ICANN’s 43rd public meeting, held in Costa Rica last week, was a relatively low-drama affair, with one small exception: the predicted death of ICANN’s Generic Names Supporting Organization.
The drama went down at the GNSO Council’s meeting last Wednesday – or “the day that everyone is going to remember as the downfall of the current GNSO Council” as vice-chair Jeff Neuman put it.
It had all the elements one might expect from an ICANN showdown: obscure rules of engagement, government meddling, special interests, delayed deadlines, whole oceans of acronym soup, commercial and non-commercial interests facing off against each other…
…and it was ultimately utterly, utterly pointless and avoidable.
The GNSO Council – which is responsible for forwarding community policies to ICANN’s board of directors – was asked to vote on a resolution giving special trademark protections to the International Olympic Committee and Red Cross and Red Crescent movements.
The resolution would have made it possible for the IOC/RC/RC organizations to apply for new gTLDs such as .olympic and .redcross while also disallowing confusingly similar strings from delegation.
The motion was created by a Drafting Team on the instruction of the ICANN board of directors, itself responding to a request from a heavily lobbied Governmental Advisory Committee.
The timing of the vote was crucial – the GNSO Council was not set to meet again until April 12, coincidentally the same date that ICANN stops accepting applications for new gTLDs.
If the vote didn’t happen last week, the IOC and Red Cross could have been basically banned from applying for new gTLDs until the second application round, years from now.
Confusingly similar strings would be eligible for delegation in the first round, however, which could mean both organizations would be locked out of the program permanently.
The resolution enjoyed broad support and was set to attract positive votes from every constituency group with the exception of the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group.
While it’s not a unanimous view, they’re also ideologically opposed to the idea that the IOC and Red Cross should get special protection when a cheap way to object to confusing gTLDs already exists.
And the NCSG is far from alone in its concern that the decision to grant special privileges to these groups was a top-down decree from the ICANN board, lobbied for by the GAC.
Rather than simply voting “no”, however, the NCSG decided instead to force a deferral of the vote.
NCSG councilor Rafik Dammak said the resolution was “questionable on the merits and contrary to ICANN’s processes” and said the group had decided it had “no option but to defer this motion at least until the public comment period is closed”.
The GNSO Council has an unwritten but frequently used convention whereby any stakeholder group request to defer a vote until the next meeting is honored by the chair.
Barely a Council meeting goes by without one stakeholder group or another requesting a deferral. Usually, it’s requested to give a constituency group more time to study a proposal.
“The deferral request is intended to give people time to consider motions,” Council chair Stephane Van Gelder told Dammak. “The statement you just read is a statement against the motion itself.”
As Van Gelder noted, the NCSG did not have the usual excuse. Drafting Team chair Jeff Neuman had spent a few weeks prior to Costa Rica making damn sure that every stakeholder group, as well as the ICANN board, knew exactly what was coming down the pike.
As a veteran GNSO wonk, Neuman knew that a Non-Com deferral was likely. Even I predicted the move over a week before the Costa Rica meeting kicked off.
He was a little pissed off anyway. Neuman said:
For us to not be able to vote today is a failure. It’s a failure of the system under the guise of claiming you want more public comment. It’s a convenient excuse but in the end it’s a failure – nothing more, nothing less. This is a slap in the face to the governments that have asked us to decide.
You already know how you’re going to vote, it’s clear the vote is going to be no, so why don’t you stand behind your vote and vote now and vote no. That is what you really should be doing.
I want everyone to remember today – March 14, 2012 – because it this is the day that everyone going to remember as the downfall of the current GNSO Council as we know it and the policy process as we know it. Mark my words, it will happen. The GAC has asked us to act and we have failed to do so.
Neuman noted that the deferral tradition is an unwritten politeness and called for the Council to vote to reject the NCSG’s request – an unprecedented move.
Van Gelder was clearly uncomfortable with the idea, as were others.
NCSG councilor Bill Drake said Neuman’s call for a vote on the deferral was “absolutely astonishing”.
“I never would have imagined I could say ‘well I don’t like this, this annoys me’ and so I’m going to demand we get a vote together and try to penalize a minority group that’s standing alone for some principle,” he said. “If that’s how we going to go about conducting ourselves perhaps this is the end of the Council.”
The Non-Com position also found support from other constituencies.
While Mason Cole of the Registrars Stakeholder Group said he would have voted in favor of the resolution, he said the way the policy was created looked like “a circumvention of the bottom-up policy development process”.
To cut a long story short (too late), after a spirited debate that lasted over an hour Van Gelder honored the NCSG deferral request, saying “something that we’ve always allowed in the past for everyone else should not be overturned in this instance”.
This would have pushed the vote out to the April 12 meeting — the NCSG would have effectively killed off the resolution purely by virtue of the new gTLD program timetable.
Neuman, however, had already invoked another quirk of the GNSO rules of engagement, demanding an emergency Council teleconference to vote on the resolution.
That’s now scheduled for March 26. Assuming the resolution is approved, the ICANN board will have just three days to rubber-stamp it before ICANN’s TLD Application System stops accepting new users.
If the Olympic or Red Cross organizations have any plans to apply for new gTLDs matching their brands, they’re going to have to be very quick.
Frankly, the IOC/RC issue has been a bit of a clusterfuck from beginning to end. This is one of those cases, it seems to me, in which every party involved is wrong.
The GAC was wrong to demand unnecessary special protections for these bodies back in June.
The ICANN board of directors was wrong to overturn established bottom-up policy when it gave the GAC what it wanted at the Singapore meeting.
The ICANN staff implementation that made it into the Applicant Guidebook last September was wrong and full of loopholes.
The Drafting Team was wrong (albeit through no fault of its own) to assume that it was refining established law rather than legislating.
The GNSO Council was wrong to consider a resolution on a policy that was still open for public comment.
The Non-Coms were wrong to abuse the goodwill of the Council by deferring the vote tactically.
There are probably a few typos in this article, too.
But does it spell the end of the GNSO?
I don’t think so. I suspect Neuman’s doomsaying theatrics may have also been somewhat tactical.
The GAC, which wields the hypothetical kill-stick, has yet to say anything about the drama. This may change if the GAC doesn’t get what it wants by the Prague meeting in June, but for now the GNSO is, I believe, safe.