ICANN Virtual Meetings: A Newcomer’s Reflections for the Future Newcomers

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a not-for-profit corporation, which essentially functions as a governing body for the Internet and brings together representatives from government, civil society, academia, the private sector, and the technical community.
Despite its importance in crafting policies related to world wide web development, a significant portion of digital rights lawyers underestimate ICANN’s regulatory role in contrast to one of the national governments. ICANN’s decision-making processes, its unique multistakeholder governance model can make it difficult to grasp its global impact. This was precisely my case: I possess multi-year experience in drafting and advocating local media and digital rights legislation and have prepared amicus curiae briefs and shadow reports to various human rights bodies. However, ICANN was a faraway thing I had scarce knowledge about.

With that in mind, last summer (2021) I applied for the Internet of Rights Fellowship, hosted by global non profit ARTICLE 19, which aim is, among others, to provide insights into the chief Internet governance bodies such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the International Telecommunication Union Development Sector (ITU-D), International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the ITU Technical Sector (ITU-T), and oneM2M. My body of choice was ICANN due to its policy-setting role in the domain name system (DNS) management: a topic closest connected to my research on website blocking and content moderation.

ICANN72 held in October 2021 was my first ever high-level Internet governance forum. Being the Annual General Meeting, it was designed to present ICANN’s work to a wider digital governance community. Beginning from Prep Week, I attended a dozen sessions devoted to various topics, from DNS Abuse to the subsequent expansion of generic top-level domain names (gTLDs). DNS abuse was widely discussed by the majority of stakeholder groups.

It is a term used to describe a set of practices that lead to malicious use of domain names: malware, botnets, phishing, pharming, and spam; registrars have an obligation to prevent these actions which at times leads to excessive website blocking on their behalf. Another topic of interest to me included Subsequent gTLD procedures which relates to the long-discussed processes for introduction of new gTLDs (such as .club, .media, etc) within ICANN. Subsequent gTLD procedures shall expand the freedom of expression for website owners, allowing them to use the domain names for political and other types of protected speech.

Almost all the topics in the agenda were new for me, and I needed quite some time to catch the grasp of what was going on during the discussions. The virtual format of the ICANN meeting was not helpful either for better understanding.

The COVID-19 pandemic realities mean that hardly any large in-person events will happen soon. While ICANN engagement suffers from this, the newcomers should not be afraid to join the community. Reflecting on my own ICANN72 experience, I wanted to share some important thoughts that might be helpful for those wishing to join the ICANN Community during the upcoming ICANN73 and other upcoming ICANN sessions. These outcomes might mitigate the influence of various factors impeding meaningful participation of Fellows in Zoom calls:

Get acquainted with the ICANN structure. It is unique, but it is also extremely complex. If one has only a very basic understanding of the Internet’s technical side, this process might take some time. Understanding the distinction between registries, registrars, and registrants may be tough for non-native English speakers and not-so-tech-savvy users but is crucial for understanding each role in governing the Web. Always keep in mind that governments are equal stakeholders not having overriding powers in ICANN and do not have a final word on every adopted policy.

Learn your acronyms. PDP, EPDP, GNSO, and GAC are only a few acronyms you will come into contact with during the week of ICANN meetings regularly. It is almost impossible to understand all of them even after the entire week of meetings. Navigating among these acronyms would be key to your engagement during the meeting since the majority of experienced participants imply their knowledge by community members present in the meeting.

Carefully select your sessions. This one seems obvious but has to be further explained. ICANN meetings comprise dozens of sessions a day, running in three or four parallel tracks. Thus, it creates several avenues and strategies to choose wisely. You may concentrate on a single issue and attend the various stakeholders’ meetings devoted to discussing it. You may choose only the discussions of a certain advisory committee or supporting organization.

You can also try selecting as many topics as possible to expand your knowledge of ICANN policy development in different areas. I chose the latter strategy and sometimes struggled to understand the underlying policy making behind the decisions made. Some preparatory reading before the ICANN meetings may ease the pain though.

Don’t expect fast results. Policy development processes in ICANN can take years. It may appear unusual for certain participants used to tactical advocacy or drafting legislation, but this is the nature of multistakeholderism: everyone has a voice, and everyone’s voice shall be heard. Some of the stakeholders will be discontent, however, this is the nature of the consensual decision-making.

Feeling uncomfortable is fine. However, you should never be ashamed of feeling yourself like that – take it as a sign of your personal growth. Remember that the active community members are conducting significant work between the ICANN meetings, and what you see on the meetings is an iceberg’s tip. The constituencies’ members use very specific language designed for likewise-minded members precisely due to their inter-meeting engagement with the policy development processes.

And rising on their level demands the same devotion. These first steps are painful, but with pain comes the improvement. If you get interested and start being involved in the regular ICANN policy development meeting track you like, after some time you will become a part of this community. It will take time, for sure. But joining a worldwide community might well be worth it.

Maksym Dvorovyi
IoR Fellow, ARTICLE 19 // Digital Security Lab Ukraine