The African Union Commission has criticized ICANN’s “dysfunctional accountability process” that has kept the proposed .africa gTLD in limbo for the last few years.
In a communique yesterday (pdf), the AUC also reiterated that .africa applicant ZA Central Registry has the support of both the AUC and its member states, and that governments used almost every avenue available to them to object to the rival DotConnectAfrica bid.
The letter reads:
The Africa region, African Internet stakeholders, the ZACR and AUC are the unfortunate victims of a dysfunctional accountability process and an independent review panel that did not delve more deeply to understand the new gTLD process, the role of governments in that process, and how the ICANN multistakeholder model functions in general.
A few weeks ago, an Independent Review Process panel controversially ruled that ICANN had treated DCA’s application unfairly, in violation of its bylaws, when it accepted Governmental Advisory Committee advice to reject it.
The panel said that ICANN should have at least asked the GAC for the rationale behind its advice, something that the new gTLD program’s rules did not require it to do.
One of the issues at the heart of the subsequent debate is whether ICANN inappropriately helped out ZACR’s bid by drafting an AUC letter of support and then tried to cover its actions up by inappropriately redacting information from the IRP ruling before publication.
On Friday, ICANN published a new version of the ruling that had these references restored, while retaining redactions related to the actions of Kenyan government officials.
We know what the still-redacted text says because Kieren McCarthy, writing for The Register, obtained a clean copy and published it a couple of weeks ago.
ICANN also promised to publish its reasoning if it makes redactions to any documents in future.
In a blog post on Friday, general counsel John Jeffrey said that ICANN helping the AUC draft its letter of support was not a unique case, nor was it inappropriate:
ICANN staff has helped many applicants and their supporters understand how to properly document support. Not only did we make a template support letter publicly available to all as part of the New gTLD Program Applicant Guidebook (see Appendix to Module 2), we have answered questions, received through our customer service channel, as to how interested parties can document support for a given gTLD application. In the case of ZA Central Registry, ICANN appropriately assisted the applicant in documenting support from the AUC.
Our actions surrounding the .AFRICA applications were not unique, since we assist any applicant who requests assistance, or who needs clarification in learning how best to document support or other matters. We have provided assistance to all applicants regarding their applications to the maximum extent possible.
On the claims that ICANN tried to “cover up” this assistance by redacting the IRP’s ruling and previous IRP filings, Jeffrey said that the information was covered by a confidentiality agreement agreed to by itself and DCA and endorsed by the IRP panel.
He said that ICANN was “motivated by our obligation to the community to post the document quickly and the competing, yet mandatory obligation, to respect confidential information while being as transparent as possible.”
He said ICANN attempted to reach out to those affected by the “confidential” parts of the ruling to seek permission to remove the redactions.
But McCarthy also seems to have seen emails exchanged between DCA and ICANN, and he says that ICANN redacted it over DCA’s objections.
McCarthy further says that ICANN only became interested in removing the redactions after he had already published the clean version of the ruling at The Reg — five days after the initial publication by ICANN.
Jeffrey’s post, which refers to “erroneous reporting” in an apparent allusion to McCarthy’s articles, nevertheless fails to address this claim, lending credibility to the cover-up allegations.
The .africa gTLD has been contracted to ZACR, but DCA’s rejected application has been returned to evaluation per the IRP’s ruling, where it is broadly expected to fail for want of governmental support.
Disclosure #1: I recently filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request seeking the release of all the unredacted exhibits in DCA v ICANN. Given ICANN’s wont to usually respond to such requests only at the end of the full 30 days permitted by the policy, I should not expect to see an answer one way or the other until the last week of August.
Disclosure #2: As regular readers may already be aware, due to my long-held and never-disguised view that DCA was mad to apply for .africa without government support, I was once accused of being a part of a “racial conspiracy” against DCA on a blog I believe to be controlled by DCA. Naturally, after I stopped laughing, this libelous allegation pissed me off no end and enhanced my belief that DCA is nuts. Around the same time DCA also, under its own name, filed an “official complaint” (pdf) with ICANN, omitting the race card, alleging that I was part of a conspiracy against it.
ICANN has beaten off a lawsuit from alternate root provider name.space for a second time, with a US appeals court ruling that the new gTLD program was not an illegal conspiracy.
name.space sued ICANN in 2012, claiming that the program broke competition laws and that “conflicted” ICANN directors conspired with the industry in an “attack” on its business model.
