Proposal 5 for ICANN: Become More Inclusive by Innovating the Public Forum

This is the fifth of a series of 16 draft proposals developed by the ICANN Strategy Panel on Multistakeholder Innovation in conjunction with the Governance Lab @ NYU  for how to design an effective, legitimate and evolving 21st century Internet Corporation for Assigned Names & Numbers (ICANN). 

Please share your comments/reactions/questions on this proposal in the comments section of this post or via the line-by-line annotation plug-in.

From Principle to Practice

A legitimate institution operating in the global public interest needs to be inclusive and should seek to involve the people who are affected by its decisions in the process of making those decisions. For ICANN, this means that anyone should have easy and equitable access to participate in the process of shaping the policies and standards of the Internet that ICANN helps facilitate. As such, ICANN could experiment with running a more dynamic virtual public forum in parallel to the physical one conducted during ICANN meetings and with using innovative tools and techniques for encouraging diverse participation during the forum.

What Do We Mean by “Innovating the Public Forum”?

Currently at ICANN, there are several channels by which anyone can engage with ICANN, such as open working groups, public comment periods of ICANN’s policy-development and strategic processes, and the Public Forum. The Public Forum takes place during ICANN meetings and is “the [ICANN] Community’s opportunity to make comments and ask questions on the main topics at each meeting directly to the Board and in front of the rest of the community.”[1] While in theory, everyone has equal opportunity to make themselves heard at an ICANN Public Forum – it is open to all willing participants – in practice, the Public Forum can fall short of providing this equal opportunity.

However, new collaborative meeting tools and techniques, such as those for remote participation, question-asking and opinions-aggregating, and devolving participation to a wider global audience could be applied to help ICANN become the “golden standard” for collaborative, effective and inclusive global public meetings.

Why Does This Proposal Make Sense at ICANN?

The ICANN Public Forum serves specific goals, namely to provide an open and inclusive environment for the community to publicly raise specific issues directly to the ICANN Board.  However, at present, ICANN’s Public Forums tend to face a number of challenges:

  • ICANN’s Public Forum provides an unfair advantage to those participants who have the time and resources to attend ICANN meetings (the previous three meetings were held in Buenos Aires, Durban, and Beijing). People who can afford to attend can simply stand up during the Public Forum, get in line, and have themselves heard.
  • Much of ICANN’s stakeholder community can only attend the Public Forum virtually and ICANN’s suite of remote access and participation tools –  a mix of call-in (Adigo), virtual participation (Adobe Connect), and social media tools (e.g. Twitter, Facebook) – are unsuited for dynamic and interactive engagement.
  • “Incumbent” participants tend to dominate speaking time during the Public Forum, e.g., people who have been in the ICANN Community upwards of a decade. There is a remarkable lack of new participants who speak during the Public Forum.
  • As the Internet evolves, the Public Forum must accommodate not only a more diverse and greater volume of stakeholders, but also a greater diversity and volume of issues – e.g., those stemming from the new gTLD program and those emerging topics like privacy and data security.
  • Agenda-setting conducted at the start of the Public Forum is not dynamic and wastes time that could be used for substantive dialogue.
  • Because the ICANN community comprises volunteers, people value ICANN meetings as opportunities for face-to-face contact and networking, though tools to enable such contact are currently lacking.

These challenges impede ICANN’s ability to promote meaningful global engagement in the Public Forum and thus in ICANN decisionmaking. To remedy these, participation at the Public Forum should be made easy (i.e. provide accessible, legible, multilingual and low-bandwidth participation options) and equitable (i.e. present fair opportunities for participation facilitated in a manner so that no one player, group or interest can dominate the process). As such, a variety of innovative conference and meeting tools and techniques exist and could be leveraged by ICANN in order to:

  • Improve and equalize remote participation;
  • Streamline question-asking and opinions-aggregation;
  • Encourage participant-networking;
  • Devolve responsibility among a broader group of participants; and
  • Motivate non-incumbent participation.

Implementation Within ICANN & Examples

While we believe innovating the ICANN Public Forum could improve inclusivity at ICANN – testing this hypothesis is vital. In an effort to move this proposal from principle to practice, here are some initial ideas for tools and techniques around which ICANN could design pilots.

