ICANN chair Steve Crocker has denied that outgoing CEO Fadi Chehade has a conflict of interest with the Chinese government, after US Senator Ted Cruz pressed him for more details on Chehade’s extra-curricular activities in the country.
“There’s no money involved, so there’s no conflict of interest involved at all,” Crocker said at a press conference, in response to a DI question, at ICANN 55 in Marrakech today.
I put the question because presidential hopeful Cruz, along with fellow senators James Lankford and Michael Lee, said in a letter last Thursday (pdf) that Chehade has a “confirmed personal conflict of interest” when it comes to the Chinese government.
That appears to be based on his admission, in a letter to Cruz et al last month, that his travel expenses to the World Internet Conference (aka, the Wuzhen Summit), where he’s agreed to be co-chair of an advisory committee after he leaves ICANN, would probably be picked up by the Chinese government.
According to Cruz, Chehade is in the pocket of the Chinese government because he has accepted or will accept flight-plus-hotel expenses to a Chinese conference, which could distract him from his $900,000-a-year ICANN salary.
Cruz’s most recent letter seeks further information about Chehade’s involvement with Wuzhen and the ICANN board’s response when they found out about it.
It appears to be basically an effort to get as much evidence as possible to support the ludicrous Republican claim that the IANA transition process initiated by the Obama administration risks handing control over internet censorship to the Chinese.
This, while some governments are complaining that the community-drafted IANA transition proposals actually weaken the hand of governments.
“There’s much less there than people are making an issue of, so there’s just no problem from our point of view,” Crocker said at the press conference.
“There are several degrees of separation between matters at ICANN and involvement with the Chinese government,” Crocker said. “[Wuzhen is] not controlled by the Chinese government and it’s intended to facilitate bringing in people from all over the world, it’s a matter of inclusion rather than exclusion.”
While Cruz asks quite a lot in his latest letter, one of the questions that leaped out at me claimed that ICANN does not publish the address of its Beijing office on its web site.
All the other local “Engagement Centers” have physical addresses listed, but not the Chinese one, Cruz said.
It turns out he’s correct.
I asked at the press conference why the address was not published on the ICANN web site and whether Cruz was correct to infer that ICANN is based in the same office as CNNIC, the government-controlled .cn ccTLD registry.
Chehade replied: “As I’m sure you’ve read in our press releases when we opened that office, that office was opened with a very clear press release by us and one by CNNIC indicating that our office would be collocated with CNNIC. So there’s nothing new here.”
He thanked Cruz for pointing out the omission on the ICANN web site and said it would be corrected.
He said that it’s ICANN’s habit to collocate engagement centers with local players, and that Beijing was nothing different. ICANN pays CNNIC for the collocation, he said.
Looking at the ICANN press release (pdf) announcing the Beijing office opening, back in 2013, it seems Chehade was incorrect, however. The press release makes no mention of CNNIC hosting the new ICANN engagement center. It does not mention CNNIC at all.
CNNIC did at the time state in its own press release, in a roundabout way, that ICANN Beijing would be sharing its office.
I also asked whether the outcome of the US presidential election would have a direct bearing on whether ICANN is able to execute the IANA transition. Would the transition happen if Cruz gets elected president of the USA in November?
Crocker gamely waffled for a couple of minutes but didn’t confirm what many take as a given: that Obama initiatives such as the IANA transition are likely to be at risk of a scuppering should a Republican, particularly Cruz, enters the White House.
“As an American I have to say this is one of the most interesting and unpredictable presidential election processes we’ve ever seen,” Crocker said, “but as chairman of the board of ICANN I hope it has no relationship at all to a process that was started in principle when ICANN was initiated in 1998.”
ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee is unlikely to provide its full backing to accountability proposals supporting the IANA transition.
In meetings at ICANN 55 in Marrkech over the weekend, a handful of GAC delegates publicly stated that they would block consensus over concerns the proposals reduce government power in ICANN.
The most vocal opposition came from Brazil, but it was backed up by the countries including Peru and Russia.
The proposals currently up for debate would make it harder for the ICANN board to disagree with consensus GAC advice, but it clarifies that non-consensus advice does not carry the same weight.
Currently, the ICANN board can reject GAC advice by a simple majority vote, but doing so kick-starts a bilateral negotiation process where the board and GAC have to try to resolve their differences.
The new accountability proposals would raise the threshold to 60% of the board, and the negotiations would only have to take place if the advice carried the full consensus of the GAC.
Under the GAC’s current operating rules, consensus means no one government formally objected to the advice. The accountability proposals would enshrine that definition in the ICANN bylaws.
The proposal was drafted like this to handle what is known as “Stress Test 18” — a scenario in which the GAC switched its decision-making mechanism to a simple majority vote, enabling it to more easily issue potentially more extreme advice.
Brazil finds the whole idea of Stress Test 18 “insulting”. Its delegate told the GAC yesterday:
We consider Stress Test 18 unacceptable. We have said this from the beginning. We think this contaminates the full proposal. I think there are many positive aspects in the proposal coming forward that we could accept, that we could support… I think this compounds a very ugly picture in which it is very clear that the real intent was to circumvent the possibility of governments having meaningful participation unless there is full consensus among its members.
Brazil was one of nine governments to put its name to a letter (pdf) last month criticizing the post-transition accountability proposals.
