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DCA’s .africa bid officially unrejected by ICANN

Kevin Murphy, July 16, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has un-rejected DotConnectAfrica’s application for the new gTLD .africa.

The board held an emergency meeting this morning to consider last Friday’s Independent Review Process decision, which said ICANN’s handling of DCA’s bid was not consistent with its bylaws.

Speaking at the Internet Governance Forum USA in Washington DC in the last half hour, ICANN chair Steve Crocker revealed the following:

We passed a resolution acknowledging the panel’s report — decision — accepting it and taking action. The primary action is to put the the DotConnectAfrica Trust application back in to the evaluation process. And there are other aspects of the panel’s decision that we will have to deal with later. This does not represent a final decision about anything. It just moves that process forward. There will be posting of the resolution and press release probably as we are sitting here.

If you want to catch it yourself, rewind the live stream here to roughly 59 minutes.

This story will be updated just as soon as the press release and resolution are published.

UPDATE:

The resolution has been published.

In it, the board agrees to continue to delay the delegation of .africa to ZA Central Registry, which is the contracted party for the gTLD, to pay the IRP costs as ordered by the panel, and to return DCA’s application to the evaluation process.

It also addresses the fact that the Governmental Advisory Committee has given formal advice that the DCA bid should not be approved.

The ICANN board says that because it has not decided to approve or delegate .africa to DCA, it’s technically not going against GAC advice at this time.

It will also ask GAC to respond to the IRP panel’s criticism of it for providing advice against DCA without transparent justification. The resolution says:

the Board will ask the GAC if it wishes to refine that advice and/or provide the Board with further information regarding that advice and/or otherwise address the concerns raised in the Declaration.

It was essentially the GAC’s lack of explanation, and ICANN’s lack of curiosity about that lack of explanation, that cost ICANN the case and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

How the GAC responds will be interesting. There’s now a solid case to be made that it’s going to have to start putting its rationales in its advice, rather like the ICANN board does with its resolutions.

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ICANN execs helped African Union win .africa — report

Kevin Murphy, July 16, 2015, Domain Policy

Top ICANN executives helped the African Union Commission win the .africa gTLD on behalf of its selected registry, according to a report.

Kieren McCarthy at The Register scooped last night that Dai-Trang Nguyen, head of gTLD operations at ICANN, drafted the letter that the AU used to demonstrate governmental support for ZA Central Registry’s bid.

The basis of the report is the unredacted version of the Independent Review Process panel’s ruling in the DotConnectAfrica case.

McCarthy reports that the uncensored document shows ICANN admitting that Nguyen wrote the AU’s letter, but that “did not violate any policy” and that there was “absolutely nothing wrong with ICANN staff assisting the AUC.”

Apparently, the original AU-drafted letter did not meet the requirements of the Geographic Names Panel, generating a “Clarifying Question”, so the AU reached out to ICANN for help creating a letter that would tick the correct boxes.

The unredacted ruling also contains an allegation that ICANN told InterConnect — one of the three corporate members of the GNP — that the AU’s letter should be taken as representing all of its member states, El Reg reports.

DotConnectAfrica is expected to be shortly returned to the new gTLD application process, and then kicked out again due to its failure to meet the GNP’s criteria of support from 60% of African governments.

I’m in two minds about how damaging these new revelations are.

On the one hand, ICANN staff intervening directly in an Initial Evaluation for a contested gTLD looks incredibly bad for the organization’s neutrality.

One would not expect ICANN to draft, for example, a letter of support for a Community Priority Evaluation applicant.

I don’t think it changes the ultimate outcome for DCA, but it may have inappropriately smoothed the path to approval for ZACR.

On the other hand, the new gTLD program’s Applicant Guidebook actually contains a two-page “Sample Letter of Government Support” that governments were encouraged to print off on letterheaded paper, sign, and submit.

Giving governments assistance with their support letters was in fact baked into the program from the start.

