ICANN Nairobi; relocation, relocation?

by Maria on February 12, 2010

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.



Doug 02.12.10 at 4:13 pm

Would visa concerns for non-waiver countries be enough to think about a permanent home for the meeting somewhere other than LA? (Though Schengen visas are a pain in the ass in their very own special way, too.)


Kieren McCarthy 02.12.10 at 5:49 pm

Good post Maria – I’ve done one myself on why the security problem may be a blessing in disguise.


Rod Beckstrom 02.12.10 at 6:23 pm

Dear Maria-
Thanks for sharing your very well considered blog piece. This is indeed a very complex issue and it’s good to see you sharing a nuanced analysis of many of the subtle complexities and the broader context that surrounds them.


Marta Fernandez 02.13.10 at 12:04 am

I am a newbie to this site. Read your blog with vivid interest. You make a lot of sense, a critical thinker. I vehemently disagree with the comment following regarding a permanent home in the U.S. or anywhere..maintain diversity to expand knowledge.

I admire your chutzpah..for going to Nairobi if the conference goes forward.


Alejandro Pisanty 02.13.10 at 4:15 am

Great post, Maria (and Kieren, kudos on the thoughts you provoke with yours, too.)

When we hosted the ICANN meeting in Mexico City the US press was filled with reports of violence in other parts of the country and a large number of US visitors made known their intense concern. As Maria correctly says, participants from other regions were much more at ease. The meeting worked wonderfully – the city behaved extra well in providing beautiful sunny days to winter-bluesed Northerners, and most if not all the feedback about the time people spent here has been emphatically positive.

The value of the meetings, from the very start, has not only been thought to be to display ICANN to the “locals”, nor to open a door to them with cheaper tickets (not always so considering that South-South travel is far more complicated, and about 3X more expensive per kilometer, than North-North travel) – no, the most important philosophical design of these “exotic” meetings is only realized if visitors from the “North” try to compenetrate themselves with the views and values, at least about the Internet, that shape the local community in the host country and region.

When preparations started for the meeting in Accra, Ghana, many years ago, we jumped on the chance to open a venue for communication with and among the many, extremely brave, talented and valued participants from Africa. The meaning of the meeting was far beyond usual comprehension; its symbolic value was barely understood by many outside developing countries. In contrast, when a meeting was announced for Los Angeles in November 2001, my family really thought it was almost foolhardy to travel to a country where thousands had actually been killed in an abstractly-aimed attack against anything that moved.

That said, the new, explicit threat for Nairobi does open an unexpected angle. Maybe the precedent of Los Angeles 2001 is more relevant than the ICANN meetings in “dangerous places” like Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Accra, etc. I join Maria in feeling for those who have to make this tough decision.


Lord B 02.13.10 at 7:49 am

Doug – Schengen visas are a breeze to get compared to US Visas. Don’t even compare the two.


Maria 02.13.10 at 9:29 am

Kieren – I’ve corrected the 2/3 to 1/3, ta.

Rod – thanks very much for commenting and good luck with a tough decision.

Alejandro – thanks for articulating the true value of these meetings.

Doug/Lord B – Anecdotally, I hear it’s easier for Africans and former CIS people to visit Europe for meetings. For quite a few years, the difficulties encountered by perfectly legitimate would-be visitors to the US have meant ICANN holds meetings there sparingly. Entry to Schengen countries has also gotten harder, but from a lower base, I think.

Travel costs are a big factor, with Alejandro’s point about south/south versus north/south travel being a problem. I constantly hear from African colleagues that they’ve had to fly back to Paris to get to a country one or two over from them. (Not unlike much Internet traffic!)

A huge amount of thought continues to go into how to manage the factors of travel costs, participation, visas, representation of regions, etc. When you bring all those factors into play, the world – i.e. the number of suitable meeting locations – becomes rather small. Then there’s the question of whether to do the meetings this way, or how many of them. I’ve been trying to track down an excellent discussion paper Susan Crawford did on this a few years ago. I’ll post it if I find it. But Kieren McCarthy’s post on this meeting and remote participation is well worth a read. He used to be ICANN’s manager of public participation and has thought very hard about these questions.


Eric Brunner-Williams 02.14.10 at 3:47 am

like alejandro, i appreciated the effort nii made to get the ghana meeting. i too distinguish between the militarized industry-specific conflict along the us-mx frontier, and the federal district, and share alejandro’s views on us media sales of “dangerous mexico”. it wasn’t and it isn’t.

specific to the somali civil war and the risk it poses, i recommend reading africacomments.org for more insight. h/t Maxcrat commenting at wampum.