The letter points out that the current definition of GAC consensus would allow a single government to block consensus, even in the face of overwhelming support from other governments, simply by formally objecting.
This could lead to GAC “paralysis”, the letter stated.
Indeed, we saw something like this a couple of years ago when the US blocked GAC advice against the .amazon gTLD, before eventually withdrawing its objection.
Once it became clear yesterday that the GAC might not be able to provide full consensus on the accountability proposals, some GAC delegates worried aloud about what kind of message that would send to the rest of the world.
The proposals are inextricably linked to the IANA transition, which would see ICANN management of the DNS root zone become independent from US government oversight for the first time.
Some on the hard right of US politics, such as presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, are convinced that the transition will allow China to start censoring the internet.
Amazon has appealed the rejection of its proposed .amazon new gTLD.
The company this week told ICANN that it has invoked the Independent Review Process, after 18 months of informal negotiations proved fruitless.
Amazon’s .amazon application was controversially rejected by ICANN in May 2014, due to advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee.
The GAC, by a consensus, had told ICANN that .amazon should be rejected.
South American nations that share the Amazonia region of the continent had said the string was “geographic” and should therefore be unavailable to the US-based company.
The word “Amazon” is not protected by ICANN’s geographic string rules, because “Amazon” is not the name of a region, and was only rejected due to governmental interference.
The GAC’s decision came only after the US, which had been preventing consensus in order to protect one of its biggest native internet companies, decided to step aside.
Amazon has been in ICANN’s Cooperative Engagement Process — an informal set of talks designed to avoid the need for too many lawyers — since July 2014.
Those talks have now ended and Amazon has told ICANN that an IRP is incoming, according to ICANN documentation published on Tuesday (pdf).
The IRP documents themselves have not yet been published by ICANN.
UPDATE: This article originally incorrectly stated that the US withdrew its objection to the GAC consensus on .amazon after the IANA transition was announced. In fact, it did so several months prior to that announcement.
Terrifying US presidential candidate Ted Cruz has told outgoing ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to recuse himself from crucial decisions, claiming Chehade is conflicted.
Republican Cruz yesterday said that Chehade can’t be trusted to make decisions related to the IANA transition because he’s already signed up to a Chinese internet governance committee.
Chehade said in December that he’s become co-chair of an advisory committee of the World Internet Conference.
Also known as the Wuzhen Summit, it’s a China-led talking shop that has been criticized for pushing China’s agenda of limiting free speech and promoting governmental control over the internet.
Cruz quizzed Chehade about his involvement in a letter earlier this month, basically fishing for evidence that Chehade was in some way conflicted.
In response (pdf), Chehade said he wasn’t being paid for the committee role, but that his travel expenses would probably be picked up.
Aha! Cruz seized on that admission, writing yesterday:
Travel compensation from the Chinese government can be a form of personal conflict of interest, which could impair Chehade’s ability to act impartially and in the best interest of the [US] government when performing under the [IANA] contract. As such, Chehade should recuse himself from all ICANN decisions that could impact the Chinese government, which include all negotiations and discussions pertaining to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition.
Chehade, who says he only joined the committee in order to promote the notion of multi-stakeholder internet governance, makes $900,000 a year at ICANN in salary and bonuses.
With pay so criminally low, it’s easy to see how he could be tempted to subvert his principles for any foreign government who offered him a free business-class flight and a few nights in a swanky Beijing hotel.
He has kids to feed and clothe, after all.
Cruz, on the other hand, has raised a mere $54 million in campaign contributions over the last five years, and not a single dollar of that will influence his political positions in any way whatsoever.
dotgay LLC has filed another appeal with ICANN, hoping to get its community-based .gay application back in the race.
It submitted a third Request for Reconsideration (pdf) this week, arguing on a technicality that its bid should have another Community Priority Evaluation.
The company has already lost two CPEs based on the Economist Intelligence Unit CPE panel’s belief that its definition of “gay” is too broad because it includes straight people.
It’s also lost two RfRs, which are adjudicated by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.
The newest RfR addresses not the core “not gay enough” issue, but a procedural error at the EIU it believes it has identified.
According to the filing, dotgay is in possession of emails from an EIU employee who was responsible for verifying some of the dozens of support letters it had received from dotgay’s backers (generally equal rights campaign groups).
The company argues, citing the BGC’s own words, that this employee was not one of the official CPE “evaluators”, which means the EIU broke its own rules of procedure:
considering the fact that the CPE Process Document – which is considered by the BGC to be “consistent with” and “strictly adheres to the Guidebook’s criteria and requirements”, it is clear that the verification of the letters should have been performed by an independent evaluator… and not by someone “responsible for communicating with the authors of support and opposition letters regarding verification in the ordinary course of his work for the EIU”.
It wants the CPE to be conducted again, saying “it is obvious that the outcome of a process is often, if not always, determined by the fact whether the correct process has been followed”.
It’s difficult to see how the outcome of a third CPE, should one be undertaken, could be any different to the first two. Who verifies the support letters doesn’t seem to speak to the reason dotgay hasn’t scored enough points on its other two attempts.
But the alternative for the company is an expensive auction with the other .gay applicants.
Another CPE would at least buy it time to pile more political pressure on ICANN and the EIU.