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[Guest Post] Hey ICANN: Reporters are not the enemy

Kevin Murphy, October 17, 2022, 08:00:30 (UTC), Uncategorized

This is a guest post by Emmy award-winning former reporter Brad White, who, from 2009 until 2021, was ICANN’s director of global media affairs and later director of communications for North America

It seems like ICANN utters the phrase “accountability and transparency” about every third sentence. And with good cause, since it is a vital foundation upon which the organization was built. But there are indications that foundation is severely cracked.

Unfortunately, ICANN’s leadership too often seems to adopt the position that its commitment to accountability and transparency only extends to its interaction with its community. The news media and by extension – the public – are generally not prioritized.

Journalists and bloggers (who also inform the public) who reach out to the org with questions or interview requests are too often viewed in hostile terms.

The default position of ICANN executives generally appears to be to not talk with journalists unless they must. My sense is that they should adopt the opposite attitude. Specifically, that ICANN leadership should almost always speak with journalists.

In my experience, at various points in the past, ICANN execs even forbade anyone on the communications team from talking to select journalists or bloggers. I was reminded of Richard Nixon’s famous “enemy’s list.”

The very first ICANN Board Chair, Esther Dyson had a good grasp on transparency with the news media when she said, “What I’m thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson’s saying that he’d rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press.”

I worked 12 years at ICANN, before leaving in January 2021 to work as an independent communications consultant. A large part of my job during my tenure was to interact with the news media. Having spent most of my career as a journalist, I enjoyed that aspect of my work, and felt it a vital component of the org’s oft-stated commitment to “accountability and transparency.” But over the years, I witnessed a shift in the way the organization wanted me to perform that function.

During my early days, when a news reporter would reach out with a question and/or seek an interview, I would research the issue the journalist was asking about and then after consulting the appropriate people, pass along the answers and perhaps set up an interview with the appropriate ICANN subject matter expert. And, that was the end of it.

By the time I left, with increasing frequency, when a reporter contacted ICANN, the request ended up going to at least two or three senior executives, the legal department and sometimes the CEO. Too often, the collective decision was to say nothing, if at all possible. When answers were afforded to the journalist, they were too often non-responsive or they merely “pointed” the reporter to a previously published blog or announcement. There were of course exceptions to this approach, but they were few.

What is perhaps most troubling, is that the organization doesn’t seem to feel an obligation to speak with journalists as part of its core value of transparency and accountability, instead the determining factor as to whether to grant an interview was too often — “are they going to screw us?” It was not “we have an obligation to be open to talk to all, including reporters and bloggers, because we believe in accountability and transparency.”

Some years ago, I was asked to conduct media training for ICANN’s top executives so they would better understand journalists and also learn how to better interact with them. But in the immediate years preceding my departure, the media training program appears to have been terminated. In fact, word often went out that “no one should talk to the media.”

Shortly before I left, I was asked to write a report on “ICANN’s Media Strategy.” After submitting an initial draft, it seemed to have gone into a black hole. I was never questioned about the report. I never received a red-lined draft, excluding or including elements, nor was I asked to write a subsequent draft.

Given the apparent efforts to curtail interactions with journalists and bloggers, it was difficult to not interpret the shelving of the media strategy paper because of one of its major points was — “Reporters are not the enemy.”

My sincere hope is that the new Board leadership and the community will re-commit the organization towards maximum accountability and transparency, and that includes talking to journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who can help in implementing the vital checks, balances and accountability that are the foundation of ICANN’s work. It is critical in helping the world understand ICANN and its mission.

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Comments (12)

  1. James says:

    I was part of the ICANN communications team for nearly a decade, and had the distinct pleasure of interacting with reporters from around the world as they attempted to navigate the labyrinth that ICANN can be. As such, I had a firsthand view in witnessing ICANN’s dramatic (and alarming) shift from welcoming journalist inquiry to regarding it with hostility and at times, contempt.

    When I first joined ICANN (shortly after the infamous TAS glitch and during the scramble to understand what exactly digital archery is) we worked tirelessly to address the influx of questions of related to new gTLDs. At times, the questions were challenging. But that’s the nature of journalism. We entrust the fourth estate with the difficult task of diving the truth, and it’s our duty to provide them with clear answers. Much like an ombudsman or auditor, they serve a critical function – one that should, in theory, go hand-in-hand with ICANN’s frequent overtures about transparency and accountability.

    Like Brad, I left ICANN in 2021. The organization I joined was markedly different. The ethos that he and I lived by – that journalists are our partners and allies in shining light on the truth – was long gone. In its place was an overbearing desire to protect ICANN org, at all costs, against even the tiniest sliver of investigative inquiry.

