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ICANN History Project | Interview with Stuart Lynn, ICANN CEO, 2001-2003 [306E]

Stuart Lynn, ICANN’s second CEO, thank you very much
for taking the time to talk to us. My pleasure. As I mentioned,
you were the organization’s second ICANN CEO following Mike Roberts
preceding Paul Twomey. In January 2001, in the board announcement
about your appointment, you were quoted as saying, “I’m honored to have been chosen for such a unique
and challenging position. And I look forward to working with all the members
of the Internet community around the world to achieve ICANN’s
technical mission.” That’s what you said, when you were appointed
to the position. What did you find when you actually
started working at ICANN? Oh, that was a lot tougher
than it sounded. Those were good words
and they were words full of intent, and it took a lot of hard work not just by me but by a lot of great people to make it possible for ICANN to achieve its mission. Stuart, you weren’t
from the ICANN community. Did you have
a steep learning curve? I had a very steep learning curve. I had some great teachers, Louis Touton and Andrew McLaughlin, and of course,
the board as a whole. So I had some great teachers, but I didn’t come from a background that was deeply immersed
in ICANN so forth. I mean I was big
user of the Internet and part of it
but not of ICANN itself. How did you get the job? How did I get the job? Well, I’ve often wondered
that myself. Okay. But I was invited to apply. And I suspect that the reason I got the job had a lot to do
with Mike Roberts, who was my predecessor as a CEO. But Mike and I worked together
for years in the university, in the academic community. And Mike knew me well and knew what kinds of things
I’d accomplished. And I think
he was very influential that… You know, I think there was a sense that universities are crazy places with a lot of it vociferous people with very different points of view. And that might have been
a good training ground for ICANN, and to some extent, it was
but not as much. When you came here
at the beginning of your term, you were there for two years. Right. What did you see
as your number one challenge? Well, my number one challenge
when I came in was learning about
all the different communities, all the different interests, the whole ICANN ecosystem was something that I do,
something other parts of it, but I had a lot to learn. But then it became clear at least to me that the biggest challenge was what does it take
to make this work ’cause it appeared to be that it was very fractious at the time,
which is not surprising. I mean, it was incredible how far… The founding parents of ICANN who made it coming in the couple of years
before I came on and the concepts
that they put together. But it still appeared to me
that it was not working and that troubled me very much
during the first year of my tenure. Stuart, that’s interesting.
You say it wasn’t working. The perception now, many people are unfamiliar
with ICANN’s earlier stages. You are one of many
of the founders of ICANN, the initial people who were there
and during its early stages, who seemed to express its future
wasn’t at all guaranteed, and it was very uncertain. Absolutely. The enough entities
and individuals, the criticisms were loud. If you look at the early blogs
and so forth, the criticisms were loud
and continuous. But, you know, in spite of that, there were always people,
good people, the board of ICANN… And the staff, of course, but people out in the community who I think really wanted ICANN
to succeed in spite of its dangers and were willing to
put their shoulder to the wheel
to help make that happen. And I’m talking to people
like Vint Cerf, of course, was chair of the board
when I was a there, wonderful chair, and people on the board
and outside of the board. And then there was always
the question of, “If not ICANN, what?” You know, if you take ICANN away… How are you going to put
humpty dumpty together in a way that would really work? I mean, everybody
who had a special interest would see their role is being… Critical and key
and the most important, but it was… How do you put the community
as a whole together? And there’s nothing else
on the table that I could remember whether it’s any positive proposal of what it should be
other than ICANN except possibly the ITU. In other words,
it’s easy to see the problems… – Exactly.
