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‘Whistleblower’ claims cronyism and fear at ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 17, 2013, Domain Policy

An anonymous individual claiming to be an ICANN staffer has warned the organization’s board of directors about senior-level cronyism and a “climate of fear” among employees.

However, DI’s private conversations with other ICANN staffers suggest that the concerns may not be widely shared, at least not to the same extreme.

DI received a lengthy email yesterday in which it is claimed that hiring practices since last year have seen “incompetent” friends of CEO Fadi Chehade and COO Akram Atallah appointed to senior positions, which has hurt morale and proved divisive among employees.

Here are some extracts:

While it is natural for a new CEO or COO to bring in their own team, many senior hires to ICANN have been selected without going through an interviewing process, hired despite recommendation by staff to the contrary, in some cases with lack of relevant experience and not following basic business practices on the selection on the basis of merit. It in many cases has been replaced by hiring friends, family and neighbors.

In some cases these hires have turned out to be quite competent but in other cases they are flat-out incompetent. They not only will remain on staff because Akram views them as loyal but they have enjoyed additional responsibilities and promotions unfairly based on their relationship with Akram or Fadi.

Because of these hiring practices, staff morale is at a low point. Staff now falls into two camps: (1) those hired before Fadi (2) those hired after Fadi. There are a record number of employees looking for other jobs. Some have already left and if a significant number leave in the future, ICANNs qualified talent pool will suffer.

The email was unsigned and sent from an anonymized account, but includes sufficient detail that nobody who has seen it doubts that it came from an ICANN employee.

The author refers to an intern, briefly employed, who would have had little to no interaction with the rest of the community and was even unknown to some staff, for example.

I’ve confirmed that the email was sent to at least some members of the board of directors — currently holed up at a retreat in Amsterdam — at about the same time it was sent to DI.

The email lists about 10 current or former ICANN executives who, it is claimed, were hired because they are friends with either Atallah or Chehade or worked with them at other companies.

To the extent that the relationships detailed are professional, they’re easily confirmed by online resumes. Others have been confirmed privately by ICANN staffers.

While the email names names, I’m not going to.

Having spent the last day running the email author’s concerns privately by a handful of ICANN employees, I was unable to find the same degree of concern expressed by anyone.

Some I spoke to recognized the scenario outlined in the email — a new batch of senior staff aligned to the new boss and perhaps not yet fully integrated with the old guard — but said that this is to be expected whenever a new CEO takes over.

“I’m really surprised that someone feels so strongly,” said one staffer. “It’s not that horrendous, new CEOs bring in their people and we’re not going to appreciate them all.”

The phrase “climate of fear”, used in the email, invokes (possibly deliberately) the words of Maria Farrell, the former ICANN staffer who humiliated then-CEO Rod Beckstrom with a scathing public assessment of staff morale during the meeting in San Francisco two years ago.

But another message that also came through loud and clear talking to staff is that while morale might remain low, things at ICANN are a lot better than they were before Chehade took over.

“At least Fadi and his people seem competent,” one person said.

Ombudsman probing “late” new gTLD objections

Kevin Murphy, May 16, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Ombudsman Chris LaHatte has received complaints about some new gTLD objections that were apparently filed after the submission deadline but are being processed anyway.

Two companies have officially called on LaHatte to tell ICANN that “late complaints should not be received on the basis that the deadlines were well advertised and achievable”.

The issue seems to be that ICANN had set a deadline of 2359 UTC March 13 for objections to be filed, and some of them arrived slightly late.

The delays appear to have been a matter of mere minutes, and blamed on latency caused by heavy email attachments and other technical problems.

According to ICANN, the dispute resolution providers decided to give objectors a five-minute grace period, essentially extending the deadline from 2359 UTC to 0004 UTC the following day.

The recipients of these objections clearly now want to use this technicality to kill off the objections, avoiding the cost of having to defend themselves.

In a set of answers to questions posed verbally in Beijing last month, published last week (pdf), ICANN said:

ICANN is confident that the Dispute Resolution Service Providers are complying with the guidelines in the [Applicant Guidebook].

I don’t know which applications are affected by the issue, but the question at the Beijing public forum was posed by new gTLD consultant Jim Prendergast of the Galway Strategy Group.

He received applause, so I guess he wasn’t the only person in the room with an interest in the subject.

LaHatte, on his blog, is looking for feedback before making his decision.

Global standards group highlights silliness of GAC’s IGO demands

Kevin Murphy, May 14, 2013, Domain Policy

The International Organization for Standardization, known as ISO, doesn’t want to have its acronym blocked in new gTLDs by the International Sugar Organization.

ISO has told ICANN in a letter that demands for special favors coming from intergovernmental organizations, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, should be rejected.

Secretary general Rob Steele wrote:

We have very strong concerns with the GAC proposal, and firmly oppose any such block of the acronym “ISO.”

To implement a block on the term “ISO” (requiring its release be permitted by the International Sugar Organization) disregards the longstanding rights and important mission of the International Organization for Standardization. To be frank, this would be unacceptable.

please be assured that the International Organization for Standardization is prepared to take all necessary steps if its well-known short name is blocked on behalf of another organization.

