The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers convened its 55th meeting in Marrakech, Morocco from the 5th -11th of March 2016. ICANN is one of the main internet governance institutes with the responsibility of managing the “core Internet infrastructure, which consists of IP addresses, domain names, and root servers”(Kurbalija, 2014: 191). The main mandate of the organisation is in running the internet’s infrastructure but does not deal directly with other internet governance issues such as content or closing the digital divide.
As part of ICANN’s capacity-building initiative and increasing young leaders’ presence, ICANN hosts the Fellowship Programme and NextGen programme. The Fellowship programme brings anyone over the age of 21 from developing nations, active in the community and unable to fund themselves. The NextGen programme brings together first-timers between 18 and 30 for a week-long customised experience, introducing end-users and stakeholders to the ICANN system in a way that is supportive, inclusive and tailored for their needs. I was fortunate to be selected as part of the NextGen@ICANN55 from the Sub-Saharan and the Middle East and North Africa region. This piece contains take-aways from my experience as an ICANN NextGen leader and the opportunities for ensuring African participation.
ICANN55 saw two transitions take place: change of President from Fedi Chehadi to Goran Marby; and phase one of the road to the IANA transition from the US government agency NTIA to the global internet community. The exiting President, Fedi Chehadi, was credited with focusing on the integration of Africa’s participation in the multi-stakeholder model. In the opening ceremony, it was announced that ICANN’s first African contact centre will be opened in Nairobi, Kenya. ICANN, which once seemed shut off from developing countries, is seen to be actively committing to increased outreach on the African continent – further enhancing the multi-stakeholder model of policy-making and governance at ICANN.
The African community at ICANN, through the African Strategy Work Group, conceived a working strategy in order to ensure effective participation by Africa at ICANN. The overall objective of the Africa Strategy is to transform the African Internet industry by facilitating capacity development and cultivate an environment for the emergence of an African grown domain name industry. Its second objective is to promote awareness and meaningful participation in ICANN and the wider internet governance ecosystem.
However, lack of diversity, capacity and awareness by the developing country community of ICANN were observed as barriers to effective participation. Supporting Organisations (SOs) and Advisory Committees (ACs) were perceived to be lacking in diversity of representation of the African community – a point raised in the public hearings. The three supporting organizations – Address Supporting Organization (ASO), the Country Code Names Supporting Organization (ccNSO) and the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) – develop and recommend policies concerning the internet’s technical management within their areas of expertise. The four advisory committees- At-Large Advisory Committee, DNS Root Server System Advisory Committee, Governmental Advisory Committee, and Security and Stability Advisory Committee – serve an advisory role to the ICANN board. The ASO and the ccNSO ensure regional or geographical representation within their system of councils. This ensures African representation on the councils with policy influence that would not leave policies relevant to Africa unrepresented. The GNSO, on the other hand, consists of stakeholder groups within the organisation – commercial stakeholder groups, non-commercial stakeholder groups, Registrar Stakeholder Group and gTLD Registries Stakeholder Group. This means that African representation is possible if African representatives are nominated and voted into the council. Thus, levels of participation in SOs and ACs is crucial to ensuring African points of interest are taken into account.
As an observer of this platform, ICANN still seemingly remains a system where participation is for those who can afford to attend meetings, those who have the resources such as time, a credible internet connection, organisational support and a level of policy or technical understanding technical of what ICANN is about. These determine the extent to which one is able to participate in local, regional or global segments of ICANN. Physical presence may be substituted by remote participation but the quality of network service may limit the extent of live participation. For example, a remote participant’s question from Africa went unanswered during the public forum as they could not secure a stable communication. Apart from the limitations in substantial participation, gender dynamics indicated significant participation of men in comparison to women. The ICANN Review session highlighted limited participation by Africa and women as a result of multiple factors that include capacity, internet access limitations, time commitment and cost of supporting oneself to attend these meetings.
While all male panels played out on stage, the participation of women was substantial. However, diversity of representation challenges the multi-stakeholder approach to ensuring an open, transparent and accountable process.
Opportunities for participation are provided for by ICANN which would address the challenge of meaningful participation – a goal for ICANN and the African Strategic Plan. Financial support is provided for the NextGen group, however, the funding at the time of participation only covered travel and accommodation. This limits participation for those without external financial support. Ensuring substantial participation is a critical responsibility for ICANN and African stakeholders. The Nextgen programme in Marrakech was seen as one of the key projects for the Africa Strategy in 2016. However, the major challenge in ensuring active engagement with NextGen participants, particularly with their presentations, was the multi-track programme which meant that Africa-specific meetings clashed with some NextGen programmes. As a result, the African Community could not attend the NextGen presentations that would provide guidance for them on their participation in ICANN.
The ICANN and African community specifically focus on increasing and sustaining participation from the developing world. Challenges of financial resources to participate in these meetings beyond the fellowship option or ICANN support limit the extent of sustainable participation. Apart from that, building capacity through mechanisms such as mentorships and sessions with African working groups and NextGen participants, for example, may help foster sustainable participation in ICANN. Specifically, a mentorship programme for women at ICANN would also foster sustained participation of women which would increase their presence in internet governance spaces.
Kurbalija, J,. (2014). “An introduction to Internet Governance”. DiploFoundation: Switzerland. Pg 191.
For more on ICANN- https://www.icann.org/get-started and icannwiki.com
For more on the African Internet Registry (AfriNIC)-http://afrinic.net/