OPINION: THE ULTIMATE THANKLESS JOB (ICANN CEO)
For those of you that know me, this post may come somewhat as a surprise given that I am often highly critical of actions taken (or not taken) by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). See here, here , and here for just a few of the dozens of examples.
But that said, I am also a person that believes we should give credit where credit is due. When individuals provide service to ICANN or the community, we should also show our appreciation for the work put in. For example, I have often praised ICANN's policy support team for doing such an amazing job in its support of the GNSO community, the Council and for all it does to contriute to the policy development process.
ICANN's current CEO, Goran Marby, has officially stepped down and has handed the reigns to its first female CEO, Sally Costerton. During this transition, it is important for us to give our appreciation to Mr. Marby for taking on what I believe is the world's most thankless job.
Mr. Marby leaves ICANN after six plus years of service, including leading the organization through the worst pandemic in a century. For the first time ever, ICANN was forced to conduct all of its meetings virtually from March 2020 through June 2022 and to lead its nearly 400 employees completely virtually during that time period (and in fact they were still virtual until January 2023).
Goran was announced as the new ICANN CEO in February 2016 and officially joined in May 2016, after the departure of the then-CEO Fadi Chehadi. At that time, ICANN was nearing the end of its transition from being overseen by the United States Department of Commerce to a completely independent organization. From the beginning of his tenure, he encountered difficult cirumstances. His first task was to lead the implementation of the transition including the modification of ICANN's bylaws, the creation of a new organization to perform the IANA functions separate and apart from the policy making organization (PTI), and the building out of all the new accountability mechanisms and Empowered Community.
Though registries and registrars had been warning ICANN for years about the implementation of GDPR, Mr. Marby inherited the burden of getting a very late start to tackling how to address the handling of an open WHOIS (and the public display of personally identifiable information) with regulations that carried stiff penalties for the display of such information. Prior to the implementation of GDPR, Governments, law enforcement, intellectual property owners, businesses and consumers relied on such information being freely available and insisted that ICANN continue its policy of open access to WHOIS. Privacy and non-commercial interests had been arguing for years that the open display of such information violated existing laws and presented a host of human rights issues. Up until then, most registries and registrars disliked WHOIS because it essentially required the disclosure of their entire customer base, but so long as there was no requirement to ensure the accuracy of such information through expensive validation mechanisms, registries and registrars largely avoided getting involved in the debate. But with the threat of substantial monetary penalties for the violaiton of GDPR in the EU, registries and registrars now had to take action or face substantial risk of liability. And though the European Commission actively participates in ICANN's Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), the EC was unable to definitively state one way or the other whether providing WHOIS access would violate GDPR. And ICANN also faced the possibility of itself being liable for the violation of GDPR by requiring registries and registrars in its contracts with them to publicly display that information.
Welcome to ICANN Mr. Marby!
Goran also had to deal with the consideration and implementation hundreds of Review Team Recommendations involving new TLDs, security practices, and its own accountability mechanisms. Not to mention there was an ongoing battle over the .amazon TLDs between Amazon and the Governments, the loss of a string of Independent Reviews where ICANN found that the Board failed to act in accordance with its Bylaws (all from conduct prior to when Mr. Marby took over), disputes about the protection of IGOs, the exodus of ICANN staff to domain name registries and registrars, calls for enhanced transparency, the pressure for launching the next round of new gTLDs, and of course mitigating DNS Abuse.
All of these issues are extremely polarizing amongst the community. Finding a consensus-based solution is difficult, if not impossible. The implementation of any policy tackling these issues will invariably alienate members of the community.
On top of that, the CEO had to perform its day-job or managing an organization of nearly 400 people (and growing) from around the globe. This is an extremely difficult job in and of itself, but when you throw in the worst global pendemic the world has seen in over a century, where everyone is forced to work remotely, I can't imagine what that was like.
From an outsider perspective, the perception is that all employees at ICANN earn way to much money and have "cushy" jobs. According to its last 990, nearly 20 employees earn over a staggaring $300,000 and Goran himself made about $1 million per year. But my understanding is that life as an ICANN employee for the bulk of the organization is not so rosey. Though perhaps getting competitive compensation (and incredible health benefits), ICANN staff is thoroughly overworked and there is a huge pay gap between the top 30-50 employees and the rest of the organization. [I personally believe that a lot of the work causing burnout happens to be internal "make-work" that can be streamlined with the delegation of decision making capabilities....but that is a subject for a future post]. ICANN employees are essentially criticized for everything they say (or do not say) externally (and rightfully so). This is especially true for the ICANN CEO, which I imagine is even harder for a non-English native speaker.
Given all of the above, it is not surprising that every ICANN CEO was at his highest popularity on the day he started (yes - before now they were all men). And it is only downhill from there. I have not agreed with some of the actions taken (or not taken) by ICANN these past six plus years under the leadership of Mr. Marby. And don't get me wrong, Mr. Marby signed up for all of this and I do not feel bad about any of the criticism I personally may have given ICANN under his leadership. However, despite all of that, I really do appreciate his service and for sticking with us during some very difficult tumultuous times. Whether we agree or not with his actions, he deserves the utmost respect and appreciation from the community.
And to Ms. Costerton, I wish you the best of luck in leading ICANN in the future. Its about time that we had ICANN's first female CEO. But remember, you will never be as popular as ICANN's CEO as you are today no matter what you may or may not accomplish in this role in the future. Regardless, you also deserve our thanks and appreciation for your service.