– Particularly in those early days. But what’s the alternative? Well, exactly, I mean, it’s… The problems were obvious. I mean, we were trying to literally
put Humpty Dumpty together. We had lots of pieces that were not in sync
with each other. And that in a way
was the beauty of ICANN as well is a place
for bringing those pieces together. But it was going to take
a lot of hard work over several years
to make that happen. Was there a sense on your part or among your colleagues at ICANN at that point, “Hey, we’re trying something that has never been done, we’re trying
an international organization where governments have a voice, but they don’t have
final decision-making… Where it’s a bottom up
sort of policy development model”? Was there that sense that we’re trying
something brand new? Absolutely. And it was… Before me, obviously,
I mean, going back to Jon Postel, there was always that sense,
this hadn’t been done before. This needed a different kind
of way of looking at things. It wasn’t so much that… We were going
to run the governments, so we were always conscious
of the fact that we had to be aligned with how governments felt
about ICANN that we couldn’t go
90 degrees orthogonal. So that’s why we had the GAC. And I presume it still has the GAC because it was
such an important influence on us. And we had to work
hard to bring cohesion among all the different groups. One year after your term as CEO
began in February 2002, you posted an open letter
to the Internet community, and I’d like you to elaborate
on a few points that you made in that document. You said, and I quote, “ICANN is overburdened
with process, and at the same time underfunded
and understaffed.” That was right. We expected to do
an enormous amount. And we had a staff of about 19 people at the time trying to deal with this world
of special interest out there as well as operational issues
like the IANA. And we expect to do more
than it could be done with a staff that small. On the other hand,
there was a… What was drummed into me
is don’t expect ICANN to grow because the community is only interested
in keeping it small. – And…
– Really? – Oh, yeah, it was…
– Why? I suspected and want ICANN
to be too powerful at least at that time. There was a question of funding, there’s always
a question of funding, we’re all beggars. We had to… We never knew what ccTLDs
were willing to contribute. Our sources of funding
were always uncertain. ICANN was started off
initially with a loan that we then did pay off,
but there was always… It was always uncertain. So every year, hat in hand, we had to go
to the community and beg for the next year. So yeah, I look at ICANN today, and I’m both impressed and amazed
about how large it’s grown. And that was inconceivable
when I was… At the time, I was a CEO. – That was on no one’s radar.
– No one’s radar. No. Well, maybe I can’t answer
for everybody, but that was my impression. You also said in this open letter
to the community that you had done a year
after you had started. And let me quote directly, “ICANN in its current form has not become
the effective steward of the global Internet’s naming and address allocation systems as conceived by its founders. Perhaps, even more importantly, the passage of time
has not increased the confidence that it can meet its original expectations
and hopes.” That sounds pretty dire. Well, it seemed pretty dire
at the time. I don’t remember the exact details of what led me to that conclusion. But I do remember that… Both from discussions
within the staff… And discussions outside… It was far from clear
that ICANN could survive in its present mode of operation. One of the things that I felt needed to be done was to find a way to bring in the community
into the decision process of what ICANN should be. I put that document out, and of course, that document
had a lot of internal discussion with the staff and certain members
of the board. One of the main purposes
was to stir things up, was to get an important
dialogue going because otherwise
it was always kind of uncertain about what ICANN should be,
what it should do. It’s going to be effective. Then… ICANN needs some cement between its building blocks that would help it really survive
into the future. ICANN has always… Seemed to have
since its earliest days that sort of always trying
to define itself and its relationship
with governments, generally the US government
specifically. You sort of touched on that point
in your letter. You said,
“ICANN is at a crossroads, the process
of relocating functions from the US government
to ICANN is stalled. I believe that ICANN’s ability
to make further progress is blocked
by its structural weakness. To put it bluntly on its present course, ICANN cannot accomplish
its assigned mission. A new path, a new
and reform structure is required.” What came back at you after you wrote those words? Well, it was first discussed
with the board. And the board was very… Most of the board
at least was very supportive. Certain of the constituencies… As expected and in fact welcomed, had their own vocal opinions. And what was put out
was a straw-man. It wasn’t saying
this is what it should be. It was a straw-man to say, use this as a starting point
to discuss and find out what ICANN should be. Some of the organizations took it
as a final blueprint. And it was probably a failure
on my part that I didn’t make it clear that it was a straw-man tended to provoke discussion not a final answer. So you were actually trying
to poke people into aggressive
and detailed conversation. Yeah, yeah. Just having discussions on blogs
or in rooms and in private rooms and writing memos
wasn’t going to do it. It needed to be
a very open discussion. And subsequently,
the board took on the challenge. Alejandro Pisanty did a brilliant job of chairing
a board committee to help bring that constituency
