Monday, 3 April 2006
ICANN and the press
One of the three main issues that has arisen in my efforts to report on the Internet's governing body, ICANN , is ICANN's failure to comply with its own bylaws requiring that "ICANN and its constituent bodies shall operate to the maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner and consistent with procedures designed to ensure fairness." (The other two main issues are the exclusion of travellers and the public, and the capture by the airline and travel industries, of the new ".travel" and ".aero" top-level Internet domain names; and the lack of accountability or oversight of ICANN, as exemplified in its failure to put in place the procedures for independent review also required by its bylaws.)
ICANN's commitment to transparency -- in its bylaws and in its contracts with the USA Department of Commerce, which has delegated authority over many aspects of Internet policy making to ICANN -- isn't supposed to be limited to journalists. Under ICANN's rules, the general public is equally entitled to access to meetings, documents, and records. But when a journalist is excluded, the damage is multiplied: My interest in open meetings and access to documents is a proxy for the interests of tens of thousands of my readers who rely on me and my books, Web site, and e-mail newsletter for reporting and analysis of meetings and information they wouldn't have time to attend or review themselves.
ICANN's staff and Board members claim not to understand why the public doesn't take more of an interest in ICANN's work. Yet ICANN is most hostile to those few investigative journalists like myself who report in the most depth on what ICANN does, and explain to members of the public why what ICANN does matters to the public.
ICANN can't be bothered, or doesn't think it can afford, to hire anyone to fill the vacant position of Manager of Public Participation mandated by its bylaws. But it can afford a full-time in-house public relations staff person, as well as public relations firms on contract both in London and Wellington for its latest meetings.
As I pointed out last week in my comments on ICANN's three-year strategic plan:
In the draft [of the strategic plan], openness and transparency is considered only as a public relations problem, on page 17 of the draft: "Develop mechanisms to report on ICANN's openness, transparency, inclusiveness and its multilateral and multi-stakeholder environment."
It is an insult to the community to suggest, as this draft implicitly does, that the problem is that we, the stakeholders, just don't understand how open and transparent ICANN is, and that the solution lies in re-educating us.
ICANN needs to do more about openness and transparency than hire more propagandists to "report on" ICANN's current structure. ICANN needs to actually become more open and transparent.
My comments were the only public feedback on the draft of the strategic plan, but were ignored. At its meeting in Wellington, New Zealand, last Friday, ICANN's Board of Directors approved the draft plan, unmodified, officially endorsing this "propaganda strategy" for addressing ICANN's crisis of secrecy.
How ICANN puts this propaganda strategy into practice was exemplified by how they stage-managed relations with reporters during their most recent meetings. They held two press conferences (Kieren McCarthy describes the first, and the Scoop has photos and an MP3 audio recording of the second), one during and one at the conclusion of their meetings. But despite written promises and instructions from ICANN's staff that I was to be included, I was not.
ICANN's staff wouldn't respond to my queries, and ICANN's designated public relations contacts lied to me, ignored my requests for information, and eventually claimed that they had been given "discretion" by ICANN to decide whom to allow to participate or receive information, and whom to exclude, on the basis of their opinion that a blogger can't be a journalist, and that neither books nor the Internet are legitimate news media -- even for reporting about the (governance of) the Internet itself.
You probably don't want to read all the details, but for the sake of my fellow journnalists, and the principles at stake, I think it's important to put them on the record. Here's what happened:
Once upon a time, ICANN had public press conferences at their quarterly meetings. That ended with their meeting in Mar del Plata, Argentina, a year ago, when news organizations that had been on their distribution list for press advisories were silently dropped from the list, and my own attempt to take ICANN up on its public offer to permit remote participation in its press conference was ignored. My exclusion from the ICANN press conference in Mar del Plata is one of the issues raised in my pending request for an independent review of ICANN's failure to comply with its bylaws on openness and transparency.
When I went to Vancouver to try to attend, in person, ICANN's December 2005 meeting -- and, of course, the press conference held in conjunction with it -- things were even worse . As Prof. Michael Froomkin (now a member of ICANN's Nominating Committee), described it at ICANN Watch :
ICANN has ratcheted up the secrecy one more level: it has secret press conferences. ICANNWatch.org has asked repeatedly to be on the ICANN press mailing list, but we don't get notice of them. (We did for a short period; then it stopped.) Nor either do working journalists present at ICANN's meetings if ICANN thinks them unfriendly. Even dictatorships and, in the day, communist countries were more open than that.
