With one bound he was free!

The Internet organisation ICANN’s charismatic CEO, Fadi Chehade has moved on. Did he achieve what he set out to do? Was it what we needed him to do? And what about human rights?

Maria Farrell
13 June 2016



Fadi Chehade (left) as Dilma Roussef (middle) signs the Marco Civil at NetMundial, April, 2014. Wikicommons/Blog di Pianolto. Some rights reserved.On March 15, 2016, Fadi Chehade stepped down as CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organisation that manages the Internet’s global naming and numbering systems. Fadi was appointed in 2012 to get the organisation back on course after the tumultuous rein of Rod Beckstrom.*

Within the global Internet community, Fadi is a bit like Cher or Madonna; someone sufficiently charismatic, well-known and slightly unusually named to be known only by their first name. Born in Lebanon to Egyptian parents, Fadi came to the US as a teenager and pursued a successful corporate career in technology before adroitly performing the knight’s move into ICANN that has now set him on a much more high-profile, global path.

Fadi became ICANN’s President and CEO in late 2012, a low moment for the organisation. ICANN was trying to push out the largest ever expansion in global top level domains with a staff whose morale was subterranean and whose characteristic attitude to the outside world was the head-down, punch first stance of an aging prize-fighter. It didn’t help that a global meeting, with the power to demand ICANN’s job be handed over to a United Nations agency, was only months away.

After a ‘summer of listening’, Fadi made the first of many sleeves-up, heart-felt speeches at an ICANN meeting in Toronto. Extemporising for over an hour, his mastery of ICANN's politics and operational detail was impressive. He connected what often seems dull Internet plumbing to the many wonderful things it enables. He name-checked injured schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai, who’d been flown from Pakistan to a hospital in the UK only that morning, and reminded everyone that Malala and people like her are why the Internet’s volunteer community does what it does. It was pretty inspiring stuff, and while the reaction was muted by previous disappointment, there was good feeling and, frankly, relief at the new CEO’s performance.

That morning in Toronto, Fadi set out his stall. First, he said, ICANN needed to work on its then fairly poor operational performance. It also needed to be less US-focused, and do a better job at communications. Looking at ICANN’s political situation, Fadi said ICANN needed to further develop the multi-stakeholder model, be fully involved in global Internet governance discussions and, in its own work, stand up for the public interest.

Soldiers say that no plan survives contact with the enemy. But actually, in the past four years, Fadi delivered much of what he promised that day.

When he left in March 2016, ICANN was in good organisational shape. Operationally, it had delivered the new generic top level domains (gTLD) programme (already begun before Fadi) and a lot more besides. Finances are now somewhat more transparent, though unvetted vanity projects still pop up every now and then. ICANN’s lobbying spend and travel budget for community volunteers are surprisingly high. ICANN can afford it, for now. It has an increased budget and a cash reserve of $400 million USD, much of it from the new gTLDs. It also has a very nice problem; what to do with a ring-fenced $80 million dollar fund raised from name auctions between companies competing for names like .SHOP or .APP.

ICANN, corporate and community, a happier place?

Staff morale is soaring, even as the frenetic pace Fadi forced has also led to burn-out. There are a lot more ICANN offices around the world, devoted to keeping a more globally diverse range of decision-makers sweet, and much more diversity amongst employees. Staff numbers have grown to almost three hundred. Although they’re all clearly very busy, the community still wonders if everything the scores of unseen staff do is mission-critical. Soon, the Los Angeles headquarters will have moved offices twice in three years to fit all the new people. Several of ICANN’s previously senior executives who jumped or were pushed out under the previous CEO have been tempted back. Fadi's unfailing courtesy and ability to put his hand up when he got something wrong have set a more internally forgiving and externally even-humoured tone for the organization. All in all, ICANN Corporate is a happier, healthier, mellower organisation than it was four years ago.

And the fractured, fractious ICANN community? More of a mixed picture. Fadi got off to a rough start when the US intellectual property lobby easily manoeuvred him into re-making trademark policy on the fly at a closed door meeting stacked against civil society. So much for safeguarding the public interest. And the human rights agenda? It’s slowly gaining ground at ICANN, but thanks largely to the dogged work of organisations like Article 19 and the Council of Europe. The capture by US corporate interests of much decision-making at ICANN ranges from lowly policy meetings to Beltway end-runs and even to some of the cross-community work on ICANN's transition to independence. Fadi has not seemed willing or able to expiate or even acknowledge ICANN’s original sin; the turning of money into power and power back into money.

And despite early warmth, the registrars and registries – the companies that sell domain names and keep the global record of who owns what – cooled quickly when they realized that more often than not, it was only Fadi's sheer salesmanship that sweetened unfavourable deals. His sanguine attitude to requiring registrars to break European law and high comfort level at ICANN siding with the intellectual property lobby outside of ICANN didn’t help relations, either.

Still, while it’s true that one person’s tolerance for another’s pain can be unfeasibly high, the level of day to day complaint at the organisation’s high-handedness during Fadi’s tenure didn’t seem higher than usual. And you rarely make headlines, or blog posts, when you get things right. But while Fadi book-ended his ICANN career by focusing on operational excellence – or, as many of us call it 'not screwing up the bleeding obvious' – it was in the political sphere that his ambition bore most fruit. Fadi was uniquely placed to explain ICANN to the world, and vice versa.

