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Got beef with ICANN? Why you may not want to use the Ombudsman

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2021, Domain Policy

Complaining to the independent Ombudsman may not be the best way to start a beef with ICANN, and that’s according to the Ombudsman himself.

Herb Waye told DI this week that consulting him as a first port of call may well lock complainants out of escalating their complaints through his office in future procedures.

Earlier this week, I reported on a lawsuit filed by three so-far unsuccessful .hotel gTLD applicants, which among other things alleges that ICANN’s Request for Reconsideration appeals process is a “sham”.

Reconsideration has quite a high barrier to success, and complaints are rarely successful. Requests are dealt with by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, a subset of the very same board of directors that passed the resolution being complained about, advised by the same ICANN lawyers.

But RfRs are also automatically sent to the Ombudsman for a determination before the BAMC looks into them, which should provide a valuable and ostensibly independent second set of critical eyes.

However, in practice this has almost never happened since the provision was added to the ICANN bylaws five year ago.

The .hotel plaintiffs tallied up the 14 RfRs related to the new gTLD program since 2017 and found that the Ombudsman had recused himself, without detailed explanation, on every single occasion. Their complaint in California Superior Court reads:

Neither ICANN nor the Ombudsman has provided any intelligible reason for this gross flouting of ICANN’s bylaws and the Ombudsman’s dereliction of duty, other than a naked and vague claim of “conflict of interest”. The lack of any Ombudsman process not only violates ICANN’s bylaws and its contracts with Plaintiffs, but it renders the promise of a fair and independent Reconsideration process null and illusory, and the notion of true accountability a farce.

The ICANN bylaws state that the Ombudsman must recuse himself from considering RfRs “involving matters for which the Ombudsman has, in advance of the filing of the Reconsideration Request, taken a position while performing his or her role as the Ombudsman”.

According to Waye’s explanation, this is a very broad standard indeed. He told DI in an email:

it is not just me but over 18(?) years of Office of the Ombudsman involvement in complaints or investigations. So I need to go back through the archives when I receive an RR to make sure neither Chris [LaHatte] nor Frank [Fowlie] have made a determination (it doesn’t have to be a public report (or position) or a report to the Board to qualify for recusal).

Among other factors, it also doesn’t have to be a past determination directly involving the RR requestor either… if the substance of the RR has been reviewed by the Office in the past, or if the RR is about an issue similar to one that has been the subject of a complaint and a determination, then recusal is also required to avoid inconsistencies or perceived bias.

He consults with his “independent outside counsel”, Dave Marglin, when figuring out whether recusal is necessary, he said.

Waye published an explanation of his role in Reconsideration on page 19 of the Ombusdman’s most-recent annual report (pdf).

I wondered whether a 2015 decision by Waye predecessor LaHatte related to the new gTLD program’s controversial Community Priority Evaluation might account for the spate of recusals over the last few years, but Waye would not be drawn.

“I can’t identify specifics about each recusal as I must at all cost avoid identifying past complainants or subjects of complaints,” he said. “As I mentioned, some published reports may be the reason for a recusal but it may also be the result of the RfR issue having passed through my Office prior to the RfR being filed as a complaint; which may or may not be a known fact, so I err on the side of caution and treat all recusals the same.”

Given that the Ombudsman also deals with sensitive interpersonal interactions, including sexual harassment complaints, a code of confidentiality could be a good thing.

But it also means that there are an unknown number of undisclosed topics, dating back the best part of two decades, that the Ombudsman is apparently powerless to address via the Reconsideration process.

And that list of untouchable topics will only get longer as time goes by, incrementally weakening ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.

It seems to me that for companies with no interest in confidentiality but with serious complaints against an ICANN board action, complaining to the Ombudsman as the first port of call in a case that would likely be escalated to Reconsideration, Cooperative Engagement Process and Independent Review Process may be a bad idea.

Not only would they be locking the Ombudsman out of their own subsequent RfR, but they’d be preventing him or her getting involved in related RfRs for eternity.

Waye does not disagree. He said:

I think anyone considering bringing a complaint to the Office of the Ombuds should now consider their desired outcome if there is any possibility the issue may be something that could eventually take the RfR route. Do they want an informal (potentially confidential) determination from the Ombuds or do they want something more “public” from the Ombuds in the form of a substantive evaluation made directly to the BAMC. It’s still a new process and my participation in the RfR accountability mechanism is still a work in progress for the people considering using the RfR. But it’s what the community wanted and we will make it work.

