Kathy Brown’s Leaving; Can the Internet Society Now Become Global, Independent, Democratic & Transparent?

Kathy Brown has announced her coming resignation as CEO of the Internet Society. It’s her decision. She has strong support, continues to be one of the ablest policy advocates in D.C., and has the energy to work very hard. I’ve known her for many years to be one of the most decent executives in D.C. For the Internet Society, she brought the Internet Governance Forum back from a near-death moment to be a vibrant forum for discussing Internet issues.  (See below for Ms. Brown’s view.) 

Kudos are pouring in. Vint Cerf writes, “I would highlight Kathy’s astute hiring of talent during her term as CEO and her expansion of the role of ISOC as a supplier of factual data and a defender of the Internet’s openness. ISOC was very prominent in the WCIT controversies as a defender of the Internet and in the IANA transition that was by no means a slam dunk. There were real challenges to this change from extremely powerful interests in the US Congress and in international settings. Kathy’s most recent contributions came at the IGF in Geneva where she was her usual candid self, laying out real challenges and real goals to guide attendees into the future. She brought to ISOC a pragmatic optimism which I hope will continue under new leadership.” 

Internet pioneer Steve Crocker adds, “As past chairman of ICANN, I think Kathy’s strong support of ICANN during our transition period should definitely be included.  This took significant energy and leadership and represented a high point for ISOC, for ICANN and for the entire Internet community.” Nadira Alaraj emails, “Kathy’s leadership is the approval of the Chapters Advisory Council.” Angie Contreras applauds, “The creation of two very important groups: the Special Interest Group of Youngsters better known as the Youth Observatory and the Special Interest Group of Women.” 

Renata Aquino Ribeiro remembers a personal touch. “I’m very new in all this internet governance international world. 
In 2015, I went to the Public Forum in Marrakesh to discuss ICANN and gender balance, my 2nd ICANN meeting. Hours later I was outside the venue and she found me and complimented me for speaking out and encouraged me to go on in I* organizations. It was very timely and I went on to be very active. Gratitude always.”

I solicited these opinions and put them first, and quote Brown’s comments in full below. My analysis is that ISOC under Brown does not live up to its claims to be Global, Independent, Multistakeholder/Democratic, Open, & Transparent. Since the (mostly closed) process of choosing her successor has begun, I think the community needs to face this inconvenient truth.


Joining the Internet Society, Ms. Brown was presented an almost insolvable task. ISOC sought to influence one of the most difficult policy disputes of our time: the split over the future control of the Internet that was dividing the world along North/South, East/West, rich/poor lines. As we seek a successor, we must find a better role for ISOC.

At the same time, ISOC promises transparent, bottom-up, “multistakeholder” governance. Much of the membership, like much of the world, is opposed to continued Internet control by the U.S. and allies; the founders of ISOC, including Vint, are strongly dedicated to the present system, which they, and Kathy, believe is working well.

The Internet was built and managed by the U.S. and other developed countries; the majority of Internet users are now in the rest of the world. The ROW, led by the BRICS, has been demanding a stronger role in key decisions. They believe, correctly, that many policies favored the countries in power.

The U.S. is determined to protect the primary security goals of the U.S., including the ability of the National Security Administration to do what they do so well. The dispute blew up at the ITU WCIT in Dubai; the United States “walked out,” followed by our allies.  I went, inspired by Vint Cerf’s call to support the open Internet. I was the only reporter there for the entire three weeks and had a chance to speak with almost all the principals.

What I heard from people like Larry Strickling, lead of the U.S. delegation, convinced me the open Internet was not the primary issue. While I believe Cerf and Brown were motivated by a belief in human rights, the 14 members of the U.S. delegation from three-letter agencies (NSA, CIA, HSA, DOD) were not there to protect freedom of speech.

Strickling made the nature of the dispute clear. When I asked why the U.S. was fighting so hard on trivial issues, Larry looked at me and asked, “Dave, do you want Russia and China to rule the Internet?” My answer, I realized later, should have been, “Of course they should have a role. The system is unsustainable if half the Internet users know they are excluded.”

ISOC sees it otherwise. I can not think of one issue on which ISOC has opposed the U.S. position from 2012 through 2016. The U.S. is not always right, especially when so many of our policies protect American corporate interests.

