The hollowing out of ICANN must stop

by Maria on March 19, 2011

Last week, I did something I never expected to do. At the ICANN meeting in San Francisco, I stood up in front of several hundred people and the ICANN Board of Directors and delivered a full and frank criticism of the management of ICANN’s current CEO, Rod Beckstrom.

The response to this speech was overwhelmingly strong and supportive, both in the immediate and lengthy applause and, since then, in a constant stream of handshakes, twitter and facebook shout-outs, and emails – many of which were privately sent by current members of the ICANN staff. I am re-producing my comments here so that they may be more widely available and spark further public debate.

I know the Internet community well enough to say that this is not a popularity contest, and the support I’ve received for my comments isn’t personal. There is a widely shared and profound disquiet at how this organization has been managed, horror at the near-vandalism of the damage done, and a growing sense that it must stop.

“My name is Maria Farrell. I am a member of this year’s Nominating Committee, appointed by the NCUC (Non Commercial User Constituency), and I was previously a member of the ICANN staff.

I have the distinction of being the first of a mass exodus of staff from the ICANN organization, in a series of forced departures which continue to this day.

I have kept silent and not spoken about this out of loyalty to the organization and respect for the leadership, and also my desire not to make a difficult situation worse for the ICANN staff. But my profound disquiet about how the organization is operationally being managed has moved me to speak to the Board today.

There has been a vast hollowing out of expertise, of relationships, of institutional memory, and of goodwill for this organization, and I believe the impact on ICANN ‘s operational effectiveness has been profound. The impact on the international reputation is also quite an issue.

There is a climate of fear stalking the ICANN staff. People are afraid to speak frankly internally, and to speak unpalatable truths behind closed doors, the sorts of things that need to be discussed to allow the organization to function efficiently.

People are afraid of losing their jobs by doing their jobs.

The collegiality that we knew as former ICANN staff seems to have evaporated as we have hemorrhaged talent over the last year or so. The culture of collegiality has made way for one of managing up and managing expectations, rather than serving the community.

Operational planning is in some disarray, as budgets are made up as we go along, priorities change, and internal communication is nonexistent.

I believe also that ICANN’s relationships that have been cultivated around the world over many years and with much assiduity have been trashed.

This hollowing out of the expertise of the ICANN organization, of goodwill, and the trashing of its international reputation has come to such an extent that I believe it requires urgent board attention.

These are very harsh words. I don’t deliver them with any sense of ease or happiness, but I do believe although the board doesn’t wish to be involved in micromanagement, that it needs to pay attention to these issues.

Thank you.”

[ applause ]

>>Peter Dengate Thrush (Chair of the Board of Directors): Thank you. Can I say the Board gets regular reporting on these matters from the staff. I’ll just ask the ceo to report briefly on staff matters.

>>Rod Beckstrom (CEO): Sure. First is we do track our turnover. Total turnover last year was below 15% for the organization. The industry comps for non-profits in the U.S. are between 20 and 30% a year for high-tech companies, a similar range. Our turnover rate is actually quite low.

We don’t publish statistics on voluntary versus involuntary turnover, for privacy reasons. We have also done a survey of our staff satisfaction, and we have an entire process that’s working on that overall. We’re very proud of our accomplishments. We’ve added some outstanding people to the organization and are very focused on execution. At the same time, I really appreciate your sharing your own views. Thank you.*


A few minutes later, Lesley Cowley, MD and CEO of Nominet (the .UK registry) came to the microphone to reiterate the concerns of the country code community at the loss of expertise & knowledge among the ICANN staff. Pointing out that the quoted 15% retention rate goes across the organisation, while the community’s concern is with the loss of senior staff, Lesley said her ‘back of the envelope’ calculation was that ICANN has lost 78% of its senior staff under the current leadership.

Lesley encouraged the Board to monitor and implement staff retention and morale initiatives in the overall strategic plan, pointing out that the CEO’s retention figures were based on a previous financial year, and that ‘experience is still walking out the door’.

* I’ve minimally tidied up the transcribed remarks for readability. You can listen to the audio here.

Scroll forward to minute 23.10 for my remarks and the response to them, and 37.25 for Lesley Cowley’s.



NomadUK 03.19.11 at 7:08 pm

I really appreciate your sharing your own views.

You know, I do wish these people in authority would simply say ‘Fuck you’; it would be much more straightforward and refreshing, and would save a lot of time.


Michael Froomkin 03.19.11 at 7:25 pm

[I apologize in advance for comments you might find harsh. They are not aimed at you, and I should note that we’ve never met, and I never heard complaints about you.]

It’s hard to know what to make of this posting. From the perspective of the civil society and activist community, the staff has for many years been the major obstacle. Some turnover seems like a Really Good Idea from out here in the cheap seats.

(Incidentally, I served on two NomComs myself, so I’m no stranger to things ICANN, although for health reasons I have not been involved at all for the past year and more.)

You need only look at ICANNwatch and the IGP Blog to get a taste of the things people are willing to say about the staff in public. The stories I used to hear in private were much much worse: sabotage of bottom-up ideas, pure and simple, over and over again. Lies. Failure to summarize comments to the Board fairly. (Certainly, the one time I tried to send in live comments to an ICANN meeting the staff member read them to the Board just left out all the bits that questioned his worldview.) Making promises to civil society groups that are not kept. Scheduling meetings at the last minute so only lobbyists can afford to attend. Back channels to industry and exclusion of civil society. Gaming the constituency model to over-represent people who played ball with the staff and undermine those who did not. And on and on an on. Staff wanted tame public representatives and worked to neuter and exclude the untamed, with a high degree of success. If all else failed, just announce another round of reviews after the one that was supposed to settle everything and left private participants exhausted and broke.