It strikes me that the Reconsideration policy outlined in the ICANN bylaws is, by accident or design, self-terminating and opaque. It becomes less useful the more often it is used, as the range of topics the Ombudsman is permitted to rule on are slowly whittled away in secret.

It also occurs to be that it might be open to abuse and gaming.

Worried that a rival company will try to use Reconsideration to your disadvantage? Why not file a preemptive Ombudsman complaint on the same topic, forcing him to recusing himself and leaving the eventual RfR in the hands of the far-from-objective BAMC and ICANN board?

Waye said:

I suppose it would be possible, though it would require me making a determination or taking a position of sorts related to the eventual RfR… a complaint doesn’t automatically mean recusal. And of course it would mean me and my counsel not seeing through the “gaming” agenda and declining the complaint at the outset.

.hotel battle lands ICANN in court over accountability dodges

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2021, Domain Policy

ICANN’s accountability mechanisms, or lack thereof, have landed the Org in court.

Three applicants for the .hotel new gTLD have sued in California’s Superior Court in LA, claiming ICANN has consistently failed to provide true accountability, refusing for over seven years to implement fundamental mechanisms required by its bylaws.

They want the court to force ICANN to stick to its bylaws and to also temporarily freeze an Independent Review Process case related to .hotel.

The registries in question are Fegistry, Domain Venture Partners and Radix. They filed their complaint at the end of October, but ICANN did not publish it until the end of January, after its terse reply, and an administrative ruling, had also been filed with the court.

While the endgame is presumably to get the .hotel contention set pushed to auction, the lawsuit barely mentions the gTLD at all. Rather, it’s a broad-ranging challenge to ICANN’s reluctance to submit to any kind of accountability at all.

The main beef is that ICANN has not created a so-called “Standing Panel” of judges to preside over IRP cases, something that its bylaws have required since 2013.

The Standing Panel is meant to comprise seven legal experts, trained up in all things ICANN, from which the three panelists presiding over each IRP would be selected.

It would also operate as a final appeals court for IRP rulings, with all seven panelists involved in such “en banc” challenges.

The idea is to have knowledgeable panelists on a retainer to expedite IRPs and ensure some degree of consistency in decision-making, something that has often been lacking in IRP decisions to date.

Despite this requirement being in the bylaws since 2013, ICANN has consistently dragged its feet on implementation and today there still is no Standing Panel.

The .hotel plaintiffs reckon ICANN has dodged $2.7 million in fees by refusing to pick a panel, all the while offloading certain fees onto complainants.

It didn’t get the ball rolling until January 2018, but the originally anticipated, rather streamlined, selection process quickly devolved into the usual mess of ICANN bureaucracy, red tape and circular community consultation.

The latest development was in November 2020, when ICANN announced that it was looking for volunteers for a cross-community “IRP Community Representatives Group”, a team similar to the Nominating Committee. which would be responsible for picking the Standing Panel members.

The deadline to apply was December 4, and we’ve not heard anything else about the process since.

The .hotel litigants also have beef with the “sham” Request for Reconsideration process, which is notorious for enabling the board to merely reinforce its original position, which was drafted by ICANN staff lawyers, based on advice provided by those same ICANN staff lawyers.

They also take aim at the fact that ICANN’s independent Ombudsman has recused himself from any involvement in Reconsideration related to the new gTLD program, for unclear reasons.

The lawsuit (pdf) reads:

ICANN promised to implement these Accountability Mechanisms as a condition of the United States government terminating its formal oversight of ICANN in 2016 — yet still has wholly failed to do so.

Unless this Court forces ICANN to comply with its bylaws in these critical respects, ICANN will continue to force Plaintiffs and any other complaining party into the current, sham “Reconsideration” and Independent Review processes that fall far short of the Accountability Mechanisms required in its bylaws.

The plaintiffs say that ICANN reckons it will take another six to 12 months to get the Standing Panel up and running. The plaintiffs say they’re prepared to wait, but that ICANN is refusing and forcing the IRP to continue in its absence.

They also claim that ICANN was last year preparing to delegate .hotel to HTLD, the successful applicant now owned by Donuts, which forced them to pay out for an emergency IRP panelist to get the equivalent of an injunction, which cost $18,000.

