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ICANN Workstream 2 Recommendations on Accountability

Posted by Akriti Bopanna at Nov 23, 2018 02:56 PM |
One of the most significant initiatives to improve the accountability of the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) commenced in 2014, when the Cross Community Working Group on Accountability was created. Its role was to develop a set of proposed enhancements to ICANN’s accountability to the global Internet community. This resulted in the first Work Stream (WS1) recommendations, which were eventually approved and incorporated into the bylaws of ICANN in 2016. These included a provision expressing the need for a second WS since the first one, done on a tight deadline,did not cover all the requisite issues. Instead WS1 only focused on issues that were needed to complete the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority(IANA) transition.

At the ICANN meeting in March of 2017 in Finland, the second Work Stream (WS2) was launched. The Cross Community Working Group submitted their final report at the end of June 2018 and the purpose of this blog is to look at the main recommendations given and the steps ahead to its implementation.

The new Workstream was structured into the following 8 independent sub groups as per the topics laid down in the WS1 final report, each headed by a Rapporteur:

1. Diversity

2. Guidelines for Standards of Conduct Presumed to be in Good Faith Associated with Exercising Removal of Individual ICANN Board Directors. (Guidelines for Good Faith)

3. Human Rights Framework of Interpretation (HR-FOI)

4. Jurisdiction

5. Office of the Ombuds

6. Supporting Organization/ Advisory Committee Accountability

7. Staff Accountability

8. ICANN Transparency

 

1. DIVERSITY Recommendations

The sub-group on Diversity suggested ways by which ICANN can define, measure, report, support and promote diversity. They proposed 7 key factors to guide all diversity considerations: Language, Gender, Age, Physical Disability, Diverse skills, Geographical representation and stakeholder group. Each charting organization within ICANN is asked to undertake an exercise whereby they publish their diversity obligations on their website, for each level of employment including leadership either under their own charter or ICANN Bylaws. This should be followed by a diversity assessment of their existing structures and consequently used to formulate their diversity objectives/criteria and steps on how to achieve the same along with the timeline to do so. These diversity assessments should be conducted annually and at the very least, every 3 years. ICANN staff has been tasked with developing a mechanism for dealing with complaints arising out of diversity and related issues. Eventually, it is envisioned that ICANN will create a Diversity section on their website where an Annual Diversity Report will be published. All information regarding Diversity should also be published in their Annual Report.

The recommendations leave much upto the organization without establishing specific recruitment policies for equal opportunities. In their 7 parameters, race was left out as a criteria for diversity. The criteria of ‘diverse skills’ is also ambiguous; and within stakeholder group, it would have been more useful to highlight the priority for diversity of opinions within the same stakeholder group. So for example, to have two civil society organizations (CSOs) advocating for contrasting stances as opposed to having many CSO’s supporting one stance. However, these steps should be a good starting point to improve the diversity of an organization which in our earlier research we have found to be neither global nor multistakeholder. In fact, our recent diversity analysis has shown concerns such as the vast number of the end users participating and as an extension, influencing ICANN work are male. The mailing list where the majority of discussions take place are dominated by individuals from industry bodies. This coupled with the relative minority presence of the other stakeholders, especially geographically (14.7% participation from Asian countries), creates an environment where concerns emanating from other sections of the society could be overshadowed. Moreover, when we have questioned ICANN’s existing diversity of employees based on their race and citizenship, they did not give us the figures citing either lack of information or confidentiality.

2. HUMAN RIGHTS FRAMEWORK OF INTERPRETATION (HR-FOI)

A Framework of Interpretation was developed by the WS2 for ICANN Bylaws relating to Human Rights which clarified that Human Rights are not a Commitment for the organization but is a Core Value. The former being an obligation while the latter are not necessarily intended to apply consistently and comprehensively to ICANN’s activities”.

To summarize the FOI, if the applicable law i.e. the law practiced in the jurisdiction where ICANN is operating, does not mandate certain human rights then they do not raise issues under the core value. As such, there can be no enforcement of human rights obligations by ICANN or any other party against any other party. Thus, contingent on the seat of the operations the law can vary though by in large ICANN recognizes and can be guided by significant internationally respected human rights such as those enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United Nations Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights was recognized as useful in the process of applying the core value in operations since it discusses corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Building on this, Human Right Impact Assessments (HRIA) with respect to ICANN policy development processes are currently being formulated by the Cross Community Working Group on Human Rights. Complementing this, ICANN is also undertaking an internal HRIA of the organization’s operations. It is important to remember that the international human rights instruments that are relevant here are those required by the applicable law.

