Centre for Internet & Society

Alleged perpetrator files counter-complaint with ombudsman’s office after being publicly identified.

The article was published in the Wire on March 24, 2016.

A female researcher associated with the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society has alleged that she was sexually harassed at an ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) public meeting held in Morocco earlier this month, in an incident that highlights a lack of established procedure at the global body responsible for maintaining the technical backbone of the Internet.

According to the woman, who is currently a law student but was representing CIS at the meeting, she was sexually harassed by a participant from the private sector constituency on March 6th at a working session.

“I felt like my space and safety as a young woman in the ICANN community was at stake,” she said.

ICANN-organised events currently do not have a formal redressal system for these type of complaints nor does it have a specific anti-sexual harassment committee to which community members can file an official complaint.

The CIS representative, therefore, has taken up her case with ICANN’s ombudsman office, an office that does not have an explicit mandate to deal with incidents of sexual harassment.

“I currently am unclear as to the exact status of my complaint. The ombudsman office does not have a clear sexual harassment procedure, it has only a standards of behaviour. When I first went to them, they told me nobody has officially complained of sexual harassment since 1998,” she told The Wire.

“I understand the evidential burden that needs to be fulfilled for this [allegation] to be proven. I know it’s difficult to prove this. I just want an enquiry conducted properly and impartially.”

The Centre for Internet and Society released a sharp statement on Monday, pointing out that since the woman was “given no immediate remedy or formal recourse”, she had no choice but to make “the incident publicly known in the interim.”

CIS Executive Director Sunil Abraham pointed out that while the ombudsman office has been in touch with the organisation’s representative, “this administrative process is simply inadequate for rights-violation”.

To that end, CIS has called upon ICANN to “institute a formal redressal system with regard to sexual harassment and institute an anti-sexual harassment committee that is neutral and approachable”.

“Merely having an ombudsman who is a white male, however well intentioned, is inadequate and completely unhelpful to the complainant. The present situation is one where the ombudsman has no effective power and only advises the board ,” the CIS’s statement reads.

ICANN perspective

When asked for a comment, ICANN media representatives pointed The Wire to the written transcript of a public session in which this particular issue of sexual harassment was raised. In that meeting, ICANN board member Markus Kummer specifically condemns “improper conduct of any kind such as harassment” while calling for zero tolerance on such issues within the larger ICANN community.

On the issue of whether ICANN could adopt a broader policy on sexual harassment, Kummer acknowledges that while the organisation’s expected standards of behaviour “could be a bit more specific as regards harassment”, the standards are applicable to “staff and board members and we have to undergo training”.

“Now, we could also make this also available to the community but the board thought it might not be the appropriate way to go about and impose something on the community. It might be more appropriate for the community to come up with these standards…Let me once again assure the community that the board is fully cognizant of the importance of this issue and supports the community in developing standards that may be more explicit in regard of these issues,” Kummer is quoted as saying in the transcript.

Complaint, Counter-Complaint

The incident, however, took a different turn on Tuesday after the ICANN ombudsman wrote to the CIS representative informing her that the investigation had become “very difficult” because she had identified and named the alleged perpetrator in a public social media posting.

“By naming [the alleged perpetrator] before the process was completed, this has meant that the confidentiality of my office has been compromised and his privacy has been compromised. Leaving aside the issue of whether he actually made the comments and behaved as you describe [sic], he is entitled to a fair and impartial investigation,” the ombudsman office’s letter says.

The alleged perpetrator now, according to the letter, has filed a counter-complaint with the ombudsman and has asked the office to undertake an investigation into the female student’s actions in this regard.

“I remind you that his [the perpetrator] initial response on the initial discussion was that he could not recall making the remark. So I sought your comments. I would have liked to take your comments back to him and had some form of conversation. This may still be possible but the force of your complaint is diluted by the problem of procedural fairness by the premature publication of his name,” the letter adds.

Cleaning up

While the CIS representative’s complaint may be the first officially recorded incident at an ICANN meeting, sexual harassment and inappropriate gender bias at numerous technical conferences across the world (ICANN or not) has been a well-documented phenomenon.

In 2012, ICANN ombudsman Chris LaHette was forced to step in after a complaint was lodged regarding the insensitive advertising and promotion surrounding the ICANN 44 meeting in Prague.

While ICANN’s “expected standards of behaviour” – basically a code of conduct – explicitly states that all “members of the ICANN community be treated equally irrespective of nationality or gender..”, there is no official policy that states what aggrieved parties should do after an incident occurs.

Such a policy must be created, CIS points out, and must be “displayed on the ICANN website, at the venue of meetings, and made available in delegate kits”.