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Some lessons for ICANN from the World’s Greatest Sporting Event

June 27, Marakech. Over the last week or so I have heard commentaries from sources from the International Herald Tribune to the baggage handler at Air Maroc, explaining what exactly has happened so far in the World Cup, and more importantly what it all means for you, me, soccer and the rest of humanity.

And despite having spent almost 10 days in Germany during the Cup’s first round, I will not claim to understand the larger meaning of it all. However, sitting here in the conference hall at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) meetings in Marrakech I came to thinking — since football/soccer and the Internet may be two of the two most international institutions on earth, I asked myself: What can and should ICANN learn from the World Cup so far? Let me offer some observations…

1. Good teams play fast

Two days ago I saw the second round match between Mexico and Argentina. It was a fast-paced, creative game played from end to end. Each team needed to adapt frequently and quickly to new tactics and players. Compare this to the plodding US approach in its first game against the Czech Republic. The US tried not to lose and failed miserably. The Mexico/Argentina was an infinitely more interesting game.

I believe there are lessons for ICANN here. The international Internet game is changing fast. At each ICANN meeting there is increased pressure for action on issues from IDNs, to streamlining the process for the introduction of new TLDs and other issues. Nearly everyone agrees that ICANN needs to find a way to pick up the pace. Still, debate (which can be good) labors on (which is almost always bad). Hence Lesson #1 from the Cup: if ICANN wants to remain World Class and relevant, it needs to develop the capacity to play faster.

2. Too much referee ruins the game

One of the biggest stories of the Cup thus far has been the number of games that were literally taken out of the hands of the players by overactive referees. No one doubts the importance of having a good ref in a successful match. Still, anyone who saw the last two US games or the Italy/Australia match knows just how much an overactive referee can ruin a game. A sketchy second yellow card in the US game against Italy and a mysterious penalty in the game against Ghana, and our team goes home. I’m hardly unbiased, but nobody comes to a game – or to the ‘net – because of the ref.

Again, there are important lessons for ICANN. Governance is indeed a necessity, but it is the light hand that keeps the game intact and flowing. FIFA’s attempt to “crack down” on rough play appears to have failed miserably, and ICANN will be well served to learn the lesson. An approach which permits creativity and competition – not heavy regulation or attempts to engineer outcomes – is the best way forward. “Let ‘em play”.

3. Good teams play together and have clear roles

After Sunday’s game between Holland and Portugal I was struck by just how important it is to have clear roles for everyone on the field. Though both teams contained players from elite teams in elite leagues across Europe, the Dutch team was bigger and stronger and favored to win. However, despite their individual brilliance, from the outset I sensed the Dutch team wouldn’t get the job done. Their runs weren’t coordinated. Their positioning was unclear. They simply couldn’t work together, and in the end, Portugal advanced.

Here I think there are actually two lessons for ICANN. First, and perhaps foremost, while the ICANN structure’s focus on consultation is laudable, I am now attending my 3rd ICANN meeting and am struck by what seem to be overlapping constituency mandates and advisory groups galore – and confusion even among those most a part of the process. This leads inevitably to the second issue, which is conflict. By the end of the Holland/Portugal game you could see the frustration between the Dutch players, even though the score was still very close. So too with ICANN I think. I am often struck by the way in which registrars, registries, and other parts of the business community spend time carping at each other (ostensibly to advance their own agendas), taking their eye off the common goal of making a better, stronger Internet with more user access. By clarifying roles of each member of the team and by getting each player focused on their role it seems obvious that we could lower the volume, permitting better outcomes for everyone. Good teams get and stay on the same page.

4. Pay attention to Africa

Finally, I want to draw your attention to the teams from Africa, especially the Black Stars from Ghana. While I am disappointed that the US didn’t make the second round, I must say I am very impressed by the Ghanaians. They play a strong, creative game. They beat two good teams in the first round and played beautifully against Brazil, much better than the score would suggest. They may lack budget and experience, but the Ghanaians and other Africans are teams to watch – dynamic, entrepreneurial teams.

As in football, so as in life. From my chair here in Marrakech we can see that Africa as a region is set for significant growth on the net, and that the net can bring great commercial, developmental and educational benefits to the continent. Moreover, it is important that the world and ICANN see that this is not a question of some great, indefinite future, of “some day”. Everywhere I go in Marrakech I see progress – construction cranes building a modern city, ATMs and wireless access… Africa is on the move now, today, right in front of our eyes. Unfortunately, though we are here in Africa, and though many of us pushed for a special session on African issues in Marrakech, Africa is largely off the agenda. However, if there is one region that can demonstrate ICANN’s importance to the world community, where issues of security and IDNs and capacity building are vital, one would have to think Africa would be the place. African markets are moving, and ICANN’s work should reflect this.

So here’s to hoping ICANN can learn the lessons of the World Cup, to make itself better and to better serve the world Internet community – working faster and in a more coordinated fashion, creating a governance environment on the net that will “let ‘em play”, and doing more and better work with Africa.

ICANN’s next meeting is in Brazil. It seems wholly appropriate that now, as a community, we learn the lessons of the “Beautiful Game”.

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