Apart from its legal responsibility to uphold the HR laws of an area, the framework is worded negatively in that it says ICANN should in general avoid violating human rights. It is also said that they should take into account HR when making policies but these fall short from saying that HR considerations should be given prominent weightage and since there are many core values, at any point one of the others can be used to sidestep human rights. One core value in particular says that ICANN should duly consider the public policy advice of governments and other authorities when arriving at a decision. Thus, if governments want to promote a decision to further national interests at the expense of citizen’s human rights then that would be very much possible within this FOI.

3. JURISDICTION

A highly contentious issue in WS2 was that of Jurisdiction, and the recommendations formed to tackle it were quite disappointing. Despite initial discussion by the group on ICANN’s location, they did not address the elephant in the room in their report. Even after the transition, ICANN’s new by-laws state that it is subject to California Law since it was incorporated there. This is partly the fault of the first Workstream because when enumerating the issues for WS2 with respect to jurisdiction, they left it ambiguous by stating: :

“At this point in the CCWG Accountability’s work, the main issues that need within Work Stream 2 relate to the influence that ICANN ́s existing jurisdiction may have on the actual operation of policies and accountability mechanisms. This refers primarily to the process for the settlement of disputes within ICANN, involving the choice of jurisdiction and of the applicable laws, but not necessarily the location where ICANN is incorporated.”

Jurisdiction can often play a significant role in the laws that ICANN will have to abide by in terms of financial reporting, consumer protection, competition and labour laws, legal challenges to ICANN’s actions and finally, in resolving contractual disputes. In its present state, the operations of ICANN could, if such a situation arises, see interference from US authorities by way of legislature, tribunals, enforcement agencies and regulatory bodies.

CIS has, in the past, discussed the concept of “jurisdictional resilience”, which calls for:

  • Legal immunity for core technical operators of Internet functions (as opposed to policymaking venues) from legal sanctions or orders from the state in which they are legally situated.
  • Division of core Internet operators among multiple jurisdictions
  • Jurisdictional division of policymaking functions from technical implementation functions

Proposing to change ICANN’s seat of headquarters or at the very least, suggest ways for ICANN to gain partial immunity for its policy development processes under the US law would have gone a long way in making ICANN truly a global body. It would have also ensured that as an organization, ICANN would have been equally accountable to all its stakeholders as opposed to now, where by virtue of its incorporation, it has higher legal and possible political, obligations to the United States. This was (initially?) expressed by Brazil who dissented from the majority conclusions of the sub-group and drafted their own minority report, which was supported by countries like Russia. They were unhappy that all countries are still not at an equal footing in the participation of management of Internet resources, which goes against the fundamentals of the multi-stakeholder system approach.

Recommendations:

The recommendations passed were in two categories:

  1. Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC)

OFAC is an office of the US Treasury administering and enforcing economic and trade sanctions based on the American foreign policy and national security objectives. It is pertinent because, for ICANN to enter into a Registration Accreditation Agreement (RAA) with an applicant from a sanctioned country, it will need an OFAC license. What happens right now is that ICANN is under no obligation to request for this license and in either case, OFAC can refuse to provide it. The sub group recommended that the terms of the RAA be modified so that ICANN is required to apply for and put their best efforts in securing the license if the applicant is qualified to be a registrar and not individually subject to sanctions. While the licensing process is underway they should also be helpful and transparent, and maintain on-going communication with the applicant. The same recommendation was made for applicants to the new gTLD program, from sanctioned countries. Other general licenses are needed from OFAC for certain ICANN transactions and hence it was proposed that ICANN pursue the same.

2. Choice of law and Choice of Venue Provisions in ICANN Agreements

In ICANN’S Registry Agreements (RA) and Registration Accreditation Agreement (RAA) the absence of a choice of law provision means that the governing law of these contracts is undetermined until later decided by a judge or arbitrator or an agreement between the parties. It was collectively seen that increased freedom of choice for the parties in the agreement could help in customizing the agreements and make it easier for registries and such to contractually engage with ICANN. Out of various options, the group decided that a Menu approach would be best whereby a host of options(decided by ICANN) can be provided and the party in case choose the most appropriate from them such as the jurisdiction of their incorporation.In RAs, the choice of venue was pre determined as Los Angeles, California but the group recommended that instead of imposing this choice on the party it would be better to offer a list of possible venues for arbitration. The registry can then choose amongst these options when entering into the contract. There were other issues discussed which did not reach fruition due to lack of unanimity such as discussions on immunity of ICANN from US jurisdiction.