involvement together and to help define what ICANN
should be going forward. Stuart, what was the toughest part
of your job at that time? Well, the toughest part,
of course, was… I mean,
there were two toughest parts. The travel was tough. People think of travel as being this
great big wonderful thing. But as far as the job
was concerned, it was trying to find a path to bring constituencies together… And putting the interests
of the Internet as a whole ahead
of parochial interest. What do you mean? Well, you’re asking me
to go back 18 years. Right. Right, right. Well, not 18. I guess what I’m asking you is… Are you saying everybody had a self-interest, but there was not an interest
about ICANN itself? It was varied. As I mentioned earlier, with some people, I’ll call them the royalty
of the Internet, did have the interest
in putting the Internet first and accepting that ICANN had an important role
to play in that. But there were
enough noise makers who… I don’t want to accuse them
of not putting the Internet first, they had their own view. And they probably should of what constituted… Putting the Internet first but that view tended to reflect
their own interests more than it did, understanding that
there was a much broader set of constituencies held there than just… What they saw. And it sounds like in doing the background when I was researching
for this interview, it sounds like
your correspond, your letter, your open letter
had the desired effect. It sounds like it did,
it was successful. It’s so prompting. It’s over provoked reaction
and some very strong reactions. And I think… People thought
at the time that maybe I didn’t want
those strong reactions. In fact, that were exactly
what was wanted ’cause it created discussions that need to be aired
in order to bring… To create a path going forward. Let’s go there for just a minute. Talk to me about
the so-called program of reform that followed your letter. And I don’t care
about the exact details, but where did that want
to take the organization? Well, I wanted
to take the organizations where I had a firmer foundation
moving forward. The details of what happened… Some of the recommendations, I think or statements
in the straw document were adopted. I mean, I know I personally felt that there need to be a clear role for the ccTLDs which were part of that time what’s now the GNSO and the ccTLD, and so part
of a single organization. And its input
was not actually dominated by the generic domain hold registries. I felt strongly that the ccNSO, it was more than a straw-man… Needed to have
its own voice independently, get access to the board with its all recommendations because their needs and their role in relation to ICANN was very different
than that of the GNS, generic domain name registries. And after that point that had not been a consideration? – No.
– No. Well, when it was considered, I don’t know,
it wasn’t implemented. And in fact… The concept came up right
on this… Right out here at this patio, I invited some
of the ccTLD folks out here, Theresa Swinehart came out. And we had some
free ranging discussions about what should it look like and then help put it together. – And that was its birth.
– That was its birth. Yes. So those are serious questions, as well as what should be the future
of the At-Large community. Carl Bildt, the former
prime minister of Sweden, had kindly chaired a committee to make recommendations as to how the rest
of the Internet community, the users, and everyone out there
should be involved, and came up
with some recommendations. And there are serious questions about should we construct
voting constituents? They can elect At-Large members
to be part of ICANN. And it was an impossible problem. And so we made some recommendations of putting
an advisory committee together instead of NSO… And that was one of the things
that came out as well. It was felt a need
to have routes into ICANN and into the board
for individuals or groups who felt they had been heard. And we put forward
this Ombudsman program as well to help make that happen. So that was the beginning
of ICANNs Ombudsman program? I believe so.
Yes, it was as I recall. Yeah. Stuart, in your keys for reform
you called for… And this quite surprised me. You called for more
direct governmental involvement with a third of ICANN Board members named by the GAC or governments. That kind of surprised me
when I read that. That surprises me that I said that. And I think what was in my mind
going back was, again, I wanted to provoke. There needed to be
a clear understanding of what the role of governments was going to be
or should be going forward. And I think I felt that the… Louis and some
of the rest of us felt, the best way to get this answer was to put something
extreme out there and let the chips fall,
let it sort itself out. It sounds like a lot
of what you were involved with was trying to prompt aggressive conversation ideas,
push things along. Exactly. Get them in the open,
get them discussed. Yeah, I mean… I don’t want to back off entirely, the straw-man was put together
with some sense of things that needed to be at least examined
and maybe even happen. But it wasn’t intended to be
a final document and final answer. What was the… Most rewarding part of your term? Oh, working
with some fantastic people. I mean, it was… So good to work with people
from all around the world and staff who were dedicated
to making not just ICANN work but making the Internet work
the way it should. I mean… It sounds pretty idealistic. Well, it was. I mean, you had
so many communities involved with the technical side
to the business side, to the government side,
to the user side, so many stakeholders. But what was so rewarding was seeing this kind
of passionate interest in the Internet
and it being successful. Yeah, I mean, rightly so I had financial interest involved. We’re good.