That panelist declined to force ICANN to immediately appoint a Standing Panel or independent Ombudsman, however.

The .hotel plaintiffs allege breach of contract, fraud, deceit, negligence and such among the eight counts listed in the complaint, and demand an injunction forcing ICANN to implement the accountability mechanisms enshrined in the bylaws.

They also want an unspecified amount of money in punitive damages.

ICANN’s response to the complaint (pdf) relies a lot on the fact that all new gTLD applicants, including the plaintiffs in this case, signed a covenant not to sue as part of their applications. ICANN says this means they lack standing, but courts have differed of whether the covenant is fully enforceable.

ICANN also claims that the .hotel applicants have failed to state a factual case for any of their eight counts.

It further says that the complaint is just an effort to relitigate what the plaintiffs failed to win in their emergency hearing in their IRP last year.

It wants the complaint dismissed.

The court said (pdf) at the end of January that it will hold a hearing on this motion on DECEMBER 9 this year.

Whether this ludicrous delay is related to the facts of the case or the coronavirus pandemic is unclear, but it certainly gives ICANN and the .hotel applicants plenty of time for their IRP to play out to conclusion, presumably without a Standing Panel in place.

So, a win-by-default for ICANN?

Can NameCheap reverse .org price cap scrap?

Kevin Murphy, July 25, 2019, Domain Policy

NameCheap has taken it upon itself to fight ICANN’s decision to remove price increase caps on .org. But does it stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning?

The registrar has filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, appealing the organization’s signing of a Registry Agreement with Public Interest Registry that allows PIR to raise prices by however much it wants, more or less whenever that it wants.

NameCheap, which had over 390,000 .org domains under management at the last count, says it is fighting for 700-odd of its customers whose comments, filed with ICANN, were allegedly not taken into account when the decision was made, along with registrars and everyone else that may be adversely impacted by unfettered .org price increases.

NameCheap thinks its business could be harmed if price increases are uncapped, with customers perhaps letting their domains expire instead of renewing. It’s RfR states:

The decision by ICANN org to unilaterally remove the price caps when renewing legacy TLDs with little (if any) evidence to support the decision goes against ICANN’s Commitments and Core Values, and will result in harm to millions of internet users throughout the world.

Unrestricted price increases for legacy TLDs will stifle internet innovation, harm lesser served regions and groups, and significantly disrupt the internet ecosystem. An incredible variety of public comments was submitted to ICANN from all continents (except Antarctica) imploring ICANN to maintain the legacy TLD price caps — which were completely discounted and ignored by ICANN org.

Before the new contract was signed, PIR was limited to a 10% increase in its .org registry fee every year. It didn’t always exercise that right, and has said twice in recent months that it still has no plans to increase its prices.

The new contract — which has already been signed and is in effect — was subjected to a public comment period that attracted over 3,200 comments, almost all of them expressing support for maintaining the caps.

Despite not-for-profit PIR’s protestations, many commenters came from the position that giving PIR the power to increase its fee without limit would very possibly lead to price gouging.

That ICANN allegedly “ignored” these comments is the key pillar of NameCheap’s RfR case.

The public comment period was a “sham”, the registrar claims.

But is this enough to make ICANN change its mind and (somehow) unsign the .org contract?

There are three ways, under ICANN’s bylaws, to win an RfR.

Requestors can show that the board or staff did something that contradicts “ICANN’s Mission, Commitments, Core Values and/or established ICANN policy(ies)”

They also win if they can show the decision was was taken “without consideration of material information” or with “reliance on false or inaccurate relevant information”.

It’s quite a high bar, and most RfRs are rejected by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which is the court of first instance for reconsideration requests.

Requestors rarely show up with sufficient new information sufficiently persuasive to kick the legs from under ICANN’s original decision, and the question of something contradicting ICANN’s core principles is usually a matter of interpretation.

For example, in this case, NameCheap is arguing that failing to side with the commenters who disagreed with the removal of price caps amounts to a breach of ICANN’s Core Value to make all decisions in consultation with stakeholders:

The ICANN org will decide whether to accept or reject public comment, and will unilaterally make its own decisions — even if that ignores the public benefit or almost unanimous feedback to the contrary, and is based upon conclusory statements not supported by the evidence. This shows that the public comment process is basically a sham, and that ICANN org will do as it pleases in this and other matters.

