In the long tradition of tenants trashing the gaff as they’re finally evicted, ICANN’s outgoing CEO seems determined to burn down the house he’s been renting for the past three years. ICANN’s Costa Rica meeting was addressed this morning by Rod Beckstrom, who’s in his last couple of months on the job. In an effort to salvage his tattered reputation, Beckstrom seems to be following his standard m.o. of shifting attention to the suddenly glaring failings of the organization that’s decided to terminate his employment.
(Avid readers may remember my intervention at an ICANN meeting in San Francisco a year ago on the lasting damage Beckstrom has done to ICANN’s international reputation and staff. Soon after, the Board of Directors decided not to renew Beckstrom’s contract, and launched a search process that will culminate next month in the announcement of a new CEO.)
People at ICANN meetings have become accustomed to the politically tone-deaf performances of Beckstrom’s opening day speeches, leading to, for example, cringe-inducing public prayer sessions or government reps storming out. So this week’s effort, which painted ICANN’s Board of Directors, Nominating Committee and the entire CEO job applicant pool as conflicted and ethically challenged in-breds, was greeted with amusement and disdain. The outrage Beckstrom has previously parlayed into headlines and Internet buzz has been replaced with patiently gritted teeth.
The fact is there’s a germ of truth in Beckstrom’s searing criticism of the organization he’s been happy to run for the past three years. Conflicts are rife, with several industry-sourced Board Directors needing to recuse themselves from discussions or votes on new generic top-level domains. And ICANN’s standing is nowhere near to recovering from the dramatic act of pantouflage of our last Chairman, who went from chairing the Board meeting that approved new gTLDs to running a new gTLD company within a few weeks.
But things are often more complicated than they first appear. The frequent tendency of Board Directors to recuse themselves speaks as much to their honesty, propriety and the availability of prudent legal advice, as it does to anything unsavoury. For example, one director recuses himself because his company enjoys a silent partnership with another company that has separately developed new gTLD services, i.e. there’s no direct benefit. Many corporations would not require a recusal in these circumstances, but ICANN Directors volunteer them.
Although it’s not the kind of sound bite that appeals to swansong speeches or opportunistic critics, the fact is that conflicts can be managed honestly and fairly when the right behaviours, expectations, sanctions and transparent processes are in place to allow informed decision-makers to share their expertise when appropriate, or just get up and leave the room otherwise. Under Beckstrom’s leadership, ICANN is updating and improving its conflicts and ethics policies. And as a member of the Nominating Committee I’ve asked for and received several tutorials from ICANN’s legal counsel on the changing state of play. I’ve never been involved with another organization where there was such a high level of awareness and concern about conflicts, for better and worse. The declaration of conflicts is not proof of the impossibility of self-regulation, but actually a healthy mechanism for getting stuff done.
So Beckstrom’s self-serving critique of the organization he is leaving might be noted and ignored, while the people thus accused continue to work diligently and in the open to develop a fair, global, self-regulatory model that is still very much a work in progress. Unfortunately, that’s not how China and Russia see it.
As ever, ICANN is engaged in an existential struggle for both the development and the survival of the multi-stakeholder model. Remarks such as Beckstrom’s play right into the hands of governments that have no interest in allowing anyone else into the room when they decide on how to run the Internet. They give credence to uninformed rumour-mongering that has as its goal the wresting of control of the Internet by the very governments who most wish to censor and constrain free expression.
Unfortunately, we can expect more of these ‘bombs’ to be dropped during Beckstrom’s final months, as the CEO and Board Director attempts to paint himself as a courageous contrarian speaking truth to power. But the truth is Beckstrom’s speech was not only inaccurate and mean-spirited, but a transparent attempt to wring personal, tactical advantage at the strategic expense of the organization he still purports to lead. It is a shame that at this point in Beckstrom’s tenure, we have come to expect no better.