ICANN Ombudsman Says Sexual Harassment Claims ‘Not Serious By Any Standard’

New Delhi: ICANN ombudsman Chris LaHette, on Wednesday, released the results of his office’s investigation into an allegation of sexual harassment posed by a Bangalore-based female researcher earlier this month.

The verdict: While LaHette was not able to make a “definite factual finding” – primarily because he says the investigation had become “compromised” after the woman publicly identified her alleged perpetrator – he believes the “matters alleged [in the complaint] cannot be considered serious by any standard”.

The female legal researcher, who is currently a student but was representing the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society at an ICANN public meeting in Morocco, had alleged that she was sexually harassed by a participant from the private sector constituency at working session on March 6th.

She lodged a formal complaint with ICANN’s ombudsman office, which, in the absence of an official anti-sexual harassment committee, looks at issues and complaints of this nature.

According to the ombudsman’s report, the incident purportedly happened when the perpetrator leaned towards the woman, took her identification tag and during a discussion about the food being served at the meeting, told her “you can go make me a cheese sandwich”.

“If in fact the action and statement were made,” LaHette notes, “it may have been a lapse of good manners and and insensitive to gender.” “Such issues need to be taken in proportion, and best practice is not to debate this in a public forum where the issues are not yet clear. I note [name redacted] does not agree with my view,” the ombudsman’s report reads.

Other perspective

When contacted by The Wire, the female researcher said that she had a forwarded a copy of her 14-page statement, which is referenced in the ombudsman report but has not been included in it, to the ICANN board and was hoping to lodge an appeal with the board governance committee.

“I’m catching a lot of flak and people are saying my cause has been diluted. The development of a sexual harassment policy is important and while separate from my case is still connected. What I’d like to stress is that there were no factual inaccuracies with my testimony, as suggested by the ombudsman report, and I certainly do not want any compensation or damages,” she told The Wire.

Procedural unfairness

The ombudsman’s report also takes issue with the fact that the female researcher publicly identified the alleged perpetrator in a public social media post as part of a more general statement on sexual harassment issues that she faced.

According to the report, while LaHette was waiting for the woman to respond to certain queries regarding  the incident, she “chose to [instead] simply publish the details and circulate these widely”. “By this stage, he [the perpetrator] had been named, which seriously compromised any impartial investigation,” the ombudsman notes in the report.

A secondary issue also raised is that while the ombudsman office’s generally tries mediation or shuttle diplomacy to resolve issues, the “publication and naming of the other party makes such steps impractical.”

Lack of procedure at ICANN

This specific case, which could potentially be the first officially recorded sexual harassment complaint at an ICANN meeting, has triggered a  debate within the multistakeholder community over whether the global internet body needs to establish an official sexual harassment policy and institute a diverse sexual harassment committee.

The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS), for instance, issued a strongly worded statement that pointed out how the current ombudsman process for dealing with cases of sexual harassment is “simply inadequate for rights violations”.

“Merely having an ombudsman who is a white male, however well intentioned, is inadequate and completely unhelpful to the complainint.. Periodic gender and sexual harassment training for the ICANN board [must be done] to help them better understand these issues,” the CIS statement reads. 

On the issue of sexual harassment and zero-tolerance, the ombudsman’s office is in complete agreement. While the report notes that “a reference” to treating other community members with “respect and civility” could cover harassment, if the larger ICANN community wishes to adopt a harassment-specific policy, this should be taken up through the organization’s policy development procedure.

Featured image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout