The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is descending on Singapore for its 49th semi-annual meeting: #ICANN49. A week ago, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, dropped a bombshell – the United States would relinquish its oversight of key functions of the Internet: the “IANA functions.”  The NTIA decreed that ICANN would oversee the transition of this oversight to the “global stakeholder community,” and the NTIA wanted it done by the end of September 2015, when the current “IANA contract” expires.

This announcement changed the focus, the agenda, and the tone of the ICANN meeting. After the “Snowden revelations,” it was clear that “Internet Governance” was going to be a major topic – but on a theoretical level, with no particular timeline and no particular role for ICANN. Now, with a real project, a real role and a real deadline, ICANN and the ICANN community are on the clock and under the microscope.

I left New York bright and early on Thursday morning, ready for a 24-hour trek around the world. After a 6-hour flight to London and a layover in Heathrow (where I picked up the “The Snowden Files” in the WH Smith bookshop), I boarded a 12-hour flight to Singapore on Singapore Airlines and entered a different world. If there’s such a thing as a “loaded” economy seat, this was it – footrest, cupholder, plugs of all kinds. After some sleep and a couple of “Best Picture” contenders, we landed at 6:30 p.m. Friday. Good evening, Singapore!

Checking in a at the Swissôtel The Stamford, I was pleasantly surprised when I was told that I was being given a complimentary upgrade to the executive level floors. I was whisked up to a separate reception area on the 60th floor, where I got to sit down to complete my check-in (very civilized!). After learning about the complimentary breakfast (which turned out to be quite spectacular), the complimentary cocktails (too late for tonight), and the other perks I lucked into (a beautiful flowering plant!), I hunted down some colleagues for dinner and then called it a night.

Saturday at an ICANN meeting is devoted to working meetings dawned bright and (too) early, with a 7:30 a.m. meeting of the GNSO Council’s Standing Committee on Improvements Implementation (SCI). This committee is tasked with improving the processes and procedures of the GNSO Council. Sometimes procedures need to be put in place to stop gamesmanship and other times procedures are suggested that amount to gamesmanship. Since joining the SCI as the alternate representative from the IPC (the Intellectual Property Constituency), I’ve tried to assist with the first and make sure we avoid the second. As long as we are smoothing the process of the GNSO Council and allowing substance to flow freely, we’re doing our job. We moved several agenda items forward, including rules on resubmitting motions, submitting motions past the 10-day deadline (which was itself a rule put in place to avoid “gaming”) and email voting.

After that, the GNSO working session began. The high point of the day was a visit from Fadi Chehade, the President and CEO of ICANN. Fadi made a number of key points, and dropped a couple of small bombshells of his own (my thoughts in parentheses):

  • The biggest misconception he has to deal with is that ICANN is under the control by the U.S. government. (For better or worse, it’s not, and will be even less so after the “IANA transition.”)
  • When asked for the best advice he ever received, he paraphrased a Dag Hammarskjold quote that it is very important to be attached to the process, not to the result.
  • Following the NTIA announcement, Fadi has dissolved the President’s Global Advisory Groups on IANA globalization and on the Affirmation of Commitments. He stated that this is now the work of the community and the groups are no longer needed.
  • The other global advisory groups were put on hold. These groups, chosen in a “top-down” function, had been a source of friction with the “bottom-up” multistakeholder community at ICANN.
  • He believes that the IANA transition and the NTIA’s mandate gives ICANN an “incredible edge in what we do.”
  • He explained that there have been huge attacks on ICANN and the multistakeholder model (implicitly, from intergovernmental organizations and those who want greater governmental control of ICANN and the Internet) and this will help in dealing with those pressures.
  • Fadi wanted to clear up a major misconception – that we are looking for a new organization to take the place of the U.S. government as the “steward” of the IANA functions. We are not. We are looking for a new mechanism. (In other words, the IANA Contract as we know it will lapse, rather than being assigned by the U.S. to another organization.)
  • He asked (rhetorically) what keeps ICANN in check. He cited the U.S. government, “but that will change.” He also mentioned the Affirmation of Commitments (a not-quite-contract between ICANN and the U.S.), but the “AoC” has a problem – it’s only with the U.S. The AoC has to be between ICANN and the “global stakeholder community.” We don’t want to send a message that only governments can keep ICANN in check.
  • Fadi confirmed that ICANN’s role as the “IANA administrator” will not the change. Only the U.S. role regarding the IANA functions is being replaced. (In the larger debate about Internet Governance, there have been quite a few suggestions to move the IANA functions out of ICANN; clearly, one of the goals here is to stop that discussion.)
  • However, he did say that the U.S. contract with Verisign relating to root zone issues would also be “sunsetted.”
  • Finally, Fadi admitted that he can be too “top-down” and he encouraged “frank engagement” every few weeks with the GNSO Council and others to discuss whether things feel too top down.

These were significant clarifications and announcements and they are still being digested (at least by me, along with the Khao Soi I had for lunch).

In another highlight of the day (at least for me), I was invited to speak on a panel at “i-engage,” a side-conference run by NPOC, the non-profit organizations constituency, on rights protection mechanisms (RPMs) for NGOs and small businesses, especially those engaged in development. The panel told a small but enthusiastic crowd how important RPMs, such as the UDRP and the new URS, are to all organizations to protect their identity. These entities face even greater challenges, since budgets are often small, trademark protection is not a major line-item, and money spent on domain name enforcement is money taken from the organization’s mission.

The day ended for me with a two hour meeting of the “Cross-Community Working Group on Internet Governance,” in preparation for our public meeting on Monday. The Group was originally put together to manage the ICANN stakeholder response to “NETmundial,” the Global Multistakeholder Meeting on the Future of Internet Governance, taking place in Brazil on April 23-24. The NTIA announcement regarding the IANA transition has threatened to crowd the rest of the agenda – there are Internet Governance issues other than the IANA transition that will be discussed at NETmundial, and the Group needs to be prepared. If we don’t address the IANA transition, we’ll be seen as “out of step.” If we devote our meeting to the IANA transition, we won’t get feedback from the community to help us prepare for NETmundial. It will be interesting to see how the meeting goes (and who shows up).

The day ended with a drink high above the city in the 60th floor executive level lounge, admiring the sunset and the skyline of Singapore. Tomorrow, back down to the windowless conference rooms and the spills, chills and thrills of ICANN and Internet Governance.

If you want to follow me in real time, I’ll be tweeting from @GSS1958. If you would rather sleep, you can wait for my next Straight from Singapore post. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Greg Shatan