Tools for remote participation

To mitigate the difficulty associated with physically attending the Public Forum and ICANN meetings generally, ICANN could experiment with virtual reality tools, workspaces and mobile applications that would allow people to more easily and equitably participate remotely. Some example tools ICANN could look to or learn from include:

  • Textizen & UReport – These platforms (also discussed in Proposal 2) are SMS-based mobile applications that allow users to answer questions and submit responses via text message. Similar technology could be combined with Internet-based platforms to extend remote participation options to those who live in low-bandwidth or unconnected areas around the world.
  • Second Life – Second Life is “a 3D world where everyone you see is a real person and every place you visit is built by people.”[2] Users can interact with each other in the “game” via avatars. Second Life has been localized so that users can choose which linguistic “world” they enter.[3] Second Life has been used in extremely varied ways, for example:
    • The Maldives has placed virtual embassy in the Diplomatic Quarter of Diplomacy Island in Second Life[4];
    • The University of San Martin de Porres of Peru has used Second Life to build prototypes of Peruvian archeological buildings to use in architecture courses[5];
    • New York Law School piloted an initiative aimed at using Second Life to create an online environment where government entities and interest groups could conduct citizen consultation – “Democracy Island.” The aim of the project was to offer “an on-line space that can be conveniently accessed from home or work” and “to combine the best of town hall meetings with the convenience of a telephone or web-conference.”[6]
  • Other Virtual Reality Tools – As Mikey O’Connor submitted to the MSI Panel’s online engagement platform, ICANN could “use virtual reality to enable face to face interactions online.” He added that “a better version of Second Life would be a game changer for people who will never be able to afford to travel to face-to-face meetings,” and proposed the possible use of new virtual reality tools like Oculus Rift.
  • LearnLab – Steelcase’s Learn Lab is a workspace concept that emphasizes collaboration and mutual learning. Learn Lab uses spatial geometry to strategically place videocameras and projectors in different areas of the room so that people who remotely participate in Learn Lab classrooms can look “across” the meeting space and see the other attendees in the room, rather than looking only at the materials that are being shown on the screen or the people talking from the front of the room.[7]

Tools for streamlining question-asking and opinions-aggregation 

To streamline the agenda-setting process during the Public Forum, ICANN could use survey/polling tools to develop the agenda for the Public Forum both before it happens (e.g., during the inter-sessional months between meetings, or in the days during ICANN meetings leading up to the Public Forum) and during the Public Forum itself. ICANN could invite participants to submit topic ideas, and attendees (both physical and virtual) could vote and comment on the options before or during the ICANN meetings. Some example tools for this purpose that ICANN may consider or learn from include:

  • – A smartphone-based Internet application that allows users to ask questions during an event which are then voted on by the audience (physical or remote), ensuring that the best and most popular questions get asked (and answered) first. All questions are limited to 140 characters to save time spent reviewing and encourage brevity. People can view all the questions that have already been asked on their phones and thereby avoid asking duplicate questions. Finally, people can choose to be anonymous, which may ease concerns around asking difficult or sensitive questions.
  • Livesift – A question-aggregation and survey tool meant for use in conferences and meetings, which can be deployed on a variety of devices (e.g., smartphones or computers). Livesift lets users submit questions, evaluate other users’ questions, collectively organize and label issues, rank and group items according to prioritization criteria, create survey questions and quickly tabulate and display responses visually for group review.

Tools for encouraging participant-networking

To help volunteer attendees at ICANN meetings to meet others who work in similar fields, share ideas and work together, or break down generational or experiential barriers, ICANN could broaden opportunities for participant-networking and collaboration both during and after the meetings through online forums or mobile or desktop applications. Some example tools for this purpose that ICANN may consider or learn from include:

  • Vanilla Forums – Provides both open source forum software (free) and a cloud service for creating customized forum communities (paid) with several innovative features. Vanilla users can use pre-set “reactions” to forum topics – e.g., like, dislike, question, unclear, useful, needs-further-discussion, which enable categorization of content. The service also offers built in gamification features, such as badges that users can earn by participating, and reputation scores they can earn for comments that they make in the forum.
  • TED Connect – TED is a non-profit organization that hosts global conferences bringing together individuals from the technology, entertainment, and design fields in order to “spread ideas worth sharing.” TED conference participants are invited to connect via the TED Connect mobile application, which provides chat features and participant profiles as well as scheduling and conference news updates. ICANN could create an application available to meeting attendees and remote participants to encourage collaboration and connection around ICANN topics during and after the Public Forum and the meeting more generally.

Tools and techniques for devolving meetings

By “devolving meetings” we mean empowering the global ICANN community to complement, supplement and expand on work done and shared during the Public Forum in both physical and virtual space.