But one of ICANN’s stated reasons for approving the contract was to abide by its Core Value to depend “on market mechanisms to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market”. It doesn’t want to be a price regulator, in other words.

So we have a clash of Core Values here. It will be pretty easy for ICANN’s lawyers — who drafted the contract and will draft the resolutions of the BAMC and the full board — to argue that the Core Values were respected.

I think NameCheap is going to have a hard time here.

Even if it were to win, how on earth does one unsign a contract? As far as I can tell, ICANN has no termination rights that would apply here.

Where the RfR will certainly succeed is to force the ICANN board itself to take ownership, on the record, of the .org contract decision.

As ICANN explained to DI earlier this month, while the board was very much kept in the loop on the state of negotiations, it was senior staff that made all the calls on the new contract.

But an RfR means that the BAMC, which comprises five directors, will first have to raise their hands to confirm the .org decision was kosher.

NameCheap will then get a chance to file a rebuttal before the BAMC decision is handed to the full ICANN board for a confirmatory vote.

While the first two board discussions of the .org contract were not minuted, the bylaws contain an interesting feature related to RfRs that I’d never noticed before today:

If the Requestor so requests, the Board shall post both a recording and a transcript of the substantive Board discussion from the meeting at which the Board considered the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee’s recommendation.

I sincerely hope NameCheap invokes this right, as I think it’s pretty important that we get some additional clarity on ICANN’s thinking here.

ICANN would reject call for “diversity” office

Kevin Murphy, February 16, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors would reject a call for an “Office of Diversity”, due to its current budget crunch.

The board said as much in remarks filed to a public comment period that got its final report this week.

The report of the CCWG-Accountability Work Stream 2 working group had recommended several potential things ICANN could do to improve diversity in the community, largely focused on collecting and publishing data on diversity.

“Diversity” for the purposes of the recommendations does not have the usual racial connotations of the word. Instead it means: geography, language, gender, age, physical disability, skills and stakeholder group.

Some members of the working group had proposed an independent diversity office, to ensure ICANN sticks to diversity commitments, but this did not gain consensus support and was not a formal recommendation.

Some commenters, including (in a personal capacity) a current vice chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee and a former ICANN director, had echoed the call for an office of diversity.

But ICANN’s board said it would not be able to support such a recommendation:

Given the lack of clarity around this office, lack of consensus support within the subgroup (and presumably within the CCWG-Accountability and the broader community), and noting the previously-mentioned budget and funding constraints and considerations, the Board is not in a position to accept this item if it were to be presented as a formal consensus-based recommendation

In general terms, it encouraged the working group to consider ICANN’s “limited funding” when it makes its final recommendations.

It added that it may be difficult for ICANN to collect personal data on community members, in light of the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU privacy law that kicks in this May.

All the comments on the report can be found here.

Time to show ICANN who’s boss!

Kevin Murphy, June 1, 2017, Domain Policy

You are in charge of ICANN.

That statement may sound trite — it is trite — but it’s always been true to some extent.

Even if their individual voices are often lost, members of the ICANN community have always had the ability to influence policy, whether through sporadic responses to public comment periods or long term, soul-crushing working group volunteer work.

ICANN only really has power through community consent.

That’s another trite statement, but one which became more true on October 1 last year, when ICANN separated itself from US government oversight and implemented a new set of community-created bylaws.

The new bylaws created a new entity, the “Empowered Community”, which essentially replaced the USG and is able to wield more power than the ICANN board of directors itself.

Indeed, the Empowered Community can fire the entire board if it so chooses; a nuclear option for the exercise of community control that never existed before.

And the EC is, at the ICANN 59 public meeting in Johannesburg at the end of the month, about to get its first formal outing.

What the EC will discuss is pretty dull stuff. That’s why I had to trick you into reading this post with an outrageous, shameless, sensationalist headline.

Before getting into the substance of the Johannesburg meeting, I’m going to first bore you further for several paragraphs by attempting to answering the question: “What exactly is the Empowered Community?”

The EC exists an an “unincorporated association” under California law, ICANN deputy general counsel Sam Eisner told me.

It doesn’t have shareholders, directors, staff, offices… you wouldn’t find it by searching California state records. But it would have legal standing to take ICANN to court, should the need arise.

It was basically created by the new ICANN bylaws.