So did the AUC get special treatment in this case, or did Nguyen just send over the AGB sample letter (or a version of it)? That may or may not become clear if and when McCarthy publishes the unredacted ruling, which he has indicated he hopes to do.

A related question might be: how did the AUC screw up its original letter so badly, given the existence of a compliant sample letter?

The optics are many times worse for ICANN because all this stuff was originally redacted, making it look like ICANN was trying to cover up its involvement.

But the redactions were not a unilateral ICANN decision.

ICANN, DCA and the IRP panel agreed after negotiation that some documents revealed during disclosure should be treated confidentially, according to this September 2014 order (pdf). References to these documents were redacted in all of the IRP’s documents, not just the ruling.

What the revelations certainly seem to show is another example of ICANN toadying up to governments, which really has to stop.

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Time for .bloomberg after Twitter hoax?

Could the fake Bloomberg story about Twitter being acquired act as an impetus for the company to activate its mostly dormant dot-brand gTLD?

Twitter shares yesterday reportedly spiked as much as 8% on the “news” that it was the target of a $31 buyout bid.

The story was published on bloomberg.market, a cybersquatted domain hosting a mirror of the real Bloomberg web site.

While it was reportedly quite sloppily written, it nevertheless managed to convince at least one US cable news network to run with it, one reporter even tweeting the bogus link to his followers.

The story was quickly outed as a fake and within a few hours Rightside, the .market registry as well as owner of its registrar, eNom, suspended the domain for breaching its terms of service.

Rightside wrote in a blog post:

it pains us so greatly that, in the early stages when so many people are forming their first impressions of the new TLD program, these numerous positive examples are sometimes overshadowed by the malicious practices and behaviors of a very small group of people.

Bloomberg’s not at fault here, of course. No company should be expected to defensively register its trademark in every one of the 1,000+ TLDs out there right now.

But could the hoax persuade it to do something of substance with its .bloomberg gTLD, perhaps taking a leaf out of the BNP Paribas playbook?

Bloomberg has been populating its dot-brand with hundreds of domains since May — both the names of its products and keywords related to industries it’s known for covering — but currently they all seem to redirect to existing web sites in .com or .net.

It’s long been suggested by proponents of new gTLDs that dot-brands can act as a signal of legitimacy on the web, and that’s the attitude banks such as Barclays and BNP Paribas seem to be taking right now.

Could .bloomberg be next?

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Dot London auctioning 50 registry-owned premium names

Kevin Murphy, July 13, 2015, Domain Sales

Dot London is to auction off 50 premium .london domains over the next two weeks.

The names are all currently registry-owned, and include the likes of dentist.london, flats.london and coffee.london. The full list can be viewed here.

The auctions are scheduled to end on July 30 and all have £100 ($155) starting bids.

According to the registry, it has sold over 3,000 names from its premium list since its launch last year. Some live examples include golf.london and catering.london.

The .london gTLD has a tad over 63,000 names in its zone file today.

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DotConnectAfrica still barking mad after IRP win

Kevin Murphy, July 13, 2015, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrica thinks it is going to get the .africa gTLD, following its successful Independent Review Process case against ICANN.

In a press release today, the company hailed last week’s ruling as a “resounding victory”.

DCA CEO Sophia Bekele is quoted as saying:

Going forward, we now expect ICANN to accept the binding IRP outcome, refrain from any further plans to delegate .Africa to the ZA Central Registry who should now be removed immediately from the new gTLD program; and cooperate fully with DCA Trust to ensure that the IRP Panel ruling is implemented so that .Africa can be delegated to DotConnectAfrica Trust

That’s right, Bekele reckons the IRP win means ICANN has to kick rival .africa applicant ZACR — which has already signed a Registry Agreement for the string — out of the new gTLD program.

Needless to say, it doesn’t.

The IRP panel refused DCA’s demands that ZACR be kicked out, and by ruling against DCA on a number of other counts, it essentially signed its application’s death warrant.

