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World Cup Offers Lessons for ICANN

Like the best soccer teams, ICANN needs to work faster and have clearly defined roles for its members.

While I spent 10 days in Marrakech, Morocco, at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers Meetings, I was surrounded by World Cup fans from around the globe who cheered their teams on to victory. As I watched the matches, I thought about what the Internet community—and ICANN itself—might learn from the world of football/soccer. After all, soccer and the Internet may be two of the most international institutions on earth. Each one brings together a worldwide (and growing) audience of billions. Each one is a major economic engine, leading to huge potential economic growth. Each one requires careful, enlightened management to ensure its long-term growth and viability. Upon witnessing teams from around the world play towards a championship game, I drew some lessons that ICANN would be wise to learn from the global sport.

1. Good teams play fast.

The match between Mexico and Argentina is worth mentioning because 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 U.S. approach in its first game against the Czech Republic. As a U.S. fan Im sorry to say it, but the Mexico-Argentina game was infinitely more interesting.

The online game is the same in many ways, requiring companies, consumers and ICANN itself to move quickly and be adaptable as the pace of change and innovationon the Net increases. At each ICANN meeting there is pressure for the organization to act on issues from international domain names to streamlining the process for the introduction of new top-level domains. Still, consultation (which is good) is often replaced by seemingly endless debate. Nearly everyone agrees that ICANN needs to respond much more quickly to the changing Internet landscape. The lesson is clear: 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 was the number of games that were taken out of the hands of the players by overactive referees making highly questionable calls. Anyone who saw the last two U.S. games or the Italy-Australia match knows just how much an overactive referee can ruin a game. No one doubts the importance of an accurate official in a successful match. Still, 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. FIFAs attempt to “crack down” on rough play appears to have failed miserably, and ICANN will be well-served to take heed. An approach that permits or even promotes creativity and competition—not heavy regulation or attempts to engineer outcomes—is the best way forward. ICANN—like FIFA—should “Let em play.”

3. Good teams play together and have clear roles.

After the second round game between Holland and Portugal I was struck by just how important it is to have clear roles for every player on the field. Though both teams contained extremely talented players from elite teams across Europe, the Dutch team was stronger and favored to win. However, despite the players individual brilliance, from the outset I sensed the Dutch team wouldnt get the job done. Their runs werent coordinated. Their positioning was unclear. They simply couldnt work together, and Portugal advanced.

Here there are two lessons for ICANN. First, while ICANNs focus on consultation is laudable, there are too many overlapping constituency mandates and advisory groups, structures that cause confusion in ICANNs work. This leads to the second issue, which is conflict. The registrars, registries, and other parts of the business community that work with ICANN spend an enormous amount of time complaining about each other—taking their eye off the common goal of making a stronger, safer, better-performing Internet. Clearly defined, focused roles for each ICANN community team members could alleviate this confusion, opening the door to success for everyone.

4. Pay attention to Africa.

Finally, ICANN should not miss out on the example set by the play of the African teams in this years Cup, especially the Black Stars from Ghana. They may lack budget and experience, but the Ghanaians and other Africans are teams to watch—they are dynamic, entrepreneurial and exciting. Most of them were first-timers, new to the World Cup and the home of growing football markets.

The situation is similar for the Internet in Africa. The statistics from Africa show limited Internet penetration and that much of Africa is new to the Net. That said, from what we heard in Marrakech, Africa is set for significant Internet growth. The Internet will help 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.

Everywhere I went in Marrakech I saw progress—construction cranes building a modern city, ATMs and wireless access. Like African football, technology is on the move across the continent now, today. And, though Africa has largely been off the ICANN agenda, African markets are moving, and ICANNs work should reflect this. Its time to pay attention to Africa.

So heres 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. ICANNs 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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