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What Do We Mean by Stakeholder Engagement?

5 November 2014

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Ben Towne, Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and ICANN stakeholder

At the end of this blog is the name of the department I work in at ICANN – Global Stakeholder Engagement. When I meet people at events and they hear me say that, some look confused and often ask, "Well, what does that mean?"

At ICANN, unlike many corporations, we don't have shareholders, but we do have many stakeholders. ICANN stakeholders come from different occupational backgrounds and span the globe. The term stakeholder refers broadly to anyone who has a stake in the Internet. A stakeholder can be a member of a civil society or activist organization, an employee of a for-profit company, a representative of an Internet registry or registrar, a government representative, or a student. In fact, an ICANN "stakeholder" could mean anyone who goes online!

Ben Towne, a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is one such stakeholder. He's in the Computation, Organizations, & Society program. I met Ben about a year ago during a campus visit to CMU, where a colleague and I delivered an introductory presentation about ICANN. Three weeks ago, I reconnected with Ben at ICANN 51 in Los Angeles.

At its most basic meaning, stakeholder engagement is the story of Ben – a student that had heard of ICANN in passing, but whose interest in the organization grew significantly when he met a couple of people from the organization's engagement team. Ben stayed in touch with ICANN's issues to a point where, almost 12 months later, he found himself at an ICANN meeting; where he sat and discussed some of the most pressing ICANN and Internet governance-related issues with his peers, as well as with others who have worked in the ICANN space for many years.

Here's the text of the interview I conducted with Ben shortly after ICANN 51. And thanks, Ben, for taking the time to talk. It was great to catch up!

JC: How did you first hear about ICANN? When you first heard about ICANN, what were your thoughts?

BT: I don't remember exactly when I first heard about ICANN, but I think it was in advance of International Telecommunication Union's World Telecommunications Policy Forum in 2009. There was a lot of listening and learning there, as well as networking. I represented young people from developed nations, and helped bring our youth voices to the conversation.

The start of Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) exhaustion brought ICANN back to the top of my mind a couple of years later, and in 2013 my interest really started to pique in part through ICANN's Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation project with IdeaScale and GovLab, and also because of my interest in tools and platforms for large-scale collaboration and ideation. I learned a great deal more about the organization in December of that year when you and your colleague Riccardo Ruffolo visited CMU.

My first impressions of ICANN were that it was really interesting to see a very large and diverse (e.g. competing businesses, governments, academics, end-users) population of people coming together to have productive conversations and make decisions together that matter greatly to the fundamental parts of the Internet. It seemed unlikely that the reality would match the words, since managing that scale and diversity has never really been done before. There's a lot of reluctance to even try, though there seems to be a good deal of discussion about it; I was very skeptical at first.ICANN seems to be the only organization that is actually trying to use this model to work out solutions to challenging, urgent problems, particularly in light of the pending IANA [Internet Assigned Numbers Authority] stewardship transition. There's a strong motivation here to come up with an Internet-scale multistakeholder governance model that serves the global Internet community once the U.S. Government transitions out of its role. I'll be very interested to see what that model is going to be.

JC: How did you hear about ICANN 51?

BT: I received an e-mail from Jeff Dunn (ICANN Online Education Specialist) on September 11, inviting me to apply for NextGen@ICANN. It seemed like a very exciting opportunity. I received clearance from my advisor to apply and did so; I was very excited to be selected; attending ICANN 51 was a tremendous learning opportunity!

JC: Can you talk a little about your experiences at the meeting, who you met, what you did, any interesting interactions you may have had?

BT: I met so many people at the ICANN meeting, and attended a wide variety of sessions including the Fellowship and NextGen sessions with leaders from the various ICANN communities and staff joining us throughout the days. Janice Douma Lange (ICANN Outreach and Engagement Manager) was very supportive in steering my fellow NextGen colleagues and I to informative and interesting Fellowship sessions that aided in our developing a better understanding of ICANN. I also attended the Newcomer's session on Sunday, which was very helpful.

Among the other sessions I attended were: the Welcome Ceremony,IANA Department Who/What/Why?, a beginner's guide to DNSSEC, the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) meeting with the ICANN Board, and the music night social event.

I had an interesting extended hallway chat with an entrepreneur from New York City. I shared some information about Pittsburgh's entrepreneurial environment; he may come out to visit Pittsburgh soon.

I enjoyed the Monday events with [ICANN Board Chairman] Steve Crocker and learning from his experiences from helping develop the Internet in the early days. He's actually planning to meet with my department director, Bill Scherlis, soon.

At the opening of ICANN 51, Dr. Crocker used the old slogan, "Networks bring people together," as a reference to the tremendous amount of travel that was needed in order to build "a system that was supposed to make it unnecessary to travel." I find it amazing that decades later, in order to do or discuss work on one critical piece of the Internet infrastructure – unique identifiers [names and numbers mainly] – thousands of people get on planes and fly halfway around the world, a few times per year, for a whirlwind week of discussions, debates, and consensus-building. It seems to strengthen the collegial working relationships that these groups have throughout the year on mailing lists and web conferences, where much of the work of ICANN actually happens.

JC: What are your impressions about ICANN having now been to an ICANN meeting?

BT: ICANN is a complex organization with a lot more moving parts than I was previously aware of. I was also surprised at how open the meetings seemed to be and the degree of explicit encouragement for newcomers to get actively involved, particularly in such an institutionalized organization with so many acronyms that can at times seem very confusing.In all instances where I actually tested this and contributed questions or comments to meetings, people seemed to actually appreciate it and take it as helpful, rather than dismissing it out-of-hand because it comes from someone new.

JC: What's next for you in terms of interaction with ICANN or others in the Internet ecosystem?

I've taken back some of what I've learned (and am still processing) and shared it with a presentation to my research group at CMU. I'm currently in a class at CMU focusing on automated summarization of meeting transcripts (of which ICANN has many, which are public, and which might be used to address the lack of relevant real-world data). I've also shared some of my experiences at the 6th National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, with the goals of spreading understanding of what ICANN is, what it does, and how it works. Now that I have a better understanding of ICANN and the challenges that lie ahead, if I see (or invent) something that might be useful in addressing those challenges, I'm more willing and able to bring that to the community than if I had not attended the meeting.

Joe Catapano is Coordinator, ICANN Global Stakeholder Engagement for North America


Joe Catapano

Joe Catapano

Stakeholder Engagement Director - North America & Global Academia