Dana 02.14.10 at 7:21 am

How about a meeting in north if Iraq (Kurdistan)?
it’s pretty safe.


Norbert Klein 02.14.10 at 2:14 pm

It’s somewhat confusing to read all the Nairobi related considerations when one lives in Cambodia since 20 years. For years, there were not just occasional threats, but it was part of daily life, working at the Ministry of Agriculture: Can we visit this province next week, or do we have to wait for some new info from military security? Will it be possible to return in two days, if we go today, as there are negative expectations for next week? – Well that is not now, but also not so long in the past.

Of course it is different to take an international group to a place when there are “modern” terrorist threats – we were just living with simple crude violence. And it was our “choice” (for the foreigners) to be here – not so for our Cambodian colleagues.

It is of course good to avoid obvious dangers. But it might also be useful for ICANN to consider meetings in environments with less top amenities as far as the hotels are concerned. We have excellent Internet connection also in Cambodia, because many people have worked to develop them. But the hotels and restaurants and taxis might not be up to the standards normally ICANN meeting participants expect.


Maria 02.14.10 at 2:56 pm

FYI for readers, Eric Brunner Williams references the legendary Nii Quaynor who could fairly be called one of the fathers of the Internet in Africa. (And an extraordinarily gracious individual who I’ve been humbled and tongue-tied to meet.)

Thanks, Norbert. I think Alejandro puts it very well when he says much of the value of these far flung meetings is when “visitors from the “North” try to compenetrate themselves with the views and values, at least about the Internet, that shape the local community in the host country and region.” I wonder how it would shake us all up to run a meeting in, as you say, a place with less top amenities – but bulked up remote participation for people who don’t want to make the trip. Kieren’s point in his own blog post is well taken; that Nairobi is a golden opportunity for improving remote participation.


Eric Brunner-Williams 02.14.10 at 4:38 pm

One thing that simply has to improve is the use of Adobe Connect.

In the DC Consultation, so a room with 60 “regulars” (most of us registry operators concerned with the Draft Registry Agreement amendment process, so a continuation of the Seoul RyC meeting with ICANN Deputy and General Counsel and Kurt, or (and with non-trivial overlap) accredited registrars interested in the CRAI-creaed Vertical Integration problem, so … seriously privileged insiders pursuing primarily economic lobbying goals, oddly, with no one from the DoC present, the ability of the remote participants to engage was wicked poor. The chat window has to be bigger, the bumpf screen has to shrink, and audio setup and test has to happen before the “opening gavel”. A lot more chats/skypes/webcam channels so that remote participants can conspire as effectively as the physically present participants, and a lot more decision making tools (I’m running the 2nd election for the Native American & Indigenous Studies Association right now and the drupal+decisions module is wicked useful).

Note well: Adobe Connect assumes all participants access the session via fat, low latency pipes, an assumption that constrains OEDC participation to “broadband” and non-OEDC participation to a much smaller demographic. Trying to use it via a VSAT terminal off-the-grid (my mode of use for four of the past five years, pre-Cornell) was excruciating.

Note well #2: Kurt has to speak up or an audio engineer has to balance the mic values or some deafness will result when Ken Stubbs smacks his phone and starts speaking after Kurt’s done speaking sotto voice (US Registrar Regional, remote participation, summer 09).

I’m not going to Nairobi because I evaluate the risk as “high”. I’m willing, and CORE is willing, to give my time at Cornell, and Secretariat time in Geneva, for the week to working with Staff to make the remote participation work better than it has in the past. We’re starting _late_ fixing the problem of diminished physical participation, independent of cause, and institutionalizing the remote store-and-forward, and the remote real-time participation mechanisms.

BTW, one of the best IETF meetings was held in the unused dorms of the University of British Columbia. Very under-stated and low cost.

Oh. Don’t forget to nominate CT for the Koufax Awards when I open up nominations this week.


Maria 02.14.10 at 7:18 pm

It’s an ill wind that blows no good: in pretty much any realistic scenario I can envisage for the Nairobi meeting, remote participation is going to get the huge push Kieren spent the last few years working on. That will be the gift that keeps on giving.


Gaziantepayakkabi 02.15.10 at 5:49 pm

Note well #2: Kurt has to speak up or an audio engineer has to balance the mic values or some deafness will result when Ken Stubbs smacks his phone and starts speaking after Kurt’s done speaking sotto voice (US Registrar Regional, remote participation, summer 09).

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