Carter Center report on At Large slinks into view
Date: Tuesday November 13 2001, @08:44AM
Topic: Membership Issues

Late last week, the Markle Foundation published a "Report on the Global, On-line, Direct Elections for Five Seats Representing At-Large Members on the Board of Directors of [ICANN]." No one really seems to have noticed it; but judging by some of its more curious aspects, none of the people responsible for its publication seem to have wanted anyone to notice it. [Updated]

[Update: A source at the Markle Foundation points out that they posted the report as soon as they received it from the Carter Center; and NAIS participants confirmed that they were similarly frustrated because they had hoped to incorporate the report into their study. Though the bulk of my writeup dwells on the problematic aspects of the Carter Center's participation in and "observation" of the At Large (s)election, I should have made it clear that Markle both supported and published the Carter Center's report.]

If it weren't for the date in the byline of the one-paragraph PR statement on Markle's site (with a header that provides a circular link to the same page), the report would go undated. The PR blurb suggests that the report was released in time for the At Large Study Committee's (ALSC) presentation at ICANN's current board meeting, but -- unlike Markle's much-hyped previous ICANN-related efforts -- there's been nary a trace of it at the meeting itself. And the report would go unattributed as well, if it weren't for the author's reflexive references to "the author" in the text of the report. It seems as though the author is Chuck Costello of the Carter Center (he has not yet responded to my inquiry).

As curious as these omissions may be, they aren't especially surprising. In one of the last items I wrote for the roving_reporter, dated Friday Feb 9, I said of the ALSC :

ICANN has also invited former boardmember Pindar Wong and Charles Costello, director of the Carter Center's Democracy Program, to join the ALMSC as vice-chairs. The roving_reporter takes a dim view of these invitations, particularly the latter. The Carter Center's statement on the MAL elections got off to a shaky start by plopping out a real howler: "ICANN 'keeps the Internet running' and assigns high-level names and" -- perish the thought -- "through registrars, e-mail addresses." More substantively, despite the CC's efforts to hedge their language ("reasonably," "subject to further review of the available balloting data," "based on a limited monitoring of registration," etc., etc.), the letter far overshot its ill-defined scope on key points. For example, it duly repeated ICANN's claims about spikes in request rates being the cause of registration server problems -- but failed to note that the server had been throttled down to process no more requests than ICANN's staff could support. (The CC agreed to answer a number of questions from the roving_reporter but, on receiving the questions, fell silent.) Without casting aspersions on Mr. Costello's integrity, we nevertheless doubt that this record suggests his contributions to the ALMSC will be optimal.

It's hard to describe the report. On the one hand, it presents a mostly accurate and detailed account of the election experience as a whole (and, as such, is well worth reading). On the other hand, it suffers from occasional bouts of frippery that, however diplomatic in form or intent, can only make one wonder. Like: "In what must be described as a noble experiment whose success or failure is not yet known, ICANN was created to..." [p. 5, emphasis added]. (If by "noble" Costello (?) is slyly alluding to ICANN's accumulation of quasi-aristocratic cruft -- boardsquatters and, more recently staff- and consultant-squatters like ALSC members Esther Dyson and Pindar Wong, and "Informal Program Committee" chair Mike Roberts -- kudos to him...) imposed on any "observer" of the election process. And I do mean repeated:

The overall design structure of the electoral system, in the opinion of the author, satisfactorily established the conditions for an acceptable election. However, the present state of technology, at least in the format utilized, makes it difficult actually to execute the mechanics of an election with the desired level of guarantees and safeguards even though the technology of the voting process itself protected entry, vote casting, and tabulation well. The election should be considered as experimental, with valuable lessons learned for future application. [p. 4]
At the time, the author declined, seeing this kind of election as too far removed from the Centerís work on public elections. However, subsequently the president of the Markle Foundation, Zoe Baird, sent a letter to the Chairman of the Carter Center, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, urging the Center to engage because of the importance of the Internet to global public discourse in the 21st century and the public interest issues closely linked to the concept of an at-large membership. [p. 6]
As events unfolded, it was this stage of the electoral process that demanded the most intensive involvement by Carter Center staff because some of the most basic elements of an electoral process had yet to be designed and put in place. [p. 7]
It had been agreed by all parties, ICANN included, that some form of monitoring and oversight independent of the corporationís conduct of the elections, would be desirable to demonstrate the highest possible level of transparency, openness and fairness. The task was to define the scope of such monitoring in clear and acceptable fashion. As ICANN was going to use a contractor to administer the balloting, the scope would have to define the level of access to the contractor's operations. [p. 17]
The author, coming from The Carter Center, explained how such a role would be played, but recused himself within Elcom [Election Committee] from this recommendation entirely. [p. 18]
The Board chose the option of a committee of "suitably qualified individuals" for monitoring the election rather than selecting an institution to carry out the monitoring. [p. 18]
The greatest amount of work overall by the author as a Carter Center [note the scare quotes] "observer" occurred during this predecision period as a de facto adviser to ICANN through membership and participation in Elcom. That is why the report devotes more attention to this phase, including the assumed value of providing a record of deliberations as a road map for future election planning. In a strict sense, this portion of the work was not truly independent electoral observation. [p. 18]
And so on. Small wonder that Carter and Markle aren't exactly falling all over themselves to publicize the "observer's" report. To release it during a pivotal point in the At Large debate could only serve to lend credence to ICANN's recent revisionism about the (s)elections really didn't go that well. In that regard, note well the excellent responses by Harold Feld and Clement Dzidonu during the ALSC presentation open-mike session. Dzidonu, in particular pointed out that when it served ICANN's interests, it trumpeted the (s)election as a tremendous success; but now that the grand experiment is potentially coming to an end, staff's assessment of the (s)election is far more dour -- and therefore may not need to be perpetuated or repeated.

As to the substance? Sadly, the Carter Center painted themselves into a corner with their overoptimistic initial one-page assessment: to contradict that report would undermine their reputation, so the only real option was to elaborate the same basic assessment. The result is a report that brings to mind what Cyril Connolly said about the overweight: "Imprisoned in every fat man a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out."

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