4. OFFICE OF THE OMBUDS

Subsequent to the external evaluation of the ICANN Office of the Ombuds (IOO), there were a couple of recommendations to strengthen the office. They were divided into procedural aspects that the office should carry out to improve their complaint mechanism such as differentiating between categories of complaints and explaining how each type would be handled with. The issues that would not invoke actions from the IOO should also be established clearly and if and where these could be transferred to any other channel. The response from all the relevant parties of ICANN to a formal request or report from the IOO should take place within 90 days, and 120 at the maximum if an explanation for the same can be provided. An internal timeline will be defined by the office for handling of complaints and document a report on these every quarter or annually. A recommendation for the IOO to be formally trained in mediation and have such experience within its ranks was further given. Reiterating the importance of diversity, even this sub group emphasized on the IOO bearing a diverse group in terms of gender and other parameters. This ensures that a complainant has a choice in who to approach in the office making them more comfortable. To enhance the independence of the Ombuds, their employment contract should have a 5 year fixed term which only allows for one extension of maximum 3 years. An Ombuds Advisory Panel is to be constituted by ICANN comprising five members to act as advisers, supporters and counsel for the IOO with at least 2 members having Ombudsman experience and the remaining possessing extensive ICANN experience. They would be responsible for selecting the new Ombuds and conducting the IOO’s evaluation every 5 years amongst others. Lastly, the IOO should proactively document their work by publishing reports on activity, collecting and publicizing statistics, user satisfaction information a well any improvements to the process.

These proposals still do not address the opacity of how the Office of the Ombuds resolve these cases since it does not call for; a) a compilation of all the cases that have been decided by the office in the history of the organization b) the details of the parties that are involved if the parties have allowed that to be revealed and if not at the very least, the non sensitive data such as their nationality and stakeholder affiliation and c) a description of the proceedings of the case and who won in each of them. When CIS asked for the above in 2015, the information was denied on ground of confidentiality. Yet, it is vital to know these details since the Ombuds hear complaints against the Board, Staff and other constituent bodies and by not reporting on this, ICANN is rendering the process much less accountable and transparent. This conflict resolution process and its efficacy is even more essential in a multi-stakeholder environment so as to give parties the faith to engage in the process, knowing that the redressal mechanisms are strong. It is also problematic that sexual harassments complaints are dealt by the Ombuds and that ICANN does not have a specific Anti-Sexual Harassment Committee. The committee should be neutral and approachable and while it is useful for the Office of the Ombuds to be trained in sexual harassment cases, it is by no means a comprehensive and ideal approach to deal with complaints of this nature. Despite ICANN facing a sexual harassment claim in 2016, the recommendations do not specifically address the approach the Ombuds should take in tackling sexual harassment.

 

5. SUPPORTING ORGANIZATION/ ADVISORY COMMITTEE ACCOUNTABILITY

The sub group presented the outcomes under the main heads of Accountability, Transparency, Participation, Outreach and Updates to policies and procedures. They suggested these as good practices that can be followed by the organizations and did not recommend that implementation of the same be required. The accountability aspect had suggestions of better documentation of procedures and decision-making. Proposals of listing members of such organizations publicly, making their meetings open to public observation including minutes and transcripts along with disclosing their correspondence with ICANN were aimed at making these entities more transparent. In the same vein, rules of membership and eligibility criteria, the process of application and a process of appeal should be well defined. Newsletters should be published by the SO/AC to help non-members understand the benefit and the process of becoming a member. Policies were asked to be reviewed at regular intervals and these internal reviews should not extend beyond a year.

6. STAFF ACCOUNTABILITY

Improving the ICANN staff’s Accountability was the job of a different group who assessed it at the service delivery, departmental or organizational level not at an individual or personnel level. They did this by analysing the roles and responsibilities of the Board, staff and community members and the nexus between them. Their observations culminated in the understanding that ICANN needs to take steps such as make visible their performance management system and process, their vision for the departmental goals and how they tie in to the organization’s strategic goals and objectives. They note that several new mechanisms have already been established yet have not been used enough to ascertain their efficacy and thus, propose a regular information acquisition mechanism. Most importantly, they have asked ICANN to standardize and publish guidelines for suitable timeframes for acknowledging and responding to requests from the community.

