ICANN 67: first virtual meeting

6th March 2020


Nick Wenban-Smith
General Counsel and Head of Stakeholder Relations

As we approach the 67th meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), it almost seems fitting that – for the first time – the forum will be as virtual as the medium and landscape we are gathering to discuss.

Due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, ICANN has decided that the upcoming community forum will be transitioned to a virtual platform instead of being held face to face in Mexico. The schedule has been massively scaled back, consisting of just those sessions deemed necessary ‘to advance the community’s policy and technical work’. All ICANN-hosted physical events in March have also been cancelled, while the Paris GDD Summit in May and ICANN68 in Malaysia are now in considerable doubt.

This is, without doubt, the most sensible course of action considering how rapidly the virus is spreading in the advent of globalisation and frequent international travel. As Mexico hasn’t yet had any recorded cases of coronavirus, it would be a poor show indeed if an ICANN meeting was responsible for the transmission of the virus to a country which is currently free of it.

If we put on our rose-tinted spectacles for a moment here, could this be a great opportunity to see if ICANN could still operate effectively if it moved its meetings to the digital space in the future? Internet connections are fast and reliable for the most part anywhere in the world, and video conferencing platforms are already widely available, popular and frequently used. The quality of the calls is continually getting better, so little is lost by not being present in the same room as one another. For non-native English speakers who make up the majority of the country code TLDs and Government Advisory Committee, many have to participate in ICANN meetings via translators anyway; a video call with a live transcript feature might not feel much different from attending a meeting in person. In addition, we’ve all had meeting conflicts and therefore had to attend one session in person whilst following the other remotely, so the communities are pretty familiar with remote meetings.

By moving ICANN meetings online, we could also reduce or even remove the need for international flights for the whole ICANN community. Considering there are three of these community fora each year, plus many other meetings and summits, such a decision could offer vast savings in terms of time and expense. It could also make the meetings and events more agile, driving faster and more effective policy making, and therefore better serving the organisation and its mission.

These are all benefits that can explain the rising use of videoconferencing within businesses globally in the past ten years. Over half of all CFOs worldwide plan to invest in videoconferencing to lessen the need to travel as stats show that using the tech can reduce travel costs for the business by 30%. And what about the carbon footprint? As a climate emergency threatens our species, tough decisions may soon have to be made about how often we undertake activities such as flying. Unnecessary travel could become a selfish indulgence when the internet can offer us a cleaner way to meet.

Video conferencing is not a new innovation – indeed an article in the New York Times over a decade ago heralded choosing to eschew international flights for video calls as “an emerging trend”. We can plainly see the benefits – and the need – to choose the technology over the travel, and yet many of us are still travelling all over the world for business-related meetings. Take me for example: in 2019 I went to 11 countries for work, attending meetings that could have also been conducted on a virtual platform. While it’s true I took the train to Brussels and Paris, most attendees at those meetings had to fly.

That said, there is no doubt that the global videoconferencing market is growing, projected to reach a total value of $13.8 billion in 2023. Perhaps the main share of videoconferencing activity is happening inside companies rather than across businesses and communities? While I continue to travel for external meetings, within Nominet the use of videoconferencing is very widely used (and liked) since its introduction.

All our meeting rooms have interactive screens and laptops, and company mobile phones have the platform installed too. This has allowed the business to move towards a more agile working approach, making it easy for people to work at home without being disconnected from their team or the business. Research shows that videoconferencing can even make people more productive and teams more effective, not to mention improving the work-life balance, which has an impact on the wellbeing and mental health of staff.

That all being said, building relationships and networking is an important part of ICANN. Humans are intrinsically social creatures. Business deals are done – and policy compromises settled – because of relationships and trust; people like dealing with people. There’s a world of difference between sharing a meal and remote participation. And think of the positive impact the delegates’ presence has on the local economy with restaurants, bars, transport and hotels enjoying a boost from the ICANN circus coming to town.

As the details of this upcoming virtual meeting continue to be worked out, it’s become very apparent that no magic wand exists for eliminating the time differences that now exist due to remote participation. The result has effectively been the cancellation of all except the most essential meetings. This ICANN will therefore be a faint shadow compared to the others I’ve been to – but is this something we can learn to live with for the sake of public health and, potentially in the future, the carbon footprint?

It’s all food for thought as we approach this virtual ICANN and it will be interesting to see if there is a wider, longer-term impact from holding the meeting like this. Could it be a catalyst for a new way of working across borders in our digital times, taking ICANN into the realm it was established to manage?

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