[discuss] Transparency and Accountability vis-à-vis ICANN and the IANA functions

George Sadowsky george.sadowsky at gmail.com
Fri Mar 28 13:59:52 UTC 2014


[Note: I am not an expert in this subject, and am presenting what I hope will be a reasonable common sense view of it.  While a detailed theoretical view of these concepts is possible, and probably has been done many times, I am hoping that we can arrive at a relatively simple and comprehensible, yet also correct and operational, understanding.]

The phrase “transparency and accountability” is in frequent use these days, typically in the form of a sentence, “ICANN needs to increase its transparency and accountability.” 
The two conditions have almost achieved a moral status, where if you don’t have enough of “them” you are an inadequate person or organization, whereas if you achieve “them” you are superior.

I believe that such casual and frequent use of the phrase is leading to incomplete and sloppy thinking, and I would like to make two points that I think are important to consider with respect to the concept of accountability.

FIRST, it has been pointed out to me that when two persons talk about accountability, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing.  It’s one of those slippery words that can have a variety of meanings, all appropriate within their specific contexts.   If we are to address the problem of transitioning accountability for the stewardship of the IANA function, from NTIA to some other ‘destination,' then we must have a common definition of accountability to discuss the pre-transition and post-transition states, or we will be talking at cross purposes and it will be both non-productive and frustrating.

As a start, here is wikipedia’s definition of accountability.  The text in red below could be a starting point in describing accountability (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Accountability)
> Accountability
> In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving.[1]   As an aspect of governance, it has been central to discussions related to problems in the public sector, nonprofit and private (corporate) worlds.
> In leadership roles,[2] accountability is the acknowledgment and assumption of responsibility for actions, products, decisions, and policies including the administration, governance, and implementation within the scope of the role or employment position and encompassing the obligation to report, explain and be answerable for resulting consequences.
> In governance, accountability has expanded beyond the basic definition of "being called to account for one's actions".[3][4]   It is frequently described as an account-giving relationship between individuals, e.g. "A is accountable to B when A is obliged to inform B about A’s (past or future) actions and decisions, to justify them, and to suffer punishment in the case of eventual misconduct".[5] Accountability cannot exist without proper accounting practices; in other words, an absence of accounting means an absence of accountability.
I suggest this as a starting point; I’m told that there has been quite a bit of discussion about this definition, and i would welcome modified or additional definitions.

SECOND, I believe that ‘accountability’ as an unqualified word has little meaning, and that the right way to think about it is:

	…. accountability TO someone or group FOR something

In other words, saying that someone is accountable, or not sufficiently accountable, by itself is relatively meaningless.  But if I can also state to whom the person is accountable, and precisely for what, then I have probably made a meaningful statement that can be comprehended and discussed.  Perhaps the more complete statement will allow me to also propose a metric by which the degree of adherence to accountability targets can be measured.


What definition of the word ‘accountability’ best fits how we believe ICANN’s acceptability should be judged and measured, either for itself only, or for its post-transition stewardship of the IANA functions, or both?

In each case, specifically to WHOM would ICANN be accountable, and if the target of accountability is distributed, how would it be distributed?  In other words, if ‘A' is ICANN, who is ‘B’ in the above definition in red?

In each case, specifically for WHAT would ICANN be accountable?  How can the degree of accountability be measured, or is that not directly relevant?  In the context of the definition in red above, what are the set of 'actions and decisions' for which ICANN is accountable?

If we could get general agreement on the responses to the above questions, it might be possible to use this approach for an initial evaluation of any transition alternatives that are proposed.


This discussion does not include the issue of actions that are taken when accountability is found to be lacking.  That’s an equally important question that we also need to take up, but let’s see if we can answer this one first.

I would like it if the above subject would stimulate some discussion.

Thanks for reading,


(Much thanks to John Curran, Bill Graham, Bruce Tonkin, Suzanne Woolf and Jonathan Zuck, who had the insights that led to some of the above ideas)

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