ICANN’s Departing CEO: Burning Down the House

by Maria on March 13, 2012

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.

{ 10 comments }

1

bill manning 03.13.12 at 2:07 am

He did the same when he “left” DHS. True or not, Accurate or not, such behaviour does not reflect well on ones CV.

2

dave heasman 03.13.12 at 12:24 pm

“gaff” not “gaffe”

3

Maria 03.13.12 at 12:33 pm

Thanks, Dave.

4

Eric Brunner-Williams 03.14.12 at 12:45 pm

Maria,

Rod’s transition caused several senior staff to leave, and several had corporate memory through, and prior to, Paul’s years in office, so very few current senior staff were personally involved in the 2004 round, when applications were selected according to some policy goal more restrictive than “has investors”. His period of executive management, like Paul’s, did not contain a competitive redelegation of a legacy delegation. The rhetoric and policy during Rod’s first year came very close to causing the Beijing root operator to increase the differences between its zone and the Marina del Rey zone. A lack of insight into the necessity of GOST R 34.10-2001 for signing zones was similarly primary risk and management responsibility unaware.

The corporations resources, and through its rhetoric, the resources of others, were diverted to “security”, with vast increases in the cost of future registry operators and some improvements in tertiary leaf-node security (WHOIS etc), with little other than DNSSEC offered to secure the primary infrastructure — the routing system, the cost imposed on operational cooperation by non-CNOBI operators (Conficker .C response cost), the time infrastructure (non-repudiation without time is meaningless), and the numerous national block/filter/wiretap regimes.

In terms of GNSO policy, his years in office have had no effect upon the Peter/Paul policy of offering revenue sharing (defensive registration and SEO monitizations), replicating the existing use and ownership pattern of Verisign’s properties, as the transformation of a legacy monopoly to a competitive market. He has been Peter’s quiet partner in continuing the prevention of any new public purpose delegation prior to private purpose delegations — Bertrand Delenoë’s Maire de Paris, our hosts in 2008, cannot apply before Verisign, NeuStar, Afilias are given additional indefinite private franchises. Further, and greater responsibility goes to Peter acting as Chairman of the Board acting in a private interest, but unaddressed by Rod, is the abandonment of restriction upon registry-registry cross ownership.

Finally, his artless, even witless response to the DoC/NTIA RFC a year ago insisted upon the inseparability of the IANA functions contract and refuted a government interest in the IANA contract. The withdrawal of the DoC/NTIA RFP for the IANA contract is difficult to assign to any other person than the outgoing CEO and President.

The Board could have asked for an interim CEO last summer, and can still separate the operational functions of CEO from the public persona functions of President, professionalizing both, or ending the later.

5

Scott Martens 03.14.12 at 1:57 pm

Thank you for helping to introduce the word “pantouflage” to English speakers. There needs to be a word for that in English, and the French one is a nice one.

6

Maria 03.14.12 at 7:49 pm

Thanks, Scott. It’s one of my favourite words. But I was devastated to be reminded last night by my old boss, Paul Levins, that Henry used it on CT a few years ago: http://crookedtimber.org/2004/01/24/pantouflage/

7

Maria 03.14.12 at 7:55 pm

Hi Eric, many thanks for your perspective on the detail of some issues I must admit I’ve not paid close attention to.

8

Eric 03.14.12 at 10:12 pm

two typos: corporation’s and registry-registrar.

9

Roger Wilco 03.19.12 at 8:00 pm

ICANN is ran like a for profit corporation. In all meetings the number of registered domains (which closely relates with the ICANN income) is the main criteria for gTLD or ccTLD success. Also the new gTLDs will increase the ICANN cash for bonuses and spending (with very low accountability). I doubt the global community really wants the new gTLDs. ICANN says the it is a multistakeholder approach, but in fact few people with good technical skills can attend their meetings 2 times a year often organized in exotic destinations. ICANN is full with US government spy’s which really dictate how Internet will be governed. This is a strategic resource for the USA and organizations like ICANN are created just to provide cover that everything is democratic……..

10

Bombs away 03.20.12 at 6:09 pm

Maria –

I’m usually a fan of your editorials and inside/outside perspective but if “…we can expect more of these ‘bombs’ to be dropped during Beckstrom’s final months..” then I’m wondering how those bombs will measure up to the smoking crater in ICANN’s credibility left by PDT’s move. You don’t address this in your piece but I’m sure you see the damage done.

There’s more than a “germ of truth” in the call for balance called for by Beckstrom. The new IANA RFP will apparently include a requirement for ICANN (or any future operator) to clearly define and document a real conflict of interest policy. I respect your opinion and would like to known if think that requirement is uncalled for or long overdue?

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