Only by accident, when I left the empty press room, did I find the press conference in progress (but already ending) behind another closed and unmarked door. Bret Fausett, also uninvited, also found the Vancouver press conference, and podcast it on his Internet Pro Radio blog.
ICANN staff at the Vancouver press conference claimed, with little credibility, never to have heard of me, and never to have received my requests to be placed on their distribution list for press releases and advisories of press events. But after the Vancouver meeting I made yet another formal request to "firstname.lastname@example.org", and received an e-mail message from Tanzanica S. King of ICANN's staff, advising me that, "You will be added to ICANN's distribution list for all future announcements." She copied her message to Andrew Robertson of ICANN's London public relations firm. She also asked, "May I ask what organisation you're with?" I replied, "I'm a freelance journalist. My books are published by Avalon Travel Publishing, but I'm not on their staff. I also publish on the Web, in an e-mail newsletter, and elsewhere." I heard nothing to suggest that wasn't a satisfactory answer (or, indeed, that any answer was required at all).
Not having received any ICANN announcements, I wrote to Ms. King again on 6 March 2006, copying my message to Andrew Robertson, asking her to confirm that I had, in fact, been added to the ICANN press list. Still having received no reply, I wrote again on Sunday, 26 March 2006, just before the start of the week of meetings in Wellington, reminding her yet again of her promise to add me to the press list. I also asked her specifically to, "Please also advise if there will be a press conference in connection with the ICANN meetings in Wellington, and if so, when it will be and how I can participate remotely."
I got a message back that afternoon, Monday, 27 March 2006 (Wellington time), from a Siobhan Robertson of another p.r. firm contracted by ICANN in Wellington, to whom my message had apparently been forwarded by either Ms. King or Andrew Robertson. Siobhan Robertson (copying both Ms. King and Andrew Robertson) advised me, "We will add you to the distribution list and ensure you receive all media materials/information about ICANN Wellington. There is an international press teleconference tomorrow morning NZ time - Andrew Robertson, who is on the above email address, will be in touch asap with details. Please feel free to contact me on +64 21 206 5958 if you would like any further information."
Later that night, selected journalists -- not including me -- were advised by e-mail of a press conference to be held at 7 a.m. (Wellington time) Tuesday morning, by telephone only, from some hotel room or other secret location. (Thus ensuring that, even if any disfavored journalists like myself were at the meeting venue in Wellington, it would be impossible for them to happen into the press conference the way I had done in Vancouver.)
Learning (not from ICANN) of the press conference, but not the time, I called Siobhan Robertson in Wellington at 8:30 a.m. Wellington time. Although she said she was at the venue, and was designated as the onsite media contact, she didn't tell me that the press conference had already concluded. Instead, she insisted that she had no idea when the press conference would be, and that only Andrew Robertson would have that information.
So I called Andrew Robertson next in London. He had been copied on Ms. King's e-mail in December 2005, advising that I was to be placed on the list to receive all ICANN press announcements. And he had been copied on Siobhan Robertson's message the day before, reiterating that I was to be placed on the list and specifically promising that he would be providing me with details of the press conference.
Andrew Robertson acted as though he'd never heard of me, and began to question me about where and by whom my work is published. When I mentioned that some of my work is published on my own Web site, he said, "Oh, so you're self-published" in a tone of haughty dismissal. Suddenly claiming that he had another call holding, and telling me (unpersuasively), "I'll call you right back", he broke off the call. He never did call me back.
I sent e-mail and left voicemail messages for Ms. King, Siobhan Robertson, and Andrew Robertson, asking what was going on and when the press conference was to happen. Tanzanica King wrote back that, "Andrew Robertson is going to follow up with you in the next couple of hours," which he didn't. Many hours later, Andrew Robertson wrote back, not saying anything about the press conference but volunteering that, "I'd be happy to arrange an interview with an ICANN spokesperson" -- an offer that, to date, he has yet to fulfill.
Towards the end of the day in Wellington, Siobhan Robertson wrote me: "I understand that the press conference has in fact gone ahead this morning. I can only assume that you didn't receive the invite as you were not on the accredited media list. If you'd like to be included on the list in the future, please send me/Andrew your details including publication, site or station name and address, your editor's name and details, and your circulation. If you're a freelancer, please provide a list and details of the publications/media you write for."
