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New gTLD program thrown into chaos as ICANN loses .africa case

Kevin Murphy, July 11, 2015, 11:54:49 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN has been opened up to a world of hurt after an independent panel of judges ruled that the organization broke its own bylaws when it kicked DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid out of the new gTLD program.

The what-the-fuck ruling cuts to the very heart of how ICANN deals with advice from its Governmental Advisory Committee, which comes out of the case looking like a loose canon with far too much power to sway the ICANN board.

Witness testimony published in the panel’s opinion sheds humiliating light on the GAC’s self-defeating habit of supplying ICANN with deliberately vague advice, a practice described by its former chair under oath as “creative ambiguity”.

The ruling does not, however, give DCA a serious shot at winning the .africa gTLD, which has already been contracted to rival ZA Central Registry. More delay is, however, inevitable.

The Independent Review Panel said:

the Panel is of the unanimous view that certain actions and inactions of the ICANN Board (as described below) with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.

It also unanimously ruled that ICANN should un-reject DCA’s application and allow it to continue through the application process and that ICANN should bear the full $600,000+ cost of the IRP, not including DCA’s legal fees.

It’s an important ruling, especially coming as ICANN seeks to extricate itself from US government oversight, because it implicitly calls on ICANN’s board to treat GAC advice with much less deference.

What’s the backstory?

DCA and ZACR have competing applications for .africa, which is a protected geographic string.

Under new gTLD program rules, only an applicant with support from over 60% of African national governments can be approved. ZACR’s support far exceeds this threshold, whereas DCA enjoys little to no government support at all.

The ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee rejected the DCA bid in June 2013, before its Initial Evaluation (which includes the Geographic Names Review) had been completed, based on the GAC’s April 2013 Beijing communique advice.

That advice invoked the GAC’s controversial (and vaguely worded) powers to recommend against approval of any application for any reason, as enshrined in the Applicant Guidebook.

A subsequent Request for Reconsideration (IRP lite) filed by DCA was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.

An IRP is the last avenue community members have to challenge ICANN’s actions or inaction without resorting to the courts.

DCA filed its IRP complaint in October 2013 and amended it in January 2014, claiming ICANN broke its own bylaws by rejecting the DCA application based on GAC advice.

Despite the IRP, ICANN went ahead and signed a Registry Agreement with rival ZACR in the May and was just days away from delegating .africa when the IRP panel ordered the process frozen.

The case dragged on, partly because one of the original three-person panel died and had to be replaced, the delay causing much consternation among African GAC members.

What did the IRP panel finally rule?

Yesterday’s ruling avoided deciding on or even commenting on any of DCA’s crazy conspiracy theories, instead limiting itself to the question of whether ICANN’s board and committees acted with bylaws-mandated transparency, fairness and neutrality.

It found that the GAC itself did not act according to these principles when it issued its Beijing advice against DCA.

It found that ICANN did not “conduct adequate diligence” when it accepted the advice, nor did the BGC or NGPC when they were processing the RfR.

In light of the clear “Transparency” obligation provisions found in ICANN’s Bylaws, the Panel would have expected the ICANN Board to, at a minimum, investigate the matter further before rejecting DCA Trust’s application.

ICANN did not do that, the panel decided, so it broke its bylaws.

both the actions and inactions of the Board with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were not procedures designed to insure the fairness required… and are therefore inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.

Does this mean DCA gets .africa?

No. The IRP panel ruled that DCA’s application must re-enter the application process, presumably at the point it exited it.

DCA’s application never had a final Initial Evaluation result issued. If it were to re-enter IE today, it would certainly be failed by the Geographic Names Panel because it lacks the requisite support of 60% of African governments.

DCA wanted the panel to rule that it should have 18 months to try to secure the needed support, but the panel refused to do so.

The application is still as good as dead, but ICANN will need to go through the motions to actually bury it.

In the meantime, ZACR’s delayed delegation of .africa is to remain on hold.

How embarrassing is this for the GAC?

Hugely. Verbal testimony from Heather Dryden, who was GAC chair at the time of the Beijing meeting, highlights what I’ve been saying for years: GAC advice is regularly so vaguely written as to be useless, inconsistent, or even harmful.

Dryden told the panel at one point: “In our business, we talk about creative ambiguity. We leave things unclear so we don’t have conflict.”

The IRP panel took a dim view of Dryden’s testimony, writing that she “acknowledged during the hearing, the GAC did not act with transparency or in a manner designed to insure fairness.”

The ruling quotes large chunks of text from the hearing, during which Dryden was grilled about the GAC’s rationale for issuing a consensus recommendation against DCA.

Dryden responded by essentially saying that the GAC did not discuss a rationale, and that there was “deference” to the governments proposing consensus objections in that regard.

