If the GNSO is irrelevant, ICANN itself is at risk [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, December 1, 2012, 22:06:25 (UTC), Domain Policy

The weeks since October’s Toronto ICANN meeting have seen some extraordinary (and, if you care about the multi-stakeholder model, rather worrying), activity.

First, there were the two by-invitation-only meetings organised in November at ICANN CEO Fadi Chehadé’s behest to iron out the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH).

The TMCH is one of the Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) being put in place to protect people with prior rights such as trademarks from the risk of seeing them hijacked as a spate of new gTLDs come online.

The first meeting in Brussels served as a warning sign that policy developed by the many might be renegotiated at the last minute by a few. The follow-up meeting in Los Angeles seemed to confirm this.

Two groups, the Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) and the Business Constituency (BC), met with the CEO to discuss changing the TMCH scheme. And although others were allowed in the room, they were clearly told not to tell the outside world about the details of the discussions.

Chehadé came out of the meeting with a strawman proposal for changes to the TMCH that includes changes suggested by the IPC and the BC. Changes that, depending upon which side of the table you’re sitting on, look either very much like policy changes or harmless implementation tweaks.

Making the GNSO irrelevant

So perhaps ICANN leadership should be given the benefit of the doubt. Clearly Chehadé is trying to balance the (legitimate) needs of the IP community to defend their existing rights with the (necessary) requirement to uphold the multi stakeholder policy development model.

But then the ICANN Board took another swipe at the model.

It decided to provide specific protection for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Red Cross (RC), and other Intergovernmental Organisations (IGOs) in the new gTLD program. This means that gTLD registries will have to add lengthy lists of protected terms to the “exclusion zone” of domain names that cannot be registered in their TLDs.

RPMs and the IOC/RC and IGO processes have all been worked on by the Generic Names Supporting Organisation (GNSO). ICANN’s policy making body for gTLDs groups together all interested parties, from internet users to registries, in a true multi-stakeholder environment.

It is the epitome of the ICANN model: rule-based, hard to understand, at times slow or indecisive, so reliant on pro-bono volunteer commitment that crucial details are sometimes overlooked… But ultimately fair: everyone has a say in the final decision, not just those with the most money or the loudest voice.

The original new gTLD program policy came from the GNSO. The program’s RPMs were then worked on for months by GNSO groups. The GNSO currently has a group working on the IOC/RC issue and is starting work on IGO policy development.

But neither Chehadé, in the TMCH situation, or the Board with the IOC/RC and IGO protections, can be bothered to wait.

So they’ve waded in, making what look very much like top-down decisions, and defending them with a soupcon of hypocrisy by saying it’s for the common good. Yet on the very day the GNSO Chair was writing to the Board to provide an update on the GNSO’s IOC/RC/IGO related work, the Board’s new gTLD committee was passing resolutions side-stepping that work.

The next day, on November 27, 2012, new gTLD committee Chair Cherine Chalaby wrote:

The Committee’s 26 November 2012 resolution is consistent with its 13 September 2012 resolution and approves temporary restrictions in the first round of new gTLDs for registration of RCRC and IOC names at the second level which will be in place until such a time as a policy is adopted that may required further action on the part of the Board.

Continuing on the same line, Chalaby added:

The second resolution provides for interim protection of names which qualify for .int registration and, for IGOs which request such special protection from ICANN by 28 February 2013. (…) The Committee adopted both resolutions at this time in deference to geopolitical concerns and specific GAC advice, to reassure the impacted stakeholders in the community, acknowledge and encourage the continuing work of the GNSO Council, and take an action consistent with its 13 September 2012 resolution.

A soothing “sleep on” message to both the community and the GNSO that the bottom-up policy development process is safe and sound, as long as no-one minds ICANN leadership cutting across it and making the crucial decisions.

Red alert!

Chehadé’s drive to get personally involved and help solve issues is paved with good intentions. In the real world, i.e. the one most of us live and work in, a hands-on approach by the boss generally has few downsides. But in the ICANN microverse, it is fraught with danger.

So is the Board deciding that it knows better than its community and cannot afford to wait for them to “get it”?

These latest episodes should have alarm bells ringing on the executive floor of ICANN Towers.

ICANN only works if it is truly about all interested parties getting together and working through due process to reach consensus decisions. Yes, this process is sometimes lengthy and extremely frustrating. But it is what sets ICANN apart from other governance organisations and make it so well suited to the internet’s warp-speed evolution.

Turn your back on it, act like there are valid circumstances which call for this ideology to be pushed aside, and you may as well hand the technical coordination of the internet’s naming and numbering system to the UN. Simple as that.

This is a guest post written by Stéphane Van Gelder, strategy director for NetNames. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

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