The company runs an alternate DNS root containing hundreds of TLDs that hardly anyone knows about, cares about, or has access to.
Almost 200 of the strings in its system had matching applications in the 2012 new gTLD round; many have since been delegated.
The company’s complaint asked for an injunction against all 189 matching TLDs.
But a court ruled against it in 2013, saying that name.space had failed to make a case for breaches of antitrust law.
Last week, an appeals court upheld that ruling, saying that the company had basically failed to cross the legal threshold from simply making wild allegations to showing evidence of an illegal conspiracy.
“We cannot… infer an anticompetitive agreement when factual allegations ‘just as easily suggest rational, legal business behavior.’,” the court ruled, citing precedent.
“Here, ICANN’s decision-making was fully consistent with its agreement with the DOC [US Department of Commerce] to operate the DNS and the Root,” it wrote. “In transferring control to ICANN, the DOC specifically required it to coordinate the introduction of new TLDs onto the Root. This is exactly what ICANN did in the 2012 Application Round”.
“The 2012 rules and procedures were facially neutral, and there are no allegations that the selection process was rigged,” the panel ruled.
The court further ruled that ICANN is not a competitor in the markets for domain names as registry, registrar or defensive registration services, therefore it could not be subject to antitrust claims for those markets.
A few other claims against ICANN were also dismissed.
In short, it’s a pretty decisive victory for ICANN. General counsel John Jeffrey said in a statement that ICANN is “pleased” to have won.
All the major documents in the case, including the latest opinion, can be downloaded here.
While the lawsuit has been making its way through the courts, the .space gTLD has actually been delegated and the domain name.space is owned by its new registry, Radix.
There’s some salt in the wounds.
Just one out of every 10 governments in the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee is happy for people to register its country name in new gTLDs.
That’s according to a new GAC database detailing which countries want to keep tabs on how their names are being used.
Out of 80 GAC members contributing to the database, just eight have said registries can sell their country names with no restrictions.
The eight countries and territories are the UK, the USA, Denmark, Finland, Netherlands, Sweden, Guernsey and Pitcairn.
New gTLD registries will therefore be able to auction off, for example, finland.guru or pitcairn.news, to whoever wants them.
Another 10 governments — Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Georgia, Montenegro, New Zealand, Romania, Spain and Switzerland — have relinquished oversight in the case of dot-brand registries that have signed Specification 13 of the ICANN Registry Agreement.
So if Sony wants to register brazil.sony to itself, it can without restrictions.
Under the new gTLD Registry Agreement, all country and territory names in the six official UN languages have to be reserved by all registries unless they can reach agreement with the applicable government.
The 18 governments mentioned above have basically waived this right to be notified in whole or in part.
The remaining 62 governments say they still wish to be notified when a registry wants to release its name.
GAC chair Thomas Schneider told ICANN (pdf) that countries not yet listed in the database should be treated as if they’re still restricted, so the actual number is closer to 200.
In short, this database is not a lot of help to dot-brands and other registries that want to start using or selling country names.
Critics have pointed out that many governments wanting to regulate their names in new gTLDs have not done so in their own ccTLDs.
Of the 62, ownership of country names is mixed. Italy owns italy.it and italia.it, for example, while germany.de and deutschland.de appear to be in private hands.
Booking.com has become the first new gTLD applicant to publicly cite the recent .africa Independent Review Process ruling in an attempt to overturn an adverse ICANN decision.
The challenge relates to the decision by ICANN, under the rules of the new gTLD program, to place applications for .hotels and .hoteis into a contention set due to their potential for visual confusion.
The two strings are heading to auction, where the winner will likely have to fork out millions.
In a missive to ICANN (pdf) last week, Booking.com outside attorney Flip Petillion said that the .africa IRP ruling shows that ICANN has to revisit its decision-making over .hotels.
The letter highlights a wider issue — how can ICANN follow community-established rules whilst sticking to its rather less well-defined Bylaws commitment to be “fair”?
ICANN — and the BGC — has maintained the position 1) that the fact the process established by ICANN was followed is sufficient reason to reject that challenge and 2) that the fact that the process allowed neither for Booking.com to be heard nor for a review of the decision by the ICANN Board is of no relevance.
In the interim, IRP panels have confirmed that this process-focussed position is unsustainable. The ICANN Board has an overriding responsibility for making fair, reasoned and non-discriminatory decisions under conditions of full transparency.
