ICANN consultation process could learn from InternetNZ

InternetNZ's model of consultation provides information on various levels

ICANN and other bodies concerned with internet governance could learn from InternetNZ’s model of consultation, says Marilyn Cade, of ICANN’s business and commercial constituency.

InternetNZ makes a good job of such consultation, despite the body’s own tendency to internal self-criticism, she says.

“It is one of the most mature [such organisations] I’ve encountered.”

It has organised a range of events and discussion forums appealing both to the technically “clued” and to less specialist audiences who “just want to use the internet”.

Cade, on behalf of her employer AT&T, worked alongside InternetNZ in submissions on two telecommunications competition hearings. She is a prime mover in the global public policy committee of the IT Association of America. Cynics in online discussion groups have described her as a hard-headed commercial Washington DC lobbyist who towers over some of the other “kids in the internet playground” in intellect and forcefulness, but she comes across as a personable individual who is genuinely interested in the smooth workings of the internet, and in listening to varied points of view.

One of ICANN’s roles should be almost as a library or helpdesk, she says.

“Some people just want to grumble, and some want to say ‘This is what I think — tell me I’m not crazy’.” There is a need for such an organisation to provide information, or act as a pointer to information sources, so that those who want to make a point are adequately informed and confident, she says.

The diet of information must be tailored to the audience. All have a valid point of view when informed, but some want easy information, “yoghurt”, while others — or the same people at a later stage of development — “are ready for the tough stuff, the granola”. Many organisations make the mistake of talking only to their own members, she says.

Told that InternetNZ sometimes agonises over reconciling broad consultation with the specific benefits of membership, Cade notes that the ITAA public policy committee “talks to everyone but in forming our policy position, we talk to our members.” Grades of membership, with different fees, reflecting the intensity of interest and background special knowledge, are sometimes appropriate, as a way of reconciling “membership” status with broader input.

Getting representatives of various lobbies together to debate with one another is essential, Cade says. On the topical ICANN question of reliable information versus privacy in “whois” databases, for example, the technical experts, the privacy lawyers, ISPs, law enforcement authorities and others should all be talking together and “trying to understand one another’s needs”.

There are deep analyses which take every view into account by facilitating such cross-fertilisation, she says. And there are more superficial market surveys. “And then there are polls.”

The poll is a simple way of, supposedly, consulting the public, but it gives you nothing but a bunch of opinions, some much more informed than others, she says.

“We could poll all the citizens of Berlin on whether we should have a .berlin domain [such a top-level domain has been put up for ICANN consideration]. But what would that really tell you?”

ICANN is feeling its way towards a more genuine process of consultation and consensus, which acknowledges that “they’re not making decisions for themselves but for the broader community”, Cade says. The way the Government Advisory Committee has fitted into the ICANN process as just another “stakeholder” is encouraging, she says. But still on some of the big topics like the VeriSign .com settlement, “I hear people talk with passion and concern. I hear attacks. I hear defences. But we’re nowhere close to healing the rifts.”

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