Bekele goes on to make three startling assertions about the case that have little to no basis in the IRP panel’s ruling:

During the IRP, DotConnectAfrica Trust clearly established three major findings: that ZA Central Registry lacked any valid endorsements for the .Africa string that it applied for; and that the purported Governmental Advisory Committee Objection Advice against our .Africa application was not by consensus; and that the ICANN Board had seriously erred in accepting the GAC Advice. The truth has prevailed and we are absolutely happy with the IRP Panel decision.

“I also give thanks to God for helping to correct this act of victimization that was committed against DCA Trust,” she added.

I’m not making that up. She really said that.

In Bekele’s opinion, DCA “established” three major findings, but “alleged” would be a better word. The IRP panel largely disagreed with or ignored the claims.

First, there’s nothing in the IRP’s decision that shows ZACR “lacked any valid endorsement” for its .africa bid.

ZACR has the unambiguous support of the African Union and says on its web site it has backing from 78% of African nations. The IRP declaration doesn’t even mention these endorsements, let alone question them.

Second, the IRP panel does not say that the GAC’s advice against DCA’s application lacked consensus. It says it lacked fairness and transparency, but did not dispute that it had consensus.

Third, the IRP did not conclude that ICANN should not have accepted that GAC advice, just that it should have carried it a bit more due diligence.

Finally, there’s nothing in the IRP’s declaration that gives DCA a chance of winning the .africa gTLD. In fact, the panel specifically decided not to give DCA that chance.

The closest the panel came to addressing any of DCA’s myriad accusations of ICANN wrongdoing is described in its ruling:

DCA Trust has criticized ICANN for its various actions and decisions throughout this IRP and ICANN has responded to each of these criticisms in detail. However, the Panel, having carefully considered these criticisms and decided that the above is dispositive of this IRP, it does not find it necessary to determine who was right, to what extent and for what reasons in respect to the other criticisms and other alleged shortcomings of the ICANN Board identified by DCA Trust.

So what happens to .africa now?

ICANN’s board of directors will discuss the IRP declaration at its next meeting, July 28, so we don’t yet know for certain how things will proceed.

However, some things seem safe bets.

The IRP panel suggested that ICANN should continue to refrain from delegating .africa, which has been on hold since May 2014, to ZACR. I think it likely that ICANN will follow this recommendation.

It also seems possible that ICANN may decide to reconsider (that is, consider again, rather than necessarily overturn) its decision to accept the GAC’s consensus objection to DCA’s .africa bid.

The panel’s key criticism of ICANN was that it failed to seek a rationale from the GAC for its objection. So ICANN may decide to seek such a rationale before reconsidering the advice.

The panel also told ICANN that DCA’s application, which had been rejected, should re-enter the application process.

Assuming ICANN accepts this recommendation (and I think it will, given the political climate), the first step would to be for DCA to finish its Initial Evaluation. ICANN rejected the DCA bid, based on GAC advice, before the IE panels finalized their evaluation DCA’s application.

Part of the IE process is the Geographic Names Review, which determines whether a string is “geographic” under ICANN’s definition and whether the applicant has the necessary support — 60% of national governments in .africa’s case — to be allowed to proceed.

DCA does not have this support, and it knows that this means its application is on life support.

It had asked the IRP panel to rule that ICANN should either give it 18 months to try to gather support, or to rule that it already has the support, essentially trying to lawyer itself into a position where it had a shot of winning .africa.

But the panel rejected both of these demands.

While DCA seems to have given up trying to convince people that its 2009 letter of support from the AU is still valid, it still holds that a 2008 letter from the executive secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa shows the requisite 60% support.

I don’t know whether this letter was ever formally withdrawn, but UNECA is today listed as a ZACR supporter.

However, even if the Geographic Names Panel ruled that DCA had passed its 60% threshold, the application would still fail the geographic review.

The rules state that “there may be no more than one written statement of objection” from an affected government, and DCA received GAC Early Warnings from 16 national governments as well as the AU itself.

No matter what DCA says in its press releases now, its application is still doomed.

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