Although I no longer work for ICANN, I’d planned on attending its meeting in Nairobi next month to meet old friends and drum up some work for my new consulting business. The Nairobi meeting is scheduled to run from 7-12 March. The biggest issue on the table is a crucial stage in the addition of new top level domains; the vote by the Board on how to handle expressions of interest. But in the last 24 hours, ICANN’s COO, Doug Brent, has published a security warning that may result in the meeting being cancelled.
If this happens, it will be a real blow for the Kenyan Internet community. A previously planned meeting in Nairobi was cancelled because of security concerns prompted by election violence a couple of years ago. I thought this was the wrong call at the time, as election violence tends to die down and our meeting wasn’t till several months later. But I didn’t question and don’t envy the people who have to make that decision.
An ICANN meeting brings about 1200 people from around the world to a country chosen from host applications about a year in advance. It’s a mix between a trade show and a party conference, with endless parallel sessions, soap-boxing, hallway deal-making and late night drinking.
Probably two thirds One third (thanks, Kieren) of the participants are regulars, and there’s always a ‘back to school’ feeling on the first day as you greet people you’ve not seen in months with an enthusiasm that wears off in about a nanosecond. The dominance of the regulars causes ongoing criticism that the whole travelling circus doesn’t work to get more and different people to take part, and should halt its global peregrinations and stay put in L.A., Frankfurt or Singapore.
It’s expensive to take part in person, but however much resources are put into it, the number of remote participants is always disappointing. The in-person meetings have an uneasy mix of lobbyists, volunteers (many of whom are self-styled volunteers and in fact make their living from ICANN activities), beleagured staff members, G-men, NGO types, ccTLD reps, techies, salesmen, and confused-looking locals. Like it or loathe it, the travelling ICANN meeting is a big deal for the local hosts and the Internet community of the country and region it’s in. It’s their moment to come together as a group and strut their stuff on the global stage.
The latest security warning about Nairobi concerns a known threat, the possibility of a terrorist attack by Al-Shabaab, a Somalia based Islamist insurgency group. The group has said it will attack if Kenya supports the Somali Transitional Federal Government. The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office put out a warning in December 2009 that terrorist attacks throughout Kenya remain a high risk, but that only non-essential travel to near the Somali border is to be avoided. Like London, New York or Washington DC, Nairobi functions admirably despite a constant threat of terrorism. However, the US State Department has just issued a specific warning about possible suicide attacks on the Kenyatta Conference Centre where the meeting will be held. It says the individuals planning on carrying out attacks have been living in Somali communities within Kenya since early February.
Although the Board just voted a couple of weeks ago to go ahead with the Nairobi meeting despite the more general security concerns, the latest warning has re-opened this tough question. Ultimately, ICANN’s CEO and Chairman must weigh up the risk of bringing over a thousand people to a potential terrorist target. Their decision isn’t simple as that sounds. Chances are, no attacks will happen and the meeting will be a success. But I suspect the maxim ‘if we cancel it, the terrorists have already won’ has a lot more rhetorical than practical weight if you’re the person on whose conscience the safety of hundreds of people will sit.
The Nairobi meeting is hugely important to the people directly involved, in a way I’m finding hard to articulate. As well as the official programme, endless meetings and interactions will take place that are very important to the African and indeed the global Internet community. The solidarity and awareness of what it takes to keep the Internet going in different parts of the world grows from talking and sitting side by side for hours in endless technical workshops and council meetings. It can’t be got any other way. Or put it another way, if the meeting gets moved to ICANN’s home base in Los Angeles, lots of people who would have come won’t be able to. Not least because of visa problems. If ICANN Nairobi has to be cancelled, the loss in the Internet community’s regional momentum and global amity will be great.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of carping – from mostly American community members, I have to admit – about ICANN going to high-crime places like Sao Paolo, Delhi or Mexico City. In my experience, the non-Americans in the Internet community are markedly sanguine about visiting visiting poor and potentially dangerous places. When we cancelled Nairobi last time round, the Kenyans had to more or less button their anger and disappointment to stay in the game. But it’s infuriating to be told by people you work with that they can’t possibly risk themselves in a city you live in year round. However, there is a qualitative difference between visiting a city with a lot of crime against property and one where you may be a live target.
As a nonprofit with a public interest mission and a healthy contingency fund, relocating the meeting will hurt ICANN, but not mortally. I’m sure as I write that the meetings team is triggering its contingency plans to hold the meeting elsewhere if needed. It can be done. I just hope it doesn’t have to be, and that more information about the security threat means fore-warned is fore-armed.
Already, a couple of companies have pulled their people regardless. That’s their choice. But if the meeting goes ahead, I for one will be going to Nairobi.