So what you call worrying “loss of expertise” might for all I know in fact be necessary “house cleaning”. It depends on who is going and why. As I said above, I’m not involved as much right now, so I don’t know who is going and why. It may be all as you say.

But I did want to note that historically the (majority of the) staff (there were exceptions) were not the good guys in my world and thus might not be missed.
However cozy on the inside (a symptom of the problem?) the staff was, quite simply, dysfunctional from the point of view of achieving ICANN’s stated aims of stewardship and formation of true public (as opposed to corporate) consensus. Whether the new dispensation will be an improvement, I do not claim to know. But there was much to lament about the cozy, secretive, insular, too-comfortable staff world of the past. And the senior staff deserve the blame. Good riddance?


Jim Fleming 03.19.11 at 7:56 pm

FACT: In 1998, Jon Postel, the infamous IANA said, in public, at an IETF Meeting that…”He would design ICANN to FAIL”

Jon Postel was (or still is?) the Master of Manipulation


t1 03.19.11 at 8:27 pm

What’s ICANN?


alexincancun 03.19.11 at 9:28 pm

i just googled them. why do they of all people have such a horrible website?


Jim Fleming 03.19.11 at 10:08 pm

What’s ICANN?
ICANN is a U.S. Corporation founded in 1998 to do what the U.S. Government should have done.

People (including many Americans) were DUPED that a PRIVATE Corporation could do a “better” job than much lower paid and honest U.S. Government Civil Servants.

As predicted by a few people, the PRIVATE Corporation has grown and grown to serve a small elite “echelon”, that Bill Clinton now calls “The Global ELITE”.

THE.Clinton(s) & IRA Magaziner were two of the elites that architected ICANN in 1998. The U.S. Government is NOW in the process of diluting ICANN via many parallel agendas. ICANN will likely become a more international body, similar to the ITU. Both organizations will be ignored in the USA once the U.S. Government gets the new structure in place.

Americans have wasted over 10 years playing with other culture’s rule books. Those rule books largely derive from academic wackos, socialists, zen gurus, NET Clerics, greedy manipulative people who have lived their whole lives from NSF or DOD grants, etc. Normal people are baffled by the Cult-Like nonsense of IANA, ICANN & ISOC.


Jim Fleming 03.19.11 at 10:28 pm

The Big Lie Society
1992 – 2012 Twenty Years of Internet Domination

52 People you NEVER want to allow near your children’s .NET

Imagine 52 people creating and sustaining an Internet Eco.System, for their collective benefit, while telling the world, “they are serving the public good”. Imagine the world, unable to put 2 and 2 together, to observe the collective actions of those 52 people. Imagine that the 52 people are never seen together and rarely expose their nefarious inter-actions. How do they do it?

Imagine that the 52 people control the fundamental resources needed to operate The Internet. Imagine the nature of those resources is so simple… most people refuse to believe they matter. { Would fools really pay for large unique binary numbers? } Imagine that over a 20 plus year period numerous challenges are made for FAIR allocation of the resources. Not once, in 20+ years, does The.Big.Lie.Society fail to maintain the upper hand. How do they do it?

Who are these people? How do they maintain control? Why do 99.9% of the people in the world sit on their hands and do nothing to stop the nefarious actions? The book explores a 20+ year history of unending episodes of The.Big.Lie.Society Eco.System and how the world is dominated by these self-appointed cyberspace czars. The book exposes the dots and draws the straight lines [many refuse exist] between ALL of the 52 people.

HowCAN YOU become part of The.Big.Lie.Society? HowCAN YOU command $50,000 per DAY consulting fees? HowCAN YOU direct several non-profit corporations and travel the world (for FREE) while dining in all the best restaurants near your 5-Star Hotel? HowCAN YOU get in on the Internet MLM** Pyramid Scheme?




Ebenezer Scrooge 03.20.11 at 3:04 am

How can anybody really care about domain names any more? There are these little thingies called search engines and bookmarks and Wikipedia.


bert 03.20.11 at 5:12 am

For whatever reason, a rogue space (URL-encoded as %20) has crept into your audio link. Ignorance means I’d be foolish to wade in on the substance, but clearly you made a gutsy stand. You also made an enemy. When he responds to the applause by telling you how much he appreciates your contribution, do not believe him.
Beckstrom is apparently the author of a piece of sub-Friedman management blather called The Starfish and the Spider. If you chop the arms off a starfish, the dismembered bits can grow into new starfishes. Management insights follow.


Maria 03.20.11 at 10:18 am

Link to audio is fixed now. Thanks, Bert.


chris 03.21.11 at 2:00 pm

So what you call worrying “loss of expertise” might for all I know in fact be necessary “house cleaning”. It depends on who is going and why.

ISTM that it depends even more on who is replacing them and how they are chosen.


Sumana Harihareswara 03.21.11 at 4:05 pm

Maria, what would you suggest that I, a random Internet citizen, do to help fix this problem?


PHB 03.22.11 at 2:36 am

I am not sure why the ‘hollowing out’ has to stop or whether that is a bad thing or a good thing.

What I am pretty sure of is that the former ICANN President would not have been paid anywhere close to $700,000 in any other line of work. Nor did the renewal terms for the .com or .net contract strike me as necessary or equitable.


Jim Fleming 03.22.11 at 9:53 pm

One of the founders of ICANN, Esther Dyson apparently placed people on the ICANN Staff and claimed to be paying their salaries from her own pocket.

Has anyone tracked those Staff ? What do they do ?
Is one of them now paid $500,000 per year ? after being relieved of all responsibilities ?
Are there people on the Staff with nothing to do and no place to go ?

Comments on this entry are closed.