My Dinner With ICANN (or, Where is Hunter Thompson When We Need Him?)

Most reports about ICANN are about the official parts. But as the real work of most meeting happens off stage (Board meetings, for example, are reliably rumored to be almost scripted in advance in a secret meeting held earlier in the week; Board members who dare bring up unscripted topics in public get dirty looks from the status quo crowd), I thought it might be productive, or at least amusing, to write up a report of the big “social” (non-business) dinner last night.

A fleet of buses drove us to the venue, which someone told me was a race track. Whatever it may be, it was a grand setting. We walked up the long walk and entered the main hall through an elegant wood-paneled corridor, decorated by two contortionists doing their moves in the middle of the floor. (Yes, you read that right.) After that, I went straight to the bar.

There were in fact two open and very popular bars (see my Caipirinha Report) and a small army of people bearing tasty canapes, all paid for by Verisign, the beneficiaries of the new .com contract extension which lets them raise their prices without much fear of competition. Your internet tax dollar/euro/yen at work.

Eventually we filed out onto the patio for dinner. A large group of round tables were set out on three sides of a sizable stage. The front and center tables all had little “reserved” signs — it seemed, for example, that the Board members were going to sit together, not mingle.

I joined a very convivial table of the powerless, located well off to the side of the stage. Before the dinner, we were treated to some entertainment by the Brazilian host committee. It was a combination of acrobatics, music and dance. Aided by the steady supply of Caipirinhas and, later, local red wine, I tried to sort out the symbolism of the performance. For example, the two girls — I call them that as they didn’t look even 18 — who hung upside down wearing colorful unitards after climbing long colorful streamers, were they trying to tell us that it helps to hang upside down like a bat to understand the ICANN process? Is the idea that to navigate the arduous climb up the greasy pole of new gTLD applications you have to be cute and perky and able to do amazing contortions? (And what to make of the remark of one the guys at my table that at the Rio meeting they did the show in thongs and feathers? ) Or, how about the choreographed battle dance between strapping buff youths? Was it trying to tell us that meetings are choreography, that the battles are just for show? Or the almost balletic pas-de-deux with trapeze in which smiling acrobats conduct a romance on the ground and in the air, ending with the chap carrying off the radiantly smiling girl: is that supposed to show how VeriSign woos and then carries off ICANN? How ICANN will ravish the user community? The drinks provide no answer. Maybe it’s trying to tell us that ICANN is like a circus act.

The show ends with a rousing percussion and dance number, then Vint Cerf does a break dance. No, I made that last part up. But he does do a nice hop-skip step as he goes up to the stage. Cerf has been a wonderful spokesmodel for ICANN. It’s a great pity that he has been so aggressively uninterested in checking the excesses of the staff and unabashedly sees no value in competition (see here, here and here).

Being seated off to the side may make it harder to see the show, but it turns out to give us prime position for the rush to the copious buffet. I used to say that all I ever got from VeriSign was a sandwich (during a tour of the root I had back in the pre-ICANN days). Now I’ll have to change that line, as I, like the rest of the cozy crowd, was fed and watered in style.

On the way out, I spot a fully staffed ambulance parked by the door. It seems that it is standard in Sao Paulo when you have a big meeting to hire an ambulance, and a doctor, to stand by since the traffic is so bad that they can’t be counted on to arrive quickly when needed. There is no doubt a metaphor there too, something about gridlock or life support perhaps, but I’m too tired to work it out.

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