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Ensuring that civil society’s voice is heard in ICANN

Published on 13 May 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

On 4 May, the Geneva Internet Platform and ICANN organised an open discussion on Ensuring Civil Society’s Voice is Heard in ICANN. The discussion, held in Geneva, brought together experts involved in ICANN processes, and newcomers to the process, for an interactive session on the potentials and limitations of civil society engagement.

Speakers included Ayden Férdeline (LSE, Masters program), Anne-Rachel Inne (ICANN), Tatiana Tropina (Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law), Matthew Shears (Center for Democracy & Technology), and Olivier MJ Crepin-Leblond (EURALO). The briefing was moderated by Dr Jovan Kurbalija, DiploFoundation director and head of the Geneva Internet Platform.

In this blog post, we summarise the main points from the discussion.

Civil society – misnomer

Participants agreed that there are different views on the definition of civil society, and that this umbrella term makes it difficult to find a single ‘home’ within ICANN. There are multiple constituencies in which civil society representatives are active across ICANN.

In the early days of ICANN, when the organisation consisted of only a few individuals, the level of informality of the discussions allowed for an equal standing of all stakeholders. Following the Tunis Agenda (outcome of the World Summit on Information Society held in Geneva in 2003 and in Tunis in 2005), the tripartite classification (government – business – civil society) was applied to ICANN dynamics. Yet this type of classification presented quite a few limitations within the context of ICANN: civil society is much more diverse.

Possibility vs reality of participation

One has to find an ‘entry point’ into the ICANN world. The entry point should be in identifying the specific interest of the newcomer. Once this first stage is completed, one needs to dedicate time and energy to participate in the ICANN processes, related working groups and meetings.

ICANN has put a lot of effort into overcoming the gap between the nominal possibility to participate and meaningful participation. It is not enough to simply invite stakeholders to participate. One needs to provide context, and to help stakeholders develop the skills to participate. It is a most demanding task.

ICANN has undertaken a series of steps in this direction, through programmes such as ICANN fellowships for global meetings, the NextGen program, and the Community Onboarding initiatives. As ICANN’s structure becomes more complex, engagement requires both ‘explicit knowledge’ (acronyms, guidelines, books) and ‘implicit knowledge’ (hand-holding, understanding tacit barriers).

Variable geometry of participation

Different stakeholders have legitimate interests that may evolve over time. It is a good starting point for discussion. On one issue, civil society can be on the side of a trademark lobby. On other issues, the players can take opposing stands. This variable geometry provides a healthy space for negotiations without ideological divisions.

There are various civil society groups that are deeply involved in ICANN, be it through an At-Large structure, or the Non-Commercial Stakeholder Group (NCSG). They have managed to develop visibility and engage constantly, participating closely in all relevant processes. Yet, since not all organisations have the resources to follow ICANN processes on a weekly basis, the main challenge is to involve civil society groupings that are tangentially interested in IG issues (e.g. human rights, humanitarian, IPR).

Geneva and civil society

More than 50% of IG policy discussions take place in Geneva, where ongoing negotiations on human rights, humanitarian relief, etc also take place. The resources of more than 200 NGOs based in Geneva are dispersed among multiple streams of activities; there is a constant challenge of sidelining a number of processes. Currently, human rights and ICANN issues are dormant (part of by-laws) but not actively implemented, and this may be an area of potential interest to the Geneva-based organisations. There is a need to develop a ‘framework of interpretation’ for addressing human rights and ICANN.

Expertise vs representation?

This is one of the tensions that civil society faces within ICANN and beyond. The key question is how to overcome the tension between communities with expertise and communities that need to represent the public interest. The latter is in the process of being articulated across ICANN. As pointed out in the discussion, there is also a need to strike a right balance between efficiency and inclusion. How can policy processes be efficient while involving more people in the room? Is having more people a less efficient process? Inclusion is also connected with legitimacy, and longer processes of deliberation might become the new reality at ICANN if more voices are to be heard.

The Geneva Internet Platform is a Swiss initiative operated by DiploFoundation.

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