ICANN’s first African president

The still largely Anglophone ICANN core community doesn’t always grasp this, but having a CEO who spoke just as eloquently in Arabic and French and, frankly, looked like more of the world does made a difference to ICANN’s political fortunes. Fadi called himself ICANN's first African president, with a fair bit more credibility than Bill Clinton used to call himself America's first black one. As well as Fadi's ability to speak well in several languages and listen with true attention in every single one of them, there was his origin story. A child refugee, a restaurant dish-washer, a corporate grafter – he could travel to any country in the world and look anyone right in the eye.

Some ICANN regulars carped that they’d heard too many times the tale of his family's almost Biblical flight from Egypt and the story of fatherly love that put the at-risk teen on a truck out of Beirut. But you know what? This is the story of our time. We cannot hear it often enough.

And so to politics. ICANN had long been the political football in that decidedly minor league of geopolitics, Internet governance. The organisation was unfortunate enough to exemplify two things that the Russias, Chinas, Indias, and Irans (i.e. them and their client states) agreed were bad. First, ICANN was controlled by the US, via a procurement contract with an obscure agency of the US Department of Commerce. Second, it was avowedly non-governmental, and obsessed with something called multi-stakeholderism. Even if US allies like the European Union or frenemies like Brazil and South Africa could sort of get behind the second bit, they could not bring themselves to cheer on a California non-profit running a critical part of global infrastructure as a single government’s contractor.

Then, as I've described elsewhere, the Snowden revelations happened. Soon after, ICANN staggered free from the wreckage of America’s reputation as benevolent steward of the global Internet.

What was Fadi in all of this? A ringmaster, the showman at the centre, whose almost imperceptibly deft gestures kept the Internet's lions, elephants and clowns performing in time to a music new to all of them? Or a salesman, selling coal to Newcastle or, in this case, Internet freedom to the US government? Or was he just one of nature's born politicians, a man who can sniff the wind and smell change coming just in time to lead it? I come from a long line of politicians, and my money's on that one.

The sequence of events – from the Snowden revelations, to a call for more independence by the Internet's technical organisations, to Fadi's deal with President Rousseff of Brazil, to the US government launching ICANN's transition process – is clear. The chain of causality is not. Whose idea was ICANN's transition? Who pushed hardest, and was it the end goal or just a bargaining chip? As with many tantalising ‘how did that happen’ questions, we’ll have to wait till long after curiosity is dead to find out, piecing it together across memoirs and third-person accounts. But whatever more we may learn, Fadi’s role was central. History dealt him a good hand and boy, did he play it well.

Davos Man

Where history may be less kind is regarding Fadi's seduction by Davos Man. Perhaps it's an unavoidable hazard of the CEO job, with its ‘If it's Tuesday, it must be Geneva / Washington / Beijing' mentality, but both Fadi and his predecessor seemed to become overly enamoured of the thin gloss of VIP rooms, editorial meetings and fireside chats with powerful people.

In Fadi's case it was not vanity but the straightforward desire to get things done that led him to trade his credibility in the ICANN community for access behind the velvet cordon. In one reading, Fadi got just a little too far ahead of community opinion in his press for new multistakeholder platforms. His solo-runs with 1Net and NETMundiale became unpopular in many quarters, both within ICANN's community and amongst its technical peers, and it seemed against Fadi’s temperament that he pushed them so hard and for so long.

In another, less generous reading, he had drunk the Davos Kool Aid. Up high where the Alpine air thins, Fadi was thought to have inhaled the global elite's self-serving nostrum that leaders of peak organisations – governments, companies, and the odd behemoth NGO – can sort out the world’s hardest problems mano a mano and behind closed doors. Though you can see why he may have wanted, in his last few months at ICANN, to become the Internet's version of Nixon in China, it's hard to know what Fadi was thinking when he agreed to be an official advisor to Beijing's version of the global Internet Governance Forum. Ted Cruz had a pretty firm conspiracy theory on this. But then again, he’s Ted Cruz.

Fadi's punishing whirl of capital cities, ministerial ingratiation, hand-shaking and talking point discipline also meant he succeeded in getting more senior government people involved with ICANN. Now we have a regular 'high-level' ICANN meeting attended by government ministers from around the world, and the lesser meetings still boast senior international civil servants following proceedings and occasionally even contributing to discussions. Without Fadi’s extraordinary abilities and efforts, I believe we would never have seen India's Minister of Communications beam a video message to ICANN's meeting last year saying India now supports multistakeholder governance of the Internet. And we would certainly not have had the representatives of Russia and China publicly endorse ICANN's transition to independence while themselves at an ICANN meeting, just two months ago. That said, Fadi's drive to get more governments, and more senior people from those governments, involved in ICANN was risky. As Stephen Hawking put it in relation to the existence of alien life; we would like to know about them, but are we sure we want them to know about us?

What a party!

The cliché goes that all political careers end in failure. Well yes, eventually. The trick is to leap gracefully from one post to the next, always staying one bounce ahead of other people's disappointment and ennui. Fadi left ICANN with the bulk of the glory, and with the dull and gritty bits of getting the organization's transition plan through Washington yet to be done. He had achieved everything he could organisationally, and far more than he'd originally set out to do, politically. He was, by most objective measures, a success.

The feeling Fadi leaves behind is like that you get when the most vivacious, clever and attractive person has left the party. There's a sense of deflation but also relief as people turn back to talking in twos and threes, having the kinds of conversations they somehow couldn't before. No one can sustain that level of performance for long, not even those watching. But oh, what a party it was.

* Full disclosure; I may have played a role triggering the Board’s decision not to renew Beckstrom’s contract.

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