided to kill all the At Large Board members thanks to the distracting appearance of Karl Auerbach? Would the public inclusion that ICANN is now so desperate to seek have happened automatically? Would the influx of people outside the existing ICANN internet community have made it all work better?
What if George W Bush's swinging chads had swung the other way, if 9/11 hadn't happened? Would the USG still stubbornly be insisting on keeping control of IANA and ICANN? Would it still be disrupting the flow of ICANN's processes for its own ends?
The what ifs are a good check on where we are, and where we could have been. Do any of them point to a better internet, to a more effective ICANN? Because if they do, what if the internet community decided that was where it wanted to be anyway?
Marrakech has become, for almost arbitrary reasons, one of the hubs of the internet's history. The meetings held here in the past 20 years have decided the fate of a medium that is almost certain to revolutionise and alter every aspect of our lives on this planet. There is an odd sense that somehow this meeting has added to that long history.
How, no one has yet figured out. ®