ARBITRATOR KESSEDJIAN: So, basically, you’re telling us that the GAC takes a decision to object to an applicant, and no reasons, no rationale, no discussion of the concepts that are in the rules?

[DRYDEN]: I’m telling you the GAC did not provide a rationale. And that was not a requirement for issuing a GAC —

HONORABLE JUDGE CAHILL: But you also want to check to see if the countries are following the right — following the rules, if there are reasons for rejecting this or it falls within the three things that my colleague’s talking about.

[DRYDEN]: The practice among governments is that governments can express their view, whatever it may be. And so there’s a deference to that. That’s certainly the case here as well.

This and other quoted sections of the hearing depict the GAC as a body that deliberately avoids substantive discussions and deliberately provides unclear advice to ICANN, in order to avoid offending its members.

Does this mean all GAC advice on new gTLDs is open to appeal now?

Maybe. There are numerous instances of the ICANN board accepting GAC advice without demanding an explanation from the GAC.

At a bare minimum, the applicant for .gcc, which was rejected in the same breath as .africa, now seems to have a case to appeal the decision. The applicant for .thai is in a very similar situation.

Amazon’s lawyers will no doubt also be poring over yesterday’s decision closely; its .amazon bid was also killed off by GAC advice.

But in the case of .amazon, it would be hard to argue it was a .africa-style summary execution. ICANN took extensive advice and delayed its decision for a long time before killing off that application.

The ruling essentially calls the part of the Applicant Guidebook that gives the GAC its strong advisory powers over new gTLD applications into question.

Literally hundreds of new gTLD applications were affected by the Beijing communique.

Anything else of note?

Yes.

First, large parts of the decision have been redacted. The redactions mostly appear to relate to sensitive documents disclosed between the parties (reading between the lines, I think some of them related to DCA’s purported support from a certain African government) that the panel ruled should remain private last September.

Second, the decision inexplicably quotes the ICANN bylaws text “MISSION AND CORE VALUES” as “MISSION AND CORE (Council of Registrars) VALUES”, in what appears to be a weird search-and-replace error by an unknown party. CORE (Council of Registrars) is of course a registry back-end provider with apparently no involvement in .africa whatsoever.

Third, it seems I’ve been elected Pope. I hereby select “Dave” as my Papal name and will commence my program of donating all Church assets to the poor forthwith.

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Comments (7)

  1. Sorry, Kevin: even though “Pope Dave” is a jolly fine regnal name, you missed the application window.

    It’s Pope Mike now.

    See https://www.facebook.com/pages/Pope-Mike/264601123672312?fref=ts

    And I presume that “loose can(n)on” typo was nothing more than a Freudian slip . . .

  2. Samit says:

    At least you didn’t offer to eat your socks should DCA win. 😉

  3. Martin Otsieno says:

    Is this the blogger that said years on and on that “DCA does not have a case” 100x and now telling us the same????

    Should we treat Murphy’s story telling seriously at all?

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      DCA still does not have a case for prevailing in the .africa contention set. ICANN made a plethora of mistakes that ultimately denied DCA’s right to be forgotten, but that will come in time.

  4. Katie Schroder says:

    If ICANN follows the panel’s advice they will have to tell all the governments of the world that they do not have the right to object to a domain and it will open the floodgates for legal challenges from every applicant who lost… Nope, sorry that just isn’t going to happen.

    $400k in costs to run the IRP!!!??? That’s some really good money for doing close nothing for 2 years. I wonder how much DCA spent?

    • Rubens Kuhl says:

      All new gTLD applicants waived their rights to sue in courts, which is very likely to be enforceable under FAA (Federal Arbitration Act) provided IRP counts as arbitration. ICANN rules makes that a bit doubtful, but panels like the DCA one that ignored them favoring the Bylaws and noting that their decisions are binding can actually favor such interpretation.

      BTW, FAA allows DCA 1 year to enter the result in a court to make it enforceable…

  5. Sam Lanfranco says:

    There is a proliferation of alternative rapid arbitration and dispute resolution processes at the moment, not just within ICANN but within the various multilateral treaties being crafted around the globe. The original idea was to simplify, speed up, and reduce the costs of dispute resolution by avoiding recourse to formal legal systems. As attractive as this sounds in principle it is fraught with grave risks.

    Those with complaints can “game the system” by selecting where to lodge their dispute. The resolution or arbitration process does not appear to be building something like “case law” where decisions are reviewed and become precedent for subsequent rulings. Those who adjudicate the process come with diverse backgrounds and skills. Decisions can supersede public interest national law. Gross imbalances in the resources of the complainant and the defendant can impact the fairness of the process.

    At best all these processes have to be seen as an attempt at an alternative legal system that has yet to prove itself, and one that is supported by powerful self-interested private parties.

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