A diverse board
Maarten Botterman has been a member of ICANN's Board since the Hyderabad meeting, last November. "I was proposed by the Nominations Committee, or 'NomCom'," he recalls. "The job is a good fit for someone with my background. I previously chaired the Board of the Public Interest Registry, which runs the .org domain. I also have a track record as an independent analyst in the field of ICT and society. The internet is a longstanding interest of mine. It's the driver of pretty well all the developments taking place around us, positive and negative. And it offers fantastic opportunities for sustainability."
It was a headhunter that brought Lousewies van der Laan into contact with ICANN, back in 2015. "To be honest, I'd never heard of the organisation!" she admits. "And I didn't have a technical background. I knew the difference between an IP address and a domain name, but that was about it." However, ICANN was looking specifically for someone from outside the industry in order to preserve the Board's independence. The organisation also wanted to reflect the growing significance of human rights, diversity and politics.
"The issues that concern ICANN long since ceased to be purely technical. So the Board has members with expertise in a wide variety of fields: law, administration, technology and so on," explains Maarten. That diversity is important, Lousewies believes: "An outsider can offer a fresh perspective. Besides which, there are increasing pressures for the Board to consider all aspects of the internet. To do that, you need people from a variety of backgrounds."
So what qualifies someone to join the ICANN Board? In Maarten's case it was experience at the Public Interest Registry and involvement as an independent analyst with developments in internet governance and planning. Lousewies understands that a combination of legal, governance and management experience was decisive in her appointment. "I've held various posts in the Dutch and European governments. Knowledge of that world is what I bring to the table. In the internet industry, people often talk about governments without much insight and sometimes even with contempt. But I'm up for the challenge of promoting mutual understanding and building bridges."
Two Dutch members
Having two Dutch people on the Board at the same time is quite unusual. But Maarten doesn't think we should read too much into it. "Each global region has the same number of seats on the Board," he says. "Lousewies and I are both European representatives. Our job isn't to defend national interests, but to work in the interests of the global internet community." Board members are drawn from all over the world for a good reason: they have to be approachable, Maarten continues. "You can't have a situation where only people in rich countries have access to the Board, or only people in English-speaking countries. ICANN belongs to everyone with a stake in the internet, and everyone has to be able to make their voice heard. That principle is enshrined in the organisation's bylaws, which are effectively its constitution."
Three meetings a year
For Board members, the main contact opportunities are ICANN's global meetings. There are three of them every year, in different host cities around the world. ICANN policy is decided at the meetings, by the people that attend them. "The policy direction is defined by the internet community," points out Maarten. "Our role is to ensure that the process runs smoothly and that policy is implemented. At each meeting, there is a community day, when Board members get together and meet the various communities." So there is little resemblance between the way ICANN works and the way national or European government works. "We do sometimes get calls from lobbyists," says Lousewies. "But they have little to gain from making their case to us, because it's the community that decides policy, not us."
Overseeing a unique organisation
What else does ICANN's Board do? Its role is similar to that of a European company's supervisory or non-executive board, Lousewies explains. "As well as playing a role at the meetings, we oversee the organisation and its CEO, and key financial decisions have to be cleared with us. But ICANN isn't really like other organisations. It has a unique global role and it's organised in unique way: it is democratic, open and bottom-up. All policy originates from the stakeholders, not from the people at the top. For a political scientist, it's a fascinating model. The degree of openness is quite extraordinary. Literally anyone can get involved in anything. Of course, that's very much in line with the principles on which the internet is built. But it's also in step with the zeitgeist. The ICANN model is one that I'd like to see copied elsewhere around the world."
ICANN's unique organisational set-up is reflected in its strategy. "Outreach is very important," emphasises Lousewies. "We try to involve as many people as possible in the process. Anyone can observe proceedings and have a say. Which can create a great atmosphere. Of course, some meetings are very technical. But there's so much enthusiasm and idealism around. Lots of people you can enjoy a beer with." Maarten reinforces that picture: "The next ICANN meeting is in Copenhagen. It's easy to get there from the Netherlands, especially if you share a car. So I'd say to anyone reading this, come along and get involved!"
Board members don't work on ICANN business full time. "We're expected to devote two days a week to the role," says Lousewies. "In practice, it always ends up being more. Certainly in my case, because everything was completely new to me. There are lots of conference calls, lots of e-mail correspondence and lots of reports to read. Then there are the meetings, which take place three times a year and go on for twelve days. I should think I spend about another three weeks a year at other meetings. It's a good job that my independent consultancy work is very flexible and my husband is very understanding!" The amount of work involved didn't come as a surprise to Maarten. "Before accepting the post, I made it clear that I couldn't devote more than half of my time to it. So I have to be selective in terms of what I get involved in." One thing that took up a lot of the Board's time was the new bylaws, which were drawn up last year. "At certain points, dozens of e-mails a minute were landing in my mailbox," recalls Lousewies. "Thankfully that particular project is done and dusted now."
By far the biggest item on ICANN's agenda in recent times has been the IANA stewardship transfer. Oversight of the IANA function had always been the responsibility of the US government, but in 2016 a multistakeholder stewardship model was introduced. "A huge number of people were actively involved in discussing how the transition should be handled," Maarten recounts. "So much was going on, you simply couldn't allow yourself a holiday or time off sick. You just had to keep going. It wasn't all hard graft, though: it was exciting too. Right up to the last minute, there were legal petitions that threatened to derail the whole process. Conservative US presidential candidate Ted Cruz was dead set against the change. I don't think that the US can now undo what's been done, but you never know. Let's hope that common sense prevails." Lousewies: "I was particularly struck by the way that some people were quite adversarial at first, but gradually opinion converged. Decision-making within ICANN is slow, but the results are excellent. And, after all, instant decision-making is only possible in a dictatorship. In terms of the governance landscape, the transition represents a profound shift, but in terms of the way things work on a day-to-day basis, nothing's changed. There's been no impact on a single internet user anywhere. The day after the transition, the IETF tweeted 'business as usual.' And that's just the way it should be!"