Internet watchdog looks back on first year at ICANN

When the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the body that oversees the Internet – chose its first ombudsman late in 2004, the job went to a Canadian. And you can’t get much more Canadian than an ex-Mountie.

Frank Fowlie’s varied background includes a stint as a drug investigator for the RCMP, work with a United Nations peacekeeping force in East Timor, jobs in British Columbia’s provincial ombudsman’s office and the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, and a master’s degree in conflict analysis and management from Royal Roads University.

“I’m so very pleased,” Fowlie says, “that for the first ombudsman for ICANN, that after a global search that a Canadian was selected. I continue to say that it reflects on us as a people because we’ve got such a great heritage of peacekeeping and being intermediaries.”

In his first year as ICANN ombudsman, working mainly from a home office in Vancouver, Fowlie has been busy defining his role and resolving complaints. recently talked with Fowlie about that role and his first year on the job. How busy have you been in your first year on this job?

FF: Well, it’s been very busy, because there are obviously a number of things that go into developing a brand new office like this.

In terms of the complaints, I think I’ve had close to 1,700 and of that number about 1,500 were related to an e-mail campaign about Internet content, which is non-jurisdictional to this office. So we’ve had about 350 actual complaints that dealt with ICANN and the Internet and that I’ve handled, and of that number about 10 per cent, somewhere in the range of 35, 36 files were entirely within my jurisdiction and I’ve worked on them in terms of reviewing and resolving based on the bylaw and the ombudsman framework.

Of course, because the office was brand new there was a lot to do besides receiving the complaints – establishing all of the systems that have to go into having a smoothly functioning office, doing some research on how to establish jurisdiction on complaints, case management systems, establishing ideas for community outreach, implementing some of those – so it’s been very busy.

ITB: What kinds of issues fall within your jurisdiction?

FF: Well, the jurisdiction is very easy to define. It’s anything that is an act, decision or inaction by ICANN staff, the board or supporting organizations. So a common one would be a delay issue – someone applied for some sort of benefit with ICANN or asked for some sort of decision or asked for some sort of change and they feel that the process has taken too long, so they will come to me and say that there has been an unreasonable delay in providing a service and I will investigate it and go from there.

ITB: You can make recommendations to the board, which isn’t necessarily bound to do what you recommend. How responsive has the board been to your recommendations so far?

FF: And that’s not just me, that’s all ombudsmen. The role of the ombudsman is not to change policy in and of himself or herself but to cause or to make recommendations when you can’t come to a meaningful (alternative dispute resolution) process. And on the other hand, when there is the determination in the course of an investigation that there has been an unfairness I’ve been very, very pleased with the response that I’ve had from the board.

ITB: What tools do you have at your disposal if you’re not happy with the action taken on your recommendations?

FF: If I were to feel at the end of a process that I’ve provided recommendations to the board and I don’t feel that they’ve implemented them or they’ve disregarded them, obviously I have the power to publicize and bring the issue into the light of the community vision so that they can provide direction they feel necessary to the board.

ITB: But you haven’t felt it necessary to do that so far?

FF: No. In those instances where I have made recommendations, and there are some still ongoing, I have been pleased that they have been accepted and they take the work that I did in coming up with solutions and options to heart.

ITB: Can you point to anything the ICANN board has done as a result of recommendations that you’ve made?

FF: I think the one thing I can say, because it is in the public forum, related to complaints regarding one of the supporting organizations, where as a result of some of my work and other initiatives taken within ICANN there was a resolution at the Vancouver board meeting, noting that because of the ombudsman’s recommendations a request was being made to change a bylaw. So there are some substantive things, but again in alternative dispute resolution much of the work is subtle, it’s done between the parties and done confidentially.

ITB: There has been some concern about ICANN’s oversight by the U.S. Department of Commerce and some suggestions about changing that. Do you think that sensitivity played a role in a Canadian being appointed ombudsman?

FF: No, I don’t think that particular issue did. I think that at the end of the day they picked the best candidate and the best candidate happened to be Canadian.  The best candidate being Canadian also lends itself — especially with me working remotely from Canada – to the whole notion of independence.

ITB: What else helps to ensure your independence?

FF: First of all, on the ICANN org chart I don’t have any direct reporting relationship with anybody, and in the bylaw that established the office, independence is certainly mentioned a number of times as being a key point, so in the operation of ICANN I don’t report to anybody. I set my own budget. It goes to the president, who then is responsible through the bylaw to take it to the board, and of course they can approve it or not approve it but if they don’t they have to provide rationale. So independence fiscally obviously helps.

If you were to look at all the scenarios where an organization fetters an ombudsman, that’s probably an easier checklist to go through, to say they’re not doing (those things) so therefore I am independent, than to say what they are doing to make me independent. So they don’t interfere with my finances, they don’t interfere with my ability to travel and to do outreach around the world, they don’t fetter my ability to do investigations, and all of that goes through the bylaws.


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