It comprises the five major constituencies of ICANN — the Generic Names Supporting Organization, the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, the Governmental Advisory Committee, the At-Large Advisory Committee and the Address Supporting Organization.

They’re called “Decisional Participants” and each is represented on a committee called the EC Administration by a single representative.

Right now, each group is represented on the Administration by its respective chair — GNSO Council chair James Bladel of GoDaddy represents the GNSO currently, for example — but I gather that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case; each group can decide how it appoints its rep.

Bladel tells me that each representative only takes action or casts a vote after being told to do so by their respective communities. As individuals, their power is extremely limited.

When the EC makes decisions, there must always be at least three votes in favor of the decision and no more than one vote against. A 3-1 vote would count as approval, a 3-2 vote would not.

This is to make sure that there is a fairly high degree of consensus among stakeholders while also preventing one community stonewalling the rest for strategic purposes.

The EC’s nine powers are enumerated in article 6.2 of the ICANN bylaws.

It can hire and fire an unlimited number of directors, reject the ICANN budget, file Requests for Reconsideration or Independent Review Process appeals, sue ICANN, and oversee changes to the ICANN bylaws.

Most of these powers are reactive — that is, if the ICANN board did something terrible the EC would have to consciously decide to act upon it in some way.

But one of them — approval of changes to Fundamental Bylaws — places the EC squarely in the legislative pathway. Think of it like the Queen of England’s Royal Assent or the US president’s ability to veto bills before they become law.

That’s the role the EC will adopt in Joburg this month.

The ICANN board recently passed a resolution calling for a new board committee to be created to focus on handling accountability mechanisms such as Reconsideration, removing the function from the overworked Board Governance Committee.

Because this requires a change to a Fundamental Bylaw — those bylaws considered so important they need more checks and balances — the EC has been called upon to give it the community’s formal consent.

To the best of my knowledge, the bylaws amendment is utterly uncontroversial. I haven’t heard of any objections or complaints about what essentially seems to be a probably beneficial tweak in how ICANN’s board functions.

But it will be the EC’s first formal exercise of executive power.

So there will be a session at ICANN 59 in which the EC convenes to discuss the board’s resolution and, probably, hear any input it has not already heard.

The exact format of the session seems to be up in the air at the moment, but I gather an open-mic “public forum” style meeting of about an hour is the most likely choice. It will of course be webcast, with remote participation, as almost all ICANN public meetings are.

No votes will be cast at the session — I’m told the bylaws actually forbid it — but the EC will have only 21 days afterwards to poll their communities and formally deliver their verdict. Assuming at least three of the communities consent to the board resolution and no more than one objects, it will automatically become ICANN law.

The next test of the EC, which would prove to be actually newsworthy enough to write about without a clickbait headline, may well be the ICANN budget. ICANN’s financial year ends at the end of June, and the EC has explicit powers to reject it.

The budget often raises concerns from those parties who actually pay into it, and given the difficulties the industry is in right now there may be more concerns than usual.

Anyway, this is the way ICANN works nowadays. It would make for more interesting reading if a triumvirate of Iran, China and Russia now ran the show, but they don’t. You lot do.

Just be glad Donald Trump isn’t holding the reins.

Sorry, that was also trite, wasn’t it.

Papac named ICANN’s first complaints officer

Kevin Murphy, March 10, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN has named its first-ever complaints officer.

It’s Krista Papac, a long-time domain industry participant who’s been working for ICANN, most recently as director of registry services and engagement, since 2013.

She’s previously worked for the registries Verisign, ARI (now part of Neustar) and data escrow agent Iron Mountain.

Her job will be to “provide a centralized mechanism to track complaints received about the ICANN organization” and is “an additional way for the ICANN organization to be accountable for and transparent about its performance”.

Her input will come largely from existing accountability mechanisms — the Ombudsman, Requests for Reconsideration, the Independent Review Process, and the contractual compliance department.

She’ll report to general counsel John Jeffrey.

The hire, and the reporting line, has already proved somewhat controversial.

Domain investor trade group the Internet Commerce Association today said that it was skeptical that a complaints officer reporting to the general counsel could be effective.

ICA added in a blog post that, while it has no beef with Papac, it had concerns that an insider had been hired into the role.

How can any individual who has worked for years within ICANN’s [Global Domains Division] be expected to cast prior experience and relationships aside to thoroughly and dispassionately investigate a complaint brought against GDD actions generally, or those of a specific member of the GDD staff?