 

7. ICANN TRANSPARENCY

The last group of the WS2 was one specifically looking at the transparency of the organization.

a. The Documentary Information Disclosure Policy (DIDP)

Currently the DIDP process only applies to ICANN’s “operational activities”, it was recommended to delete this caveat to cover a wider breadth of the organization’s activities. As CIS has experienced, request for information is often met with an answer that such information is not documented and to remedy the same, a documentation policy was proposed where if significant elements of a decision making process are taking place orally then the participants will be required to document the substance of the conversation. Many a times DIDP requests are refused because one aspect of the information sought is subject to confidentiality. hus one of the changes is to introduce a severability clause so that in such cases, information can still be disclosed with the sensitive aspect redacted or severed. In scenarios of redaction, the rationale should be provided citing one of the given DIDP exceptions along with the process for appeal. ICANN’s contracts should be under the purview of the DIDP except when subject to a non-disclosure agreement and further, the burden is on the other party to convince ICANN that it has a legitimate commercial reason for requested the NDA. No longer would any information pertaining to the security and stability of the Internet be outside the ambit of the DIDP but only if it is harmful to the security and stability. Finally, ICANN should review the DIDP every five years to see how it can be improved.

b. Documenting and Reporting on ICANN’s Interactions with the Government

In a prominent step towards being more transparent with their expenditure and lobbying, the group recommended that ICANN begins disclosing publicly on at least an annual basis, sums of $20,000 per year devoted to “political activities” both in the US and abroad. All expenditures should be done on an itemized basis by ICANN for both outside contractors and internal personnel along with the identities of the persons engaging in such activities and the type of engagement used for such activities amongst others.

cc. Transparency of Board Deliberations

The bylaws were recommended to be revised so that material may be removed from the minutes of the Board if subject to a DIDP exception. The exception for deliberative processes should not apply to any factual information, technical report or reports on the performance or effectiveness of a particular body or strategy. When any information is removed from the minutes of the Board meeting, they should be disclosed after a particular period of time as and when the window of harm has passed.

d. ICANN’s Anonymous Hotline (Whistle-blower Protection)

To begin with, ICANN was recommended to devise a way such that when anyone searches their website for the term “whistle-blower”, it should redirect to their Hotline policy since people are unlikely to be aware that in ICANN parlance it is referred to as the Hotline policy. Instead of only “serious crimes” that are currently reported, all issues and concerns that violate local laws should be. Complaints should not be classified as ‘urgent’ and ‘non-urgent’ but all reports should be a priority and receive a formal acknowledgment within 48 hours at the maximum. ICANN should make it clear that any retaliation against the reporter will be taken and investigated as seriously as the original alleged wrongdoing. Employees should be provided with data about the use of the Hotline, including the types of incidents reported. Few member of this group came out with a Minority Statement expressing their disapproval with one particular aspect of the recommendations that they felt was not developed enough, the one pertaining to ICANN’s attorney-client privilege. The recommendation did not delve into specifics but merely stated that ICANN should expand transparency in their legal processes including clarifying how attorney-client privilege is invoked. The dissidents thought ICANN should go farther and enumerate principles where the privilege would be waived in the interests of transparency and account for voluntary disclosure as well.

The transparency recommendations did not focus on the financial reporting aspects of ICANN which we have found ambiguities with before. Some examples are; the Registries and Registrars are the main sources of revenue though there is ambiguity as to the classifications provided by ICANN such as the difference between RYG and RYN. The mode of contribution of sponsors isn’t clear either so we do not know if this was done through travel, money, media partnerships etc. Several entities have been listed from different places in different years, sometimes depending on the role they have played such as whether they are a sponsor or registry. Moreover, the Regional Internet Registries are clubbed under one heading and as a consequence it is not possible to determine individual RIR contribution like how much did APNIC pay for the Asia and Pacific region. Thus, there is a lot more scope for ICANN to be transparent which goes beyond the proposals in the report.

 

It is worth noting that whereas the mandate of the WS1 included the implementation of the recommendations, this is not the case for WS2 and thus, by creating a report itself the mission of the group is concluded. This difference can be attributed to the fact that during the first WS, there was a need to see it through since the IANA transition would not happen otherwise. The change in circumstances and the corresponding lack of urgency render the process less powerful, the second time round. The final recommendations are now being discussed in the relevant charting organizations within ICANN such as the Government Advisory Council (GAC) and subsequent to their approval,, it will be sent to the Board who will decide to adopt them or not. If adopted, ICANN and its sub organizations will have to see how they can implement these recommendations. The co-chairs of the group will be the point of reference for the chartering organizations and an implementation oversight team has been formed, consisting of the Rapporteurs of the sub teams and the co-chairs. A Feasibility Assessment Report will be made public in due time which will describe the resources that would take to implement the recommendations. Since it would be a huge undertaking for ICANN to implement the above, the compliance process is expected to take a few years. .

 

The link to report can be found here.

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