He cites the .africa IRP decision to support this assertion.
Booking.com is the applicant for .hotels, while a different company, Travel Reservations (formerly Despegar Online), has applied for .hoteis, the Portuguese translation.
While both applicants are happy for the two gTLDs to co-exist on the internet, ICANN’s third-party String Similarity Review panel, part of the new gTLD evaluation process, ruled that they cannot.
They’re just too similar — in standard browser sans-serif fonts they can be indistinguishable — and would likely lead to user confusion, the panel decided in February 2013.
Booking.com challenged this decision with a Request for Reconsideration, which was dismissed.
In April, the ICANN board adopted the IRP panel’s findings, saying that the two applicants should remain in the contention set.
Booking.com, along with Travel Reservations, filed a second RfR, challenging the board’s decision, but this was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee in June.
The ICANN board has not yet formally adopted the BGC’s recommendations — I expect it to consider them at its next scheduled meeting, July 28 — hence Booking.com’s last-ditch attempt to get ICANN to change its mind.
Simply following the processes and procedures developed by ICANN cannot alone be sufficient grounds for declining to review a decision. If the requirements of fairness, reasoned decision making, non-discrimination and transparency have not been met in the implementation of the process and procedures, the ICANN Board must, when invited to, conduct a meaningful review.
In the .africa case, the IRP panel ruled that ICANN should have asked the Governmental Advisory Committee for its rationale for objecting to DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid, even though there’s nothing in the new gTLD rules or ICANN Bylaws specifically requiring it to do so.
However, in the Booking.com case, the IRP panel raised serious questions about whether the String Similarity Review rules were consistent with the Bylaws, but said that the time to challenge such rules had “long since passed”.
In both cases, ICANN followed the rules. Where the two panels’ declarations diverge is on whether you can win an IRP challenging the implementation of those rules — for DotConnectAfrica the answer was yes, for Booking.com the answer was no.
In a new gTLD program that has produced long lists of inconsistencies; IRP panel decisions appear to be but the latest example.
The question now is how the ICANN board will deal with the BGC recommendation to reject Booking.com’s latest RfR.
If it summarily approves the BGC’s resolution, without doing some extra due diligence, will it be breaking its Bylaws?
Did the African Union Commission really use a letter written by ICANN to express its support for ZA Central Registry’s .africa bid?
Having now obtained and read it, I have my doubts.
I’m publishing it, so you can make your own mind up. Here it is (pdf).
That’s the letter that The Register’s Kieren McCarthy reported yesterday was “ICANN-drafted” and “duly signed by the AUC”
“Essentially, ICANN drafted a letter in support of ZACR, gave it to the AUC, and the AUC submitted the letter back to ICANN as evidence that ZACR should run dot-africa,” The Reg reported.
I don’t think that’s what happened.
What I see is a two-page letter that has one paragraph indisputably written by ICANN and whole bunch of other stuff that looks
incredibly remarkably like it was written by the AUC and ZACR.
And that one ICANN paragraph was drawn from the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook, where it was available to all governments.
The Reg reported that ICANN, in the unredacted ruling of the Independent Review Panel, admitted it drafted the letter.
What The Reg didn’t report is that ICANN merely admitted to sending the AUC a letter based on the aforementioned AGB template, and that it was subsequently heavily revised by the AUC.
It was not, I believe, a simple case of the AUC putting its letterhead and John Hancock on an ICANN missive.
I believe that ZACR had quite a big hand in the redrafting too. The stylized “.africa (dotAfrica)” is not how ICANN refers to gTLDs, but it is how ZACR refers to its own brand.
The letter was written in order to satisfy the requirements of the Geographic Names Panel, which reviews new gTLD applications for the required government support.
The original AUC letter (read it here) was simply one paragraph confirming that ZACR had been appointed .africa registry, as the winner of an African Union RFP process.
It didn’t have enough information, or was not specific and formal enough, for the GNP, which issued a “Clarifying Question”.
In response to the CQ, it seems AUC reached out to ICANN, ICANN sent over something not dissimilar to its AGB template, the AUC and ZACR redrafted, edited and embellished it and sent it to ICANN to support their .africa application.
Did ICANN act inappropriately? Maybe. But I’m losing my enthusiasm for thinking about this as a massive scandal.