COVID-19 saw conferences around the world being rescheduled / cancelled. ICANN was one of the first organizations to anticipate the possibility, and decided to go fully virtual – how did this ambitious experiment pan out?
I’ll begin this on a personal note. As a graduate of Computer Science and Politics from Ashoka University, I have found Internet Governance to be a sweet intersection spot of the two fields of my study. What is Internet Governance (IG)? It’s a vast domain, but some of the more popular sub-topics which it encompasses are privacy / human rights in the digital space, digital governance, ethics of emerging technologies, information and communications technology ….. I could mention a lot more of these, but you get the hang of it.
One of the most active organizations in not just the IG space, but also in the upkeep and maintenance of the Internet in general, is ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. If you have never heard about this organization before, I urge you to read up on it. Alternatively, this video is a good starting place:
Now that we have established some context about Internet Governance and ICANN for the uninitiated, I’ll dive into the topic for this post – ICANN67. ICANN organizes public meetings multiple times a year, and its 67th meeting was scheduled this year to be held from March 7-12 in Cancún, Mexico. Exotic!
However, the outbreak of COVID-19 in January ’20 posed a challenge – was it a wise decision to hold an event comprising audience from all over the globe in the wake of an international public health emergency? As events around the world were rescheduled – or even cancelled – so as to meet at a later date, ICANN, on Feb 19th, took a bold step – it announced that ICANN67 will be converted to its first-ever public meeting which would run exclusively on remote participation.
Wait. What? ICANN meetings see thousands of attendees from 150+ countries – how would it even work? An event of this scale was not possible to be held fully online – it would defeat the purpose of the public ‘meeting’. Surely, it could be postponed? After all, all other events across the world are being postponed, right – why couldn’t ICANN do the same?
Oh and also, Cancún ….. surely, they could reschedule?
I don’t know why ICANN chose to go virtual – I am not a part of their Slack groups (yet). But from an end-user perspective, I sincerely appreciate this move. Here are a couple of reasons why:
It suddenly provided everyone with a level playing field of opportunity
I have had the fortune to attend a few IG conferences – never ICANN, but some others – and while these events do the best they can to enable remote participation, the engagement which is possible from the physical venue is just not comparable to the impact you can make from a remote location. This manifests in many ways – remote questions are prioritized often below those from within the room, and most importantly, you lose touch with the speakers the minute the webcast ends – there is little scope to carry an extended conversation with a panelist outside the room after the session has concluded, or catching hold of them during lunch/snack breaks. Sure, one can reach out to them over social media / email, but one cannot help envy the opportunities and conversations they miss out on because they were not able to be physically present at the venue.
With a full-remote conference, however, everyone is at an equal footing, and the impact they can make depends on the merit of their cause, rather than extraneous factors like your location. Knowing that I have as strong a probability as anyone else to get my questions answered and influence the discussion motivates and incentivizes me further to participate more enthusiastically in the session.
ICANN led by example in showing the power of the internet
When faced with the decision, ICANN would have been faced with a very lucrative option – of postponing / cancelling the event.
Doing this would have been a tacit nod to acknowledging that the Internet is not evolved enough to be a viable instrument to replace a lot of important societal activities, and thus will always play second fiddle to how we conventionally work.
Effectively, it would have meant that while the Internet is great for sharing cat memes, but ‘real work’ can happen only in the world of physical proximity.
However, ICANN took the bold decision to go fully virtual – this was not just an expression of their confidence in the power of the internet, but also their responsibility as the guardian of the Internet infrastructure to lead by example, and they did that when the opportunity arose. If an event of the scale of ICANN can be conducted virtually, it conveys a loud and clear message that a lot of other businesses and organizations can leverage the Internet to achieve their objectives.
ICANN be like
My ICANN67 experience
I have never attended an ICANN conference in person (I somehow always tend to miss the deadline for the Fellowship call, and the one time I didn’t, they didn’t select me), thus my first ICANN experience was fully virtual. What this means is that while I can talk of how it went for me, I cannot provide a genuine comparative to how an in-person ICANN experience is.
All the sessions happened over Zoom – there was a Q/A option through which participants could submit their questions to the panelists. Additionally, there was a chat window where everyone could discuss topics and message the other attendees.
What I found unique was that there was also an arrangement for a webpage which was updated in real time with the transcript of the sessions. I thought this was a very thoughtful move from ICANN, since not everyone has access to a high-speed, uninterrupted Internet connection.
The APAC region, in a way, drew the short straw in this arrangement – the sessions happened in Mexico time, which meant that the APAC participants had an almost 12 hour time difference. For India, the sessions started around 9 pm, and went on till 4 or 5 am.
However, ICANN came up with a nice campaign – they encouraged people to share photos of themselves participating from their home/local setup. Seeing all these photos developed a sense of community, and perhaps more importantly, a feeling that I wasn’t the only one awake at late night logging into the sessions. Here are some friends of mine from the APAC region who chose not to miss out on ICANN67 despite the time difference:
One of the things I look forward to when I attend these conferences is meeting other young people who are equally passionate about IG – I believe ICANN, through this initiative, did a great job of ensuring that we got this feeling in ICANN67 too, albeit virtually. It’s always reassuring to see other people my age in a room full of veterans with years of experience.
I realized ICANN is very different from the other conferences I have attended (IGF Paris, APrIGF Vladivostok) – it’s definitely much more technical in terms of the vocabulary used, and the sessions are quite niche. I think it presents a nice analogue to the Internet Governance Forum, which is more broad in the kind of sessions it curates. I’ve been told it will take me a few more conferences before I start feeling comfortable with everything that’s discussed here – I’m looking forward to it!
The session I liked the most was “One World – One Internet? Cybersecurity and Geopolitics in a Multistakeholder Environment”. If I’m not mistaken, this was one of the biggest sessions of the conference in terms of the number of participants, and I really enjoyed the discussion by the panelists. What I also found very interesting was a parallel conversation which was happening on the Zoom chat room while this session was happening – the participants provided a lot of perspectives to the topic of the session, with links to online resources which supported their perspective. It was as if a bibliography was being built for an organic discussion in real time!
ICANN pulled off a huge feat by organizing ICANN67 fully online. I must commend their efforts in pivoting their plans and ensuring the execution of a successful event at such short notice. They made it look so easy, and more importantly, led from the front in leveraging the full potential of the Internet.
The question that faces us now – Is online the way to go? Will it completely replace all physical conferences soon?
I don’t think so. I do think physical events have their own merits, and online tools cannot replace them – not any time soon, at the least. However, what this incident will certainly do is establish a new normal – I see online tools being used more and more to complement the physical infrastructure in the near future. COVID-19 has really brought to the forth how we take proximity for granted, and I sure do hope that when we are past this pandemic, we will not just value it, but also leverage the possibilities it affords us in our interactions.