That’s part of the way it works. We need that part… Well, user’s part
where technical people who put their life into designing
the underpinnings of the Internet, making sure that
we’re running an open Internet that was going to be available to the community
as a whole. So that was the most
rewarding experience, and it’s just seeing
so many people working with so many people who are absolutely dedicated
to the future of the Internet. Was there ever a time during your term when you thought this thing, this ICANN experiment,
it’s not going to work? Because of the kinds of people
I just mentioned, I never thought
it was not going to work. I always thought
it had a very difficult road. And I thought the notion,
I don’t rely over voices, but I felt at the time
that the notion of the… Ultimate control moving
from the US government, ICANN and the community as a whole was going to take a lot longer than I think people who are hoping. And in fact, if I have
to be quite honest, in those early days, there was some benefit
to the US government having the role that it did. It sort of protected ICANN
from some things that should not have happened. The model of ICANN, this Ira Magaziner who was the… Right, he was… In a sense, when I interviewed him, I said, in a sense, you could be considered that… The way Vint is considered
the father of the Internet, you might well be considered
the father of ICANN. Sounds like you agree. Absolutely. Yeah. It was one of the good things
to come out of that administration and do credit
to the Bush administration. You know, well,
not just the administration but the Senate and the Congress, there was always senators
and congressmen who would like to posture and a good way to posture
was to attack ICANN, but the reality was that no one wanted ICANN
to fail in the US government. I don’t say no one
but no one we came in contact with. Was there a viable threat
from the UN, generally ITU? It was always viable. Because… In the end
if the government’s got together and the US government agreed… They could have
taken over responsibility. I used to ask… “How could you give responsibility
to the Internet to an organization that can’t put a delete button
on the telephone? So I have to redial
the whole number if I make a mistake.” But, you know,
they’re very capable organization. They did good work and so forth. But I never felt, and I don’t think anyone
intimately involved with the Internet really felt that… They were right for this kind of
emerging Internet to the way it was rather than the kind of
almost top-down nature of the telephone community. I’m interested
in your personal feeling. Do you feel like you helped… Build and create something that had never been seen before or something
that was totally unique that to a large degree helped shape the future of the Internet or was this is just a two-year gig
for you? It was not a two-year gig
for me. There are a lot better
two-year gigs I could have chosen. They were far less demanding
and strenuous and less straight on my health. Now I really hope
I can do something useful… Within the community
to help catalyze change that was needed. And I’ll leave it
to others to judge as to whether achieve that. But let me make it
perfectly clear. Nothing and against done
in ICANN or anywhere is because the CEO of ICANN
wants it to happen. It takes a village to build ICANN and to make its role
to help fulfill its role. Let’s deal with that for a second. That’s an important point. In most traditional organizations, the CEO is the final word
not in ICANN. Not in ICANN. No. Not at all. And of course, the board
plays a very strong role, and of course, the community
plays a huge role. ICANN is not
a typical top-down organization. I remember Vint and I had a meeting with the then secretary of commerce
and President Bush, and I don’t remember his name. And it was clear… He came from a business background, I mean, very successful,
was very capable individual. It was clear,
he didn’t understand the Internet and why it was something
very different than… Organizations that
he’d been involved with before, it was not a top-down organization. He did make one comment
that I think he was right. And I remember at the time,
he said, “You know, you’re too small to accomplish
anything useful. And you need to be much larger to make an imprint
and make a difference. Which flies in the face
of the conventional wisdom you laid out earlier. That was being put on us
at the time. But he was right. And one of the good things
is to see that ICANN has grown to where it can be… Effective in the way that it was originally conceived