    I had the pleasure of working with some incredibly smart, dedicated people during my rather extended tenure at ICANN. They labored over each decision, trying to understand the impact it would have on the community. They understood the delicate balance that must be struck for ICANN to keep its global legitimacy. I, too, hope that the new Board leadership can appreciate the important role that the media plays in upholding that legitimacy. ICANN’s policies and decisions are only as strong as their ability to defend them. And I’m afraid “no comment” isn’t a defense at all.

  2. One of the biggest disservices ICANN has done to journalists is getting rid of the MyICANN daily emails. These emails were basically change notifications for anything added to the website. ICANN got rid of it, created some sort of worthless in-house system, and now I have to rely on third party services to get the same content updates (and they aren’t as good).

    • Kevin Murphy says:

      This is part of a wider trend of ICANN wasting money putting more and more data behind registration-required login screens and expensive, broken search engines. It’s somewhat ironically called the “Open Data” Initiative.

      • Rubens Kuhl says:

        To keep this trend, ICANN will be appointing a Chief Truth Officer, mirrored on the success of the Ministry of Truth in Oceania.

      • David Conrad says:

        I thought the Open Data Initiative (Platform?) basically withered away. I’m honestly surprised to hear that data, other than more data in the initial datasets, is being put there.

        BTW, a basic requirement behind all Open Data efforts is that data is available via an API. This allows end users to pull the data down and do whatever analyses and cross-references they think appropriate. The fact that ICANN spent non-trivial time/money on producing data presentations on the Open Data web pages instead of prioritizing adding new data sets was always a bit of a (let’s just say) head scratcher to me.

        • Kevin Murphy says:

          Yeah, I was accidentally conflating and confusing two different things. I meant of course the Information Transparency Initiative, and just the general constant moving and complicating of information access.

        • Kieren McCarthy says:

          Re: withered away. That may have been my fault. I put in a proposal to develop and run a proper open data system – with APIs – for ICANN’s data. It was a good idea and had staff backing. (This is long after I left.)

          Senior staff apparently saw my name on the proposal and had a fit. Presumably anything I might think is a good idea needs to implacably opposed.

          It’s still a good idea and should be done.

          • Kevin Murphy says:

            That could be quite a useful superpower.

          • There were two major problems with the ODP. The first was that the data quality of the registry reports was poor and an assumption was made that the registry data would import easily. It didn’t,

            The registry report files are a combined mess of data formats and some of the data was missing, The .AFRICA new gTLD, for example, has been filing inaccurate reports since the gTLD launched and there was nothing done to fix this.

            ICANN management simply didn’t understand the problem of importing the data into the ODP system.

            The second problem is that while the ODP software is quite good, the version that ICANN negotiated seems to have limitations on the amount of data and records it can import.

            Dealing with the CSVs is not a major problem for specialists who do this kind of work. Unfortunately, ICANN seems to have generalists rather than specialists. A lot of the historical ICANN data is in poorly formatted PDFs. It is possible to extract it (I’ve extracted the data from these PDFs back to 2001). Again, the data quality issue caused problems. Prior to 2014, the .COM and .NET reports were missing precise deletion numbers. The reports only included deletion figures after the 2014 reporting format and stadards were adopted.

            Errors still appear in registry reports. ICANN is doing no error checking on the reports filed by the registries. A working ODP would be a good thing but the current version is hamstrung by limited data, no recent updates and no error checking, It had the capability to be a good project but there was a lack of a coherent vision of what it was meant to achieve and why.

  3. Michael Palage says:

    Brad,

    Thanks for this thoughtful article. Your participation in the ICANN community is sorely missed. I think the comments of you and James need to be captured in the public comments of the currently open “Pilot Holistic Review Draft Terms of Reference.” Sadly I think the lack of a “commitment to accountability and transparency” is more systemic than you alluded to in your article.

    Best regards,

    Michael

  4. Pea says:

    Perhaps ICANN has been directed to keep a low profile by big-bucks VeriSign, to whom they inexplicably grant a continuing no-bid monopoly as .com registry. Of course, given VeriSign’s huge margins, any opaque collusion is overdue for reform. ICANN is like a public land supervisor oddly allowing property manager VeriSign to keep almost all the rent money. So better to keep quiet & let the money flow?

  5. Snooty Fehootie says:

    It’s unfortunate that Mr. White didn’t notice any of this until he left. Otherwise, he could have brought it up during one of those unctuous fawning DPRK-style “interviews” with ICANN leadership at which he is so tremendously talented.

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