Papac’s new role follows Jamie Hedlund’s internal move from head of government relations to VP of contractual compliance and consumer safeguards, in January.

Governments still split on ICANN accountability plan, but will not block it

Kevin Murphy, March 9, 2016, Domain Policy

The Governmental Advisory Committee failed to reach consensus on proposals to improve ICANN’s accountability, but has raised “no objection” to them going ahead as planned.

After burning the midnight oil in a tense series of meetings at ICANN 55 in Marrakech last night, the GAC finally agreed to the text of a letter that essentially approves the recommendations of a cross-community accountability working group.

The GAC said, in a letter (pdf) to leaders of the so-called CCWG:

While there are delegations that have expressed support for the proposal, there are other delegations that were not in a position to endorse the proposal as a whole.

In spite of this difference of opinions, the GAC has no objection to the transmission of the proposal to the ICANN Board.

This means that one of the barriers to accountability reform, which is inextricably linked to IANA’s transition away from US government oversight, has been lowered.

The GAC said it could not by consensus endorse the full suite of proposals, however.

The main sticking point was the CCWG’s recommendation 11, which essentially enshrines the GAC’s consensus-based decision-making rules in the ICANN bylaws.

A handful of governments — a bloc of South American nations, plus France and Portugal — are still not happy about this.

There is “no consensus” from the GAC on Recommendation 11, the GAC said.

There is also no consensus on the so-called “GAC carve-out” in Recommendations 1 and 2, which would limit the GAC’s ability to challenge ICANN board decisions alongside the rest of the community.

The accountability plan still needs to be formally endorsed by a couple more ICANN community groups, before it is submitted to the ICANN board for approval, which is expected to happen over the next 48 hours.

ALAC throws spanner in ICANN accountability discussions

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2015, Domain Policy

The At-Large Advisory Committee has yanked backing for a key ICANN accountability proposal.

The ALAC, on of ICANN’s policy advisory groups, this afternoon voted unanimously “to withdraw support for the Membership model” at ICANN 54 in Dublin.

The Membership model is a proposal out of the Cross Community Working Group on Accountability (CCWG) that would change ICANN’s legal structure to one of formal membership, where a Sole Member gets legal rights to enforce accountability over the ICANN board of directors.

The model has some fierce support in the CCWG, but over the last few days in Dublin the group has started to explore the possibility of a “Designator” model instead.

That would be a weaker accountability model than one based on membership, but stronger than the “Multistakeholder Enforcement Mechanism” proposed by the ICANN board.

ALAC chair Alan Greenberg said in a statement to the CCWG mailing list:

In its formal response to the CCWG-Accountability proposal issued in August 2015, the ALAC said that it could support the model being proposed, but preferred something far less complex and lighter-weight, and that we saw no need for the level of enforceability that the proposal provided. Moreover, the ALAC had specific concerns with the budget veto and the apparent lack of participation of perhaps a majority of AC/SOs.

In light of the reconsideration of a designator model by the CCWG, along with the recommendations of the Saturday morning break-out sessions, the ALAC felt that a revised statement was in order. Accordingly we decided, by a unanimous vote of the 14 ALAC members present (with 1 not present), to withdraw support for the Membership model.

I want to make it clear that this is not a “red line” decision. Should a Membership model become one that is generally advocated by the CCWG, and supported by a supermajority of Board directors (who ultimately MUST support any changes that they will be called upon to approve, else they would be in violation of their fiduciary duty), then the ALAC reserves its right to support such a model.

The move revises the battle lines in the ongoing accountability debate. It’s no longer a simple case of CCWG versus ICANN board.

Dublin is a crunch time for the accountability proposals.

The clock is ticking — if the ICANN community cannot agree on a consensus proposal soon it risks delaying the transition of the IANA functions from US government oversight and possibly killing off the transition altogether.

Yet, while the CCWG is making steady progress cleaning up remaining areas of disagreement, the differences between itself and the board are still as sharp as ever.

DI will be live-blogging ICANN 54

Kevin Murphy, October 16, 2015, Domain Policy

I’m going to be doing something a little different for ICANN’s latest public meeting.

For various tedious reasons I was unable to attend in person ICANN 54, which started in Dublin this morning, so I thought I’d try to make the best of the advantages of remote participation and a friendly time zone to try something new.