For several months the GAC has argued that IGOs are “objectively different category to other rights holders, warranting special protection from ICANN” in new gTLDs.

Just like the “unique” Olympics and Red Cross were in 2011.

The GAC proposes that that any IGO that qualifies for a .int address (it’s a number in the hundreds) should have its name and acronym blocked by default at the second level in every new gTLD.

But ICANN pointed that this would be unfair on the hundreds (thousands?) of other legitimate uses of those acronyms. It gave several examples.

The GAC in response said that the IGOs would be able to grant consent for their acronyms to be unblocked for use by others, but this opened up a whole other can of implementation worms (as the GAC is wont to do).

ICANN director Chris Disspain of AuDA said in Beijing:

Who at each IGO would make a decision about providing consent? How long would each IGO have to provide consent? Would no reply be equivalent to consent? What criteria would be used to decide whether to give consent or not? Who would draft that criteria? Would the criteria be consistent across all IGOs or would consent simply be granted at the whim of an IGO?

In the GAC’s Beijing communique, it seemed to acknowledge this problem. It said:

The GAC is mindful of outstanding implementation issues and commits to actively working with IGOs, the Board, and ICANN Staff to find a workable and timely way forward.

The GAC insists, however, that no new gTLDs should be allowed to launch until the IGO protections are in place.

Given the amount of other work created for ICANN by the Beijing communique, I suspect that the IGO discussions will focus on implementation detail, rather than the principle.

But the principle is important. IGOs are not typically victims of pernicious cybersquatting. If they deserve special protections, then why don’t trademark owners that are cybersquatted on a daily basis?

ISO standardizes all kinds of stuff in dozens of sectors. In the domain name space, it’s probably best known for providing ICANN with ISO 3166-1 alpha-2, the authoritative list of two-letter strings that may be delegated as ccTLDs.

The International Sugar Organization is very important too, probably, if you’re in the sugar business.

Wikipedia gives it a single paragraph, Google ranks the International Society of Organbuilders higher on a search for “ISO”, and its web site suggests it doesn’t do much business online.

Does it need better brand protection than Microsoft or Marriott or Facebook or Fox? Is anyone going to want to cybersquat the International Sugar Organization, really?

If it does deserve that extra layer of protection, should that right trump the more-famous ISO’s right to register domains matching its own brand?

Massive internet policy database planned in Europe

Kevin Murphy, May 13, 2013, Domain Policy

The European Commission plans to build a massive web site and database of information related to global internet policy-making.

The Global Internet Policy Observatory, which is still in the planning stages, would be a “clearinghouse for monitoring Internet policy, regulatory and technological developments across the world”.

The idea appears to be to make it easier for people interested in this kind of thing to wade through information overload. According to a Commission press release, the site would:

  • automatically monitor Internet-related policy developments at the global level, making full use of “big data” technologies;
  • identify links between different fora and discussions, with the objective to overcome “policy silos”;
  • help contextualise information, for example by collecting existing academic information on a specific topic, highlighting the historical and current position of the main actors on a particular issue, identifying the interests of different actors in various policy fields;
  • identify policy trends, via quantitative and qualitative methods such as semantic and sentiment analysis;
  • provide easy-to-use briefings and reports by incorporating modern visualisation techniques;

GIPO (I’m choosing to pronounce it with a hard G) could get underway in 2014, pending the results of a feasibility study, the Commission said.

Brazil, the African Union, Switzerland, the Association for Progressive Communication, Diplo Foundation and the Internet Society are also all involved in the project.

Kiss-of-death gTLD applicant asks ICANN to reject “untimely” GAC advice

Kevin Murphy, May 13, 2013, Domain Policy

One of the only two companies to receive formal, consensus, kiss-of-death Governmental Advisory Committee advice last month has called on ICANN to reject it as “untimely”.

GCCIX WLL of Bahrain applied for .gcc to be an open gTLD for residents of the Persian/Arabian Gulf region.

It was a ballsy application. The intended meaning of the string was Gulf Cooperation Council — the six-state regional political union — but the applicant by its own admission had no support from local governments or the GCC itself.

It would be a little like applying for .eu, to represent Europe, with no support from the European Union.

Naturally enough, local governments balked. GCCIX received an Early Warning signed by Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, followed by a legal rights objection from the GCC itself.

And in Beijing, the GAC said by consensus that the application for .gcc should be rejected.

The only other application that received the same level of advice was DotConnectAfrica’s equally unsupported application for .africa which, unlike .gcc, ICANN recognizes as “geographic”.

Now, GCCIX CEO Fahad AlShirawi has written to ICANN to ask it to reject the GAC’s advice and let the legal rights objection process play out before making a decision.

Of note, AlShirawi points out that the GAC advice was received in April, a month later than the deadline outlined in the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook.

ICANN should therefore reject the GAC advice as “untimely”, he wrote.

That’s not going to happen, of course.

The GAC is allowed to provide advice to ICANN at any time, no matter what the Guidebook says. If ICANN were to ignore it based on timing, it may as well sign its own death sentence at the same time.