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Mixed messages from ICANN on pandemic travel in 2021

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN still hasn’t formally cancelled its public meeting in Cancun, Mexico next March, but it appears to be planning for scheduled in-person gatherings to not resume until the fourth quarter of next year.

While nobody in their right mind seems to believe ICANN 70 will go ahead anywhere other than virtually — and ICANN’s top brass acknowledged in October that a face-to-face community forum appeared highly unlikely — the Org has still not announced that it will be the fourth consecutive meeting to be held via Zoom.

But two recently published documents show that ICANN doesn’t see travel getting back to normal any time soon, though its expected timing is ambiguous.

First, the proposed budget for fiscal 2022, which was published on Friday, envisages pandemic-related travel restrictions for only “the first nine months” of its current FY21, which ends June 30 next year.

That means that ICANN, at least in its travel budget, still thinks there’s a chance that international travel may be an option as early as April next year. Its travel budget for this year is $4.7 million, which certainly suggests one normal public meeting.

That would rule out Cancun, but leaves open the possibility that June 14-17 public meeting in The Hague could actually go ahead.

The budget also assumes a normal level of travel spending for the whole of FY22, which would mean ICANN 72 in Seattle — a mere domestic flight for most ICANN staff and a good portion of the domain industry — would also take place in-person next October.

But a resolution passed by the ICANN board of directors last Thursday appears to have a more pessimistic outlook.

The board at that meeting approved the continuation of contingency plans for signing the cryptographic keys at the root of the DNS that would eliminate the need for travel until the fourth quarter of calendar 2021.

Normal, quarterly root Key-Signing Key ceremonies require a small number of trusted “secret key holders” to be flown from around the world into facilities in the US, carrying physical keys, to ensure the integrity of the process.

But those rules were tweaked under coronavirus lockdown last April to allow IANA employees to sub in for these key-holders.

Understanding that the pandemic wasn’t going away any time soon, but perhaps with hindsight on the optimistic side, the KSK ceremony in April generated three quarters’ worth of keys in advance, enabling root DNSSEC until the end of March 2021.

Last Thursday, the ICANN board resolved to again bulk-generate keys during its next ceremony, to be held some time in the first quarter. The plan states:

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to continue to significantly impact operations well into 2021. To limit the impact on the ability to hold quarterly key ceremonies, the plan again provides for generating signatures for an extended nine-month period. This relieves the need to hold a subsequent key signing ceremony until the fourth quarter of 2021.

So, while the proposed budget thinks travel could return to normal by April, the KSK plans are thinking October could be the best-case scenario.

Vaccines appear to be the key, as you might expect:

Staff will continue to monitor the pandemic and prepare for all possible scenarios for this ceremony in accordance with the graduated approach. Should widespread vaccination programs prove to be successful, and international travel limitations be relaxed, it is conceivable a late-2021 ceremony could be conducted in its normal format with international in-person participation.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the chances of a normal in-person ICANN meeting going ahead before Seattle are pretty slim.

For vaccination programs to be successful, we’re going to need a combination of competent governments capable of handling an unprecedented logistical challenge and a largely sane, rationale populace willing to go under the needle en masse. I’m afraid I don’t have that much faith in humanity.

Even if everything goes smoothly, we’re still looking at the vaccine rollout taking a long time indeed. I live in the UK, the first country to roll out vaccinations at scale, and I don’t anticipate getting the jab for six months or more.

An unofficial calculator tool estimates that a middle-aged Brit with no diagnosed preexisting conditions cannot reasonably expect to get a vaccine until July 2021, assuming the UK manages to quickly ramp up to one million vaccinations per week and 70% of those eligible choose to take the shot.

If that’s true elsewhere in the world, and vaccination becomes a passport to travel, then any hypothetical June face-to-face ICANN meeting could resemble a senior care home or retirement village even more than usual.

Not so much Club Med as a Saga Holiday.

And none of this takes into account the potential impact of the super-spreadable new coronavirus strain discovered to be hugely prevalent in the UK last week.

While it’s early days, it seems there’s a significant possibility that what I’m calling the limeyvirus (because what goes better with Corona than lime?) is going to significantly impact travel worldwide in the coming months.

ICANN picks Seattle for public meeting

Kevin Murphy, January 30, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN will hold one of its 2021 public meetings in Seattle, Washington.

The organization’s board of directors directed the CEO to start talks with the yet-unnamed venue at its meeting at the weekend.

The meeting, ICANN 72, will be the 2021 Annual General meeting and will be held from October 23 to 28.

Believe it or not, it will be the first time a public ICANN meeting has been held on the mainland United States since the LA meeting in 2014.

That’s quite a feat, given that ICANN’s definition of “North America” basically only has two countries in it.