There are many current examples of single-events that are “devolved” to larger audiences (for example, Americans will set up “watching parties” for big sporting or entertainment events like the Super Bowl or the Oscars, where they experience small-scale versions of the event in their homes while watching the event in real time on TV or online). Such devolved meetings make sense in the context of impassioned communities. An example illustration of devolving meetings that ICANN may learn from in order to promote this type of participation in connection with the Public Forum and ICANN meetings more generally include:

  • TEDx Events – Started in 2009, TEDx was designed to “give communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level.” TEDx events can feature a screening of TED Talks videos, or a screening combined with live presenters. These events are “fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis.”[8] In 2009, TED introduced “TEDx-in-a-box,” which gives a set of materials and a “template” for hosting and producing an independent TEDx event. TED also offers a program by which volunteers can translate conference TED talks into other languages.
    • ICANN could emulate both of these design ideas for the Public Forum, for example, by crowdsourcing the translation of the Public Forum proceedings (especially into languages outside of the 6 UN languages ICANN currently provides), and by providing “ICANN Public Forum in a box” templates for independent organizers to, for example, host regional or local Public Forums in tandem with the official ICANN Public Forum. To help connect these independent Public Forums with the main event, ICANN could experiment with many of the virtual participation tools described above.

Another technique to devolve meetings that ICANN could experiment with is “live blogging,” where certain individuals “push” the content of a meeting out to a wider audience via the Internet.

  • The WWDMagic apparel trade expo – Hosted in Las Vegas in 2010, the expo aimed to generate more discussion among its attendees and expand its audience into virtual space. To do so, it partnered with Teen Vogue to select 15 bloggers and also hosted a contest through the event’s Tumblr site to select 20 more. The bloggers arrived to the expo and greatly expanded the audience for the content by reporting on the events, recording video and pictures and also participating in panel discussions.
    • Perhaps ICANN could empower newcomers or ICANN Fellows to engage in ICANN events through live blogging to instill confidence and provide incentives to network with other participants, to the end of creating a value-adding immersive experience into the Public Forum and ICANN meetings. ICANN could incentivize this process by, for example, giving live bloggers “official correspondent” titles during the next ICANN Public Forum.

Techniques for encouraging non-incumbent participation

To mitigate the tendency toward heavy incumbent participation at ICANN’s Public Forum, and to encourage new insights and ideas to get heard from incoming generations of ICANN participants, ICANN could designate specific time during the Public Forum during which only non-incumbents are invited to participate and to speak.

Open Questions – How Can We Bring This Proposal Closer to Implementation?

  • What institutional and cultural barriers could pose challenges to implementation?
  • Which set of tools or features of remote participation platforms is most useful for helping the ICANN Public Forum achieve the goals it sets out to achieve? What about tools or features for use during ICANN meeting sessions more generally?
  • How can the Public Forum find a balance between those who want to speak and those who should speak?
  • Is there an opportunity during any upcoming ICANN meetings to test out any of these techniques or discuss which innovative tools could be most useful for ICANN?
  • What types of increased resources associated with training or staffing would be required to innovate the Public Forum in any way proposed herein?
  • How can the Public Forum be innovated so that participants can get the same things out of the Forum virtually as they would physically?
  • How could ICANN measure successful in-person and remote participation? (e.g., surveying attendees?)
  • How can the Public Forum be leveraged to sustain engagement in ICANN after and outside of physical meetings or convenings?


1. “ICANN Public Forum.” April 11, 2013.
2. “What is Second Life?”
3. “Second Life Forums Archive.”
4. “Sweeden Trumped by Maldives in Second Life.” The Local. May 22, 2007.
5. “Conversation IV, 2012 in Second Life: ‘Groups Teaching in Second Life’.” University of San Martin de Porres. April 17, 2012.
6. “Democracy Island.” NYLS Do Tank.
7. “LearnLab: A Steelcase Research Project.” Steelcase.
8. “About TEDx.”

The Tags . . . .

One Response to “Proposal 5 for ICANN: Become More Inclusive by Innovating the Public Forum”

  1. Chuck Gomes February 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm #

    Quite a few examples of tools that could be used are provided and sound pretty interesting. It is not clear that all of them would work for the ICANN Public Forum, but it seems worthwhile exploring them further. I think that pilot testing of ideas and tools would need to be spread out so that there are not too many things are being tested at the same time.

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