My prediction was right. The BRICS, blocked at the ITU, are setting up a strong, alternative system, including making 40% of the contributions to 3GPP, the wireless group that is the key standards body. Nothing can be approved there without Chinese concurrence. Tim Cook of Apple kowtowed to China at the Wuzhan World Internet Conference, joined by Sundar Pichai of Google. I have more evidence from the BRICS meeting and the Belt and Road. Putin has started the process for a complete alternate root.

I see the result of these short-sighted policies is that the U.S. has much less say in the major decisions about the Internet, Internet commerce, and Internet taxes. The Chinese and Russians at WCIT were mostly concerned with the Internet in their own countries and I believe were happy to compromise on everything else. Blocked at ITU and ICANN, they feel they must build their own. 


Here’s Brown’s point of view, as she writes it. 

While I may or may not “retire” :-)),I remain on the job executing against the Board approved Action Plan for 2018 https://www.internetsociety.org/action-plan/2018/.

For accuracy, I gave notice to the Board that I would not seek to renew my contract at the end of its term in December, 2018. I will remain in place until the Board selects a new CEO, likely later this year.

Two thoughts for you: in anticipation of a number of possible scenarios for the global Internet, ISOC interviewed hundreds of our community members on their aspirations and concerns about the future over an 18 month period last year.  In the 2017 Global Internet Report, https://future.internetsociety.org/, we lay out the paths to our digital future and discuss the choices that are before us to shape that future.  This report provides a roadmap to the issues that our community says are important and offers some recommendations on how to achieve the Internet we want.  I see this as one of the most important pieces of work we have done and think it can provide a lot of data for what could/should happen next at ISOC.

Finally, I appreciate and share your concerns about focusing on the emerging digital economies for development and use of the Internet.  I believe that ISOC has made major strides in our regional work in Africa, Latin America, Asia and, recently, the Middle East. In areas of capacity building, policy, and technology acquisition, progress is being made. Raul can point you to some of the extraordinary work of regional staff, chapters and partners in furthering an Internet for everyone.  The Beyond the Net grant program has been especially effective in funding community projects that have made a significant impact.  Of course, there is much work to be done. The 2018 Plan provides for a further focus on regional resources and activities and continuing integration with our global policy agenda.

Readers can and should check primary sources to see if you agree.


ISOC leaders make eloquent speeches about how organizations like ITU should be “multistakeholder,” open, and transparent. As many have noted, we should first apply those standards to ourselves.

Global, Independent, Democratic, Open, & Transparent? These are presented as primary goals but were not realized by the CEO. This should change. As everyone involved knows, there has been a North-South division in Internet policy. I can’t recall a single act between 2012 and 2016 that supported a “South” position opposed by the U.S.

Global: Easily half the Internet is essentially not represented within ISOC, which claims to be “global.” There are no chapters – or board representation – from China, 1/3rd of the Internet. Many have asked to change that. I called for a “Nixon goes to China” gesture by Brown. After years of discussion, the situation has not improved.

All five of ISOC’s official policy people are from the U.S. or Europe, with views similar to their governments. Update – Checking again, I see we have added an African. End update. None of the other senior ISOC people seemed to be in disagreement with the U.S. policies, at least in public, from 2012-2016. 

We misrepresented ICANN and IANA as transferring authority to a global body. 14 out of 18 ICANN board members are from the U.S. and Europe; I believe the remaining four have similar opinions. ICANN has never had a board member from mainland China, despite the CEO promising them “a seat at the table.” The last two additions to the board were from the U.S. At least one served on a U.S. delegation, which required a pledge not to publicly disagree with U.S. positions. (I turned down a place for that reason.)

Perhaps inadvertently, we actively discourage membership by those who disagree with our limited point of view. On our home page, we proclaim “Internet Society chapters are communities of like-minded people.” Emphasis added. I certainly am not “like-minded” with the leadership of the Internet Society; I often, but not always, agree with the Global South on issues opposed by ISOC leadership.

Instead, ISOC should be welcoming all points of view, even those that disagree. Policy lead Marcus Kummar rejected including members on ITU delegations “because they might not support our positions.” A carefully vetted handful now attend, with strong requirements they not deviate from the topdown policy.