Keep in mind that this came not from an ICANN staff member, but from someone with a public relations firm who had been previously been instructed in writing by ICANN staff to add me to the ICANN press list, and who had the day before confirmed to me in writing that this would be done -- with no mention of any "vetting" process.
I replied with the requested details of my publications, but I also asked:
Please tell me your basis for assuming [that I was "not on the accredited media list"], in light of Tanzanica King's message (as copied ... in my original message to you) that I have been on the ICANN press list since December 2005, and your own message just yesterday confirming that I would be added to that list, and advising me that Andrew Robertson would be contacting me (as, in fact, he did not) with details of the press conference....
No mention has ever previously been made to me of an "accreditation" process, or I would have accommodated it at the time. Nor did you mention this when I spoke with you at 08:30 Wellington time this morning, when you claimed specifically that you did not know when the press conference would be....
Nor can I find any mention of an "accreditation" requirement anywhere on the ICANN Web site, including the "press" section. Please send me the URL and/or a copy of the accreditation rules, and advise who is the decision-maker at ICANN responsible for them....
Again, I would have been happy to provide this information earlier, if required. But I was never asked for this or anything else, and relied on the written assurances from ICANN staff and from you that I was already on the list.
I kept sending e-mail and leaving voicemail messages for Siobhan Robertson, Andrew Robertson, and Tanzanica King. I kept asking whether there would be another press conference and/or statement from ICANN at the conclusion of the Wellington meetings. There was, this time in person although also taking questions by phone, and Scoop.co.nz has photos and an MP3 audio recording . But I wasn't told about it.
I didn't get any further reply or get to speak with any of them until the morning (Wellington time) of the final day of the meetings, when I got through to Andrew Robertson late in the evening (London time) -- shortly before the final press conference, although I didn't know that, and wasn't told. Andrew Robertson described himself as a "consultant" to ICANN. He told me had been given "no specific instructions about you" by ICANN, despite his having been copied on Tanzanica King's message in December directing that I be placed on the ICANN press list and provided with all future ICANN press announcements. He said ICANN had given him "discretion" to vet and select journalists.
"But I know what you are. You're not a journalist. You're an author, and a blogger", he told me.
"Is is your position, or ICANN's, that blogs are never journalism?"
"That's certainly debatable, isn't it? I don't think so."
Government policy-making bodies, with limited space in their press galleries, have published criteria and procedures for press accreditation, to ensure fairness in those decisions. It would have been feasible (and thus was required) for ICANN to accommodate everyone who wanted to attend its press conferences -- which it could have held in the main auditorium of the conference center, if necessary -- or audit them by phone. But if for some reason that wasn't feasible, ICANN's bylaws require both transparency and fairness. Neither of those is satisfied by giving a consultant unlimited discretion to overrule ICANN staff decisions and impose unpublished criteria of what they think is, and isn't, "legitimate" journalism, or who should be allowed the access guaranteed to all by ICANN's bylaws.
[Addendum, 14 April 2006: ICANN Board of Directors member Susan Crawford posts in her blog: "Bloggers and large-entity journalists should be treated equally when ICANN makes announcements of press conferences." Unfortunately, Prof. Crawford's suggestions for "what improvements are needed in ICANN" to improve its transparency come immediately after she voted in favor of the ICANN 3-year strategic plan, as discussed above, that defined transparency as a public relations problem, and failed to include any of the thing that could be done actually to make ICANN more transparent and accountable.]
[Further addendum, 16 April 2006: Since my legitimacy as a journalist has apparently been questioned, I feel obliged, at risk of being accused of self-promotion, to point out that my books -- one of which is specifically related to the use of the Internet for travel-related purposes, and in both of which I delve into domain name issues for travellers -- are published by the largest independent travel book publisher in the USA . I don't mean to suggest that my publisher agrees with, or is responsible for, my opinions about ICANN, ".aero, ".travel", or anything else. But my books are widely recognized as authoritative references in their field. It's especially ironic that ICANN or its public relations minions should question me, of all people, as to whether my self-published Web site and e-mail newsletter are journalism: one of my articles on this Web site and in my newsletter was the first self-published or Internet work ever to receive an award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation in the "investigative reporting" category of their Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition -- as judged by faculty of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, one of the foremost J-schools in the USA.]Link | Posted by Edward on Monday, 3 April 2006, 07:52 ( 7:52 AM)