Fadi Chehadé, overseer of the global internet piazza

Icann chief: an open meeting in Dublin next week has huge, divisive issues to debate

Fadi Chehadé: “Make sure you know when you get in what are the principles you will not ever give up on, and hold them dearly, and never let them go.” Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Fadi Chehadé: “Make sure you know when you get in what are the principles you will not ever give up on, and hold them dearly, and never let them go.” Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Fadi Chehadé knows what it is like to encounter adversity. The Beirut-born Egyptian national, who is chief executive officer of the powerful internet administrative body Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), was sent away by his father from the violence in Lebanon to Damascus. He emigrated to the US at 18, not knowing any English, and peeled onions for months in his first job.

Despite this unpromising beginning, Chehadé quickly went on to obtain a computer science degree at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and then a graduate degree from Stanford University. He studied business management and artificial intelligence, cleaning swimming pools to earn spending money. From there, he worked for Bell Labs, which funded his year at Stanford, then founded and sold several companies, working for multinationals such as IBM – who bought one of his companies – along the way.

But the toughest job he has ever had, he says, is his current one.

“This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, by far. I’m 25lbs less and have more grey hair. I’ve done 700,000 miles of travel in the last 12 months. Its a very taxing role,” he says by phone from the Icann headquarters in Los Angeles. “I’ve had to learn how to deal with very powerful people. Presidents, prime ministers, CEOs who may or may not agree, and find that common ground. But it is the most enriching job I have ever had, and will ever have.”

His 89-year-old French-speaking mother reads about him on her iPad, and has told him she thinks his job is like being at the centre of a kind of global internet piazza, a view he thinks describes his role well.

The Beirut population of his childhood featured 17 arguing factions, “and I was from the smallest faction. I had to learn how to live in that world as a small kid, and I think that helped me to learn that everyone has to come together – and the world is watching that piazza all the time.”

Established by the US Department of Commerce in 1998, Icann took over some of the technical management and policy development for the still-young internet as it moved from a direct US government project, with a modest number of users, to an increasingly global resource.

In a nutshell, says Chehadé, Icann makes sure there are consistent technical standards that enable all the 70,000-plus independent networks that comprise the internet to talk to each other and carry data between them. And, as reflected in its name, Icann manages the internet’s domain and addressing structures. That means that if you go to ibm.com from anywhere in the world, the website and the ownership of the domain is the same.

International governance

The intention, written into its founding papers, was that Icann would initially have US oversight but would eventually be a global organisation with international governance. Since its inception, Icann has been at the centre of disputes and controversies, from technologists arguing over the adoption of technical standards to business interests pushing their agendas and world leaders getting involved in full-on geopolitical squabbling.

It was set up using an extraordinarily consensual model of operation. Anyone can come to its three annual public meetings, the 54th of which is in the Convention Centre Dublin next week. Anyone can get involved with its many technical and policy committees and advisory groups. Members vote in changes by mass agreement. They also select Icann’s board members, with new members added every year.

The top job is very public, very global, and very tempestuous. As Chehadé notes, the voting membership is made up of people who feel strongly: civil society groups of all types, business interests, technologists with an often libertarian, less-government-is-better mindset, those representing national interests, and, of course, internet users in general.

At stake now are huge, divisive issues that will be high on the Dublin meeting agenda, including how to responsibly transfer the oversight of Icann from the US government to a global stakeholder group, a move scheduled to occur next year. (“I believe, frankly, we are down to technicalities, and that we will come together in Dublin to [resolve] that.”)

There is also the question of what role, if any, Icann should play when copyright holders or others want to pursue owners of a domain, and of what new domains should be added to the original roster that included .com, .net, .org and national domains, such as .ie.

Reaching consensus on these and other topics is, Chehadé acknowledges, incredibly difficult. “Every morning it seems like it’s going to fracture today. But it’s held together for 17 years.”

Invited to speak at a lunch by Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government recently, he explained Icann’s consensus-based operating structure. “And one of the professors said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me’,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so unique, its so unusual; the consensus building is so hard. But I also think it’s a great way for humans to progress together and actually own something together that no one owns but we all depend on.”

Major shift

Chehadé took over the role in 2012, Icann’s first leader with an international background, in a major shift for the organisation.

He focused on broadening Icann and making it more international, covering all time zones – it now has offices in Turkey and Singapore as well as Los Angeles. Staff numbers have more than doubled, from 125 to about 350, and represent a more international mix.

An already challenging job became a global hot seat in 2013 in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about internet-based surveillance and spying, especially by US government agencies. This drove international demand for a faster move towards Icann independence, and worldwide oversight. Initially, President Obama opposed any rapid shift, but that position become an untenable policy towards a global platform of profound economic importance. (A study commissioned by Icann indicates that up to 2.5 per cent of global GDP could be affected if the internet were to fracture into separate nationalised networks, as some countries have proposed post-Snowden).

Chehadé jumped on planes and met the leaders of countries threatening to break away, such as Brazil, China and India, securing commitments that they would not develop firewalled internets and that Icann would stay the main administrator.

Chehadé notes a personal interest in the question of Icann’s potential role in copyright and other disputes, which centres on whether Icann should require domain-name holders to provide publicly searchable contact details, a move with significant privacy implications.

As an Egyptian, he says he knows too well what oppressive regimes can be like, but also says that Icann can probably play a role, just not as the gatekeeper making decisions itself on whether sites should be shut down or domain ownership disclosed.

“That’s not right and it’s not possible. It’s beyond our remit,” he says. “Our job is to manage the technical layer and be sure it is stable. If we have other mechanisms outside Icann that can inform us . . . I think Icann cannot walk away from its role, but it cannot be the place where jury and judge coexist.” The subject needs far more community discussion before consensus is reached and the subject will be a hot one in Dublin, Chehadé says.

 

Maelstrom

Nearly everything he has done has been in the middle of the usual vociferous Icann public maelstrom. He’s been praised for internationalising Icann and, equally, criticised for moving it too quickly towards international stewardship; praised for broadening Icann’s staff, and criticised for appointing many people he knows.

He’s also been criticised for announcing last summer that he will step down as chief executive early next year, part way through a two-year renewed contract.

Chehadé says his arrangement with the Icann board was always that he would renew but that he would only stay on for the period he felt was needed to begin the handover to global stewardship, which he thinks will be agreed in structure by March 2016 – his proposed departure date – and completed by September 2016.

Why is he leaving, though? It’s clear that, to some degree, he is exhausted by the rigours of the role, but he also wants to get back to the ordinary business world.

“I had left pretty much my entire professional life on hold,” he says. “Completely on hold. I’m fortunate that my kids are grown and working . . . but all the other aspects of my life, all the boards I’m on, all the charities, I’d put on hold, and I really needed to bring back some balance in my life. I’m confident that by [March], Icann will be ready for my successor.”

Chehadé also wants to devote time to working on broader internet governance issues. Asked if he has any advice for his successor, he thinks for a moment.

“Make sure you know when you get in what are the principles you will not ever give up on, and hold them dearly, and never let them go,” he says. “Everything else should be fluid.”

Icann holds its 54th public meeting at the Convention Centre Dublin next week, a free event that anyone may attend. For information and meeting agendas, see https://meetings.icann.org/en/dublin54