Independent Our top policy person comes from the Bush State Department, which strongly objected to civil society and NGOs at ITU. Error: Thanks for the correction  Not from US State.Our new lead in ITU also comes from U.S. State and as far as I know, has supported the U.S. position.  Our top policy person, Sally Wentworth, has sat at the right hand of the U.S. Ambassador and provided strong support. At an early U.S. IGF, 5 out of 6 keynotes were from the U.S. government. An ISOC staffer cut the mike of someone making a reasoned disagreement. 

We took away a travel grant to an international event in Mexico for an Iranian national. We refused to even seek a waiver, although it would almost certainly have been granted if our representative at the right hand of the U.S. Ambassador had asked. We dropped three speakers from our recent chapterthon because the U.S. refused visas, in one case apparently because he was a poor schoolteacher. We called the event a major success.

We have taken many positions that supported our donors. In two cases it was blatant; “I agree, but we are hoping Verizon will support our next event so can’t support this.” “We have to consider our donors before we discuss any U.S. issues at the U.S. IGF.” (The latter on video.)

Since we keep our donors secret, I only have rumors of others.

Democratic/Multistakeholder Our CEO has asserted ISOC is a “bottom-up multistakeholder” organization. Nearly all decisions are actually made top-down by strong executive leadership. Kathy has done a great job getting input on many issues, but decisions continue centralized.  All funding is also controlled from the top down. It’s not clear even the Board has much of a role in most decisions; they scheduled a generous five minutes to discuss the budget, usually the key organizational lever.

While there now is a Chapters Committee, its most important recommendations are generally ignored. A committee worked six months to come up with a proposal for the chapters to allocate the huge sum of 3% of the budget (with fiscal controls) and make some local decisions, such as which policy events to attend. It received unanimous approval from the chapters committee. Initially, there was very strong board support. 

It was completely rejected in a closed meeting led by a senior staffer. Based on comments from board members, I believe staff provided highly inaccurate information that prejudiced the decision. Numerous other requests, such as a minimal chapter role in choosing regional representatives, were rejected out of hand. 

Procedures throughout the organization, including some chapter elections, are totally against any democratic norms. There is even a committee from the chapters “to make ISOC a bottom-up multistakeholder organization,” It isn’t. 

Open The primary communication with the membership, ISOC mailings and the website, are closely controlled by staff. We almost never see disagreement. Even our blogs don’t allow comments.

In five years, I can’t recall any staffer publicly disagreeing with management on policy. (I’m sure I missed things.) That strongly suggests our hiring process is closed to those who do not agree with management.

Transparent We keep secret who our donors are, even when asked. That leaves us open to claims we are astroturf. As our D.C. people know well, hiding your sources of income strongly affects credibility. AT&T & Verizon have long influenced policy through undeclared funding. Google was recently called out by The Guardian, Google spends millions on academic research to influence opinion. The desire for Google funding was widely considered a major factor in the decision of the New America Institute to expel a major division.

I’ve learned things are not simple corruption. Nearly everyone credible in the DC debate generally believes the claims they make (except for lobbyists.) As Brown’s colleague in Verizon advocacy, Eric Rabe, explained to me, “We support our friends.” Paying people to echo Verizon opinion without belief is usually unconvincing. Instead, Verizon would find those who generally shared their opinions and fund them. In D.C., funded people often “framed the issues.” At one university event, 5 of 8 speakers had accepted money from the Bells, which went unmentioned. 

I don’t believe we backed cartel-like pricing at the ITU because we may be funded by Verizon. Nor do I think we opposed preventing collecting taxes because of money from Google. Both positions are consistent with our policy VP’s belief government should be kept out of some activities. 

I do believe it wildly inappropriate we do not disclose our donors. 

We also have a budget that does not make clear where most of our money goes. Millions are simply listed as “communications” or “salaries” without detail on what they cover. Our (large) communications budget clearly is not for influencing the world through media; we get so little coverage one would think our publicity people see their job as keeping ISOC out of the press. I believe we spend a great deal of money “communicating” with our members to promote the organization point of view.


People of good faith, including on the Internet Society Board, should investigate whether the above is true. If so, they need to turn the organization around. 

Folks – I’ve written some very strong things about how the Internet Society is run. I carefully included opposing opinions first. If you disagree, please post freely.

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