to be. You said you’ll leave it up to others to judge what you accomplished. Sure. I’m going to throw that back at you and ask you to give me
a self-appraisal. Do you feel good about what you were able
to accomplish during that two-year stint? I do. When I came in, I’d already retired
for the second time. And… I was very surprised that I was
even pulled back into the saddle. But one of the things
went through my mind is that, “Stuart, you’re old enough,
you’re in a position, your career doesn’t matter, you can just do
whatever you think is right, help make things happen. And if it works, fine. The community thing,
it works fine. If they don’t, ‘Hey, I got a nice place
to retire too so no big deal.'” So when I left, I felt that I had accomplished
something useful, mostly about the change in ICANN and there are other things
that went on all the way through… Besides this big revolutionary
organization. And in two years, I felt I accomplished
what I could accomplish. When you left as CEO and Paul Twomey was coming in
as your successor… Did you give him
any special advice or counsel? Well, I don’t remember,
you should ask him that. What I do remember was I was so happy
that Paul my successor, Paul was chair at the GAC during my term, he did it brilliantly. And I felt that… ICANN needed someone who had more experience
in understanding of governments, and I did in order to move forward
to the next step. And I was so happy to see Paul
come in and take over. And he did a great job. I may have been the catalyst
in the reorganization of ICANN. He was among many other things, the catalyst in developing
a funding model for ICANN that enabled it to grow
to accomplish its objectives. Is it overly simplistic to ask you
for your single best memory of your term
in that two-year period? Oh! This may be different
than you expect. It’s where I was on 9/11. ICANN had held a meeting
in Montevideo in Uruguay. On the 10th of September
was the board meeting. That evening… Theresa Swinehart and I… Were flying to Santiago in Chile… And to meet with… The director, Patricio Poblete
and his associates. And we flew the flight that the… I think it was a rugby team, Uruguayan rugby team were flown that ended up stranded
in the Andes. So it’s some trepidation. So on the flight over, I had a tooth fallout
or cap of the tooth fallout, maybe the altitude. So when we landed I asked Patricio, I said, “Is there a dentist that you recommend around here?” So, he said,
“Sure, we’ll go in the morning.” So in the morning
we went to this dentist that he recommended. And I was sitting in the chair
and his cell phone rang… And he’s talking apparently
to his wife and she was saying
what was happening on 9/11. He started telling,
and I said… I jumped out of my chair. And his wife kept ringing
for the next half hour updating, and I was going nuts not knowing. It turned out that he and his wife
have been scheduled to fly to New York that evening and was scheduled
to have dinner in the World Trade Center
the restaurant at the top. And of course, they…
But I was going nuts. So then we were stranded in Chile,
in Santiago for the next week, which is a lovely place
to be stranded. Because their traffic
had been suspended. Suspended. Yes. And I remember the newspapers
made hay out and the fact that I was there and they called, they called me “el jefe de Internet”… A head of the Internet. I said, “Come on,
there’s no head of the Internet.” No, they had been in that way. So that’s my most vivid memory. Okay. Since you mentioned 9/11, Becky Burr, who is a
current ICANN Board member said, and you and I
talked about this prior to the cameras rolling. Becky Burr had said
that 9/11 marked a major change and the relationship of ICANN
and the US government. When we were talking
about this earlier, you said you felt
there was almost a bigger change between administrations,
US presidential administrations? Well, there was change. But I think the change… Well, there are probably
two changes. I mean, one was the change working
with a different administration although I number the staff with,
it’s still the same. And I mentioned the secretary
of commerce meeting, for example… I don’t think that would have gone
the same way with the previous administration. But maybe the security focus
certainly changed. There was a lot of emphasis on when you’re going
to implement DNSSEC and getting involved
with homeland security, and they’re concerned
about security, understandable concern
about security. But I will put the change more overall I think to the change
of administration. Okay. Stuart Lynn, ICANN’s second CEO
from 2001 to 2003, thank you again
for taking the time to talk to us. My pleasure.
Thank you for coming out.

Robin Kshlerin