Namely, live-blogging.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a live-blog is essentially a single blog post that is updated and amended in real-time as a quickly developing news story continues to roll.

You can think of it a little like a Twitter feed, but without the restrictions.

If you have your browser open to the live-blog post, the updates should be automatically pushed to you in near real-tie without the need to manually refresh the page.

I say “should” because I’ve never done this before and, despite a bit of testing, the back-end software may not function precisely as I expect.

The auto-refresh function only seems to work, by design, in single-post view. If you’re looking at the DI front page you probably won’t get the auto-updates unless you manually refresh.

It’s all very experimental and I may quickly abandon the idea if it doesn’t seem to be working. Feedback is welcome.

The intention in some cases is to live-blog individual sessions, when they’re important enough to warrant my undivided attention — such as the opening ceremony or the meeting between the ICANN board and the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In other cases, the blog may dip in and out of conflicting sessions depending on what seems most interesting at the time.

While ICANN 54 doesn’t officially start until Monday, long-time ICANN watchers know that the real discussions begin much earlier.

In fact, in Dublin, they’ve already started.

A three-hour session of the community working group tasked with improving ICANN’s accountability, known as the CCWG, showed strong indications this morning that it may be ready to be the first blink in its ongoing confrontation with the ICANN board.

You can expect a lot of coverage of the accountability discussions, which have multiple sessions devoted to them, over the coming seven days.

ICANN on “knife edge” after accountability impasse

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2015, Domain Policy

The ICANN board of directors and the community group tasked with improving its accountability have failed to come to a compromise over the future direction of the organization, despite an intense two-day argument at the weekend.

As the often fractious Los Angeles gathering drew to a close, ICANN chair Steve Crocker said that the board was sticking to its original position on how ICANN should be structured in future, apparently unmoved by opposing arguments.

Other directors later echoed that view.

The Cross Community Working Group on Accountability (CCWG) has proposed a raft of measures designed to ensure ICANN can be held to account in future if its board goes off the rails and starts behaving crazy.

Basically, it’s trying to find a back-stop to replace the US government, which intends to remove itself from stewardship of the DNS root zone next year.

A key proposal from the CCWG is that ICANN should be remade as a member organization, a specific type of legal structure under California law.

A Sole Member, governed by community members, would have to right to take ICANN to court to enforce its bylaws.

But the ICANN board thinks that’s too complicated, that it would replace the board with the Sole Member as the ultimate governing body of ICANN, and that it could lead to unintended consequences.

It’s suggested a replacement Multistakeholder Enforcement Model that would do away with the Member and replace it with a binding arbitration process.

Its model is a lot weaker than the one proposed by the CCWG.

Much of the LA meeting’s testing first day was taken up with discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of these two models.

The second day, in an effort to adopt a more collegial tone, attendees attempted to return to the basics of how decisions are made and challenged in ICANN.

The result was a discussion that dwelt slightly too long on technicalities like voting thresholds, committee make-ups and legal minutiae.

There seems to be a general consensus that the meeting didn’t accomplish much.

Towards the end of the first day, National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Larry Stricking urged attendees to get their acts together and come up with something simple that had broad community support. He said:

At this point, we do not have a view that any particular approach is absolutely okay or is absolutely not okay. But what I can tell you is that the work that we need to see, the thoroughness, the detail, and I put this in the blog, it is not there yet. So that I don’t feel comfortable even taking what we saw in these reports and trying to opine on them because there are too many open questions

On Saturday, fellow government man Ira Magaziner, who was deeply involved with ICANN’s creation as a member of the Clinton administration, issued a stark warning.

“I think you can fail. And I think you’re right on a knife’s edge now as to whether you’ll succeed or fail,” he said.

He warned that the IANA transition is going to become a political football as the US presidential election enters its final year and unorthodox candidates (I think he means the Republican clown car) are putting forward “somewhat nationalistic” points of view.

“I think you have a limited amount of time to get this done and for the US government to consider it and pass it,” he said.

That basically means the transition has to happen before January 2017, when there’ll be a new president in the White House. If it’s a Republican, the chances of the transition going ahead get slimmer.

Sure enough, within 24 hours the first reports emerged that Republican hopeful Ted Cruz, backed up by a few other senators, is asking the Government Accountability Office whether it’s even within the power of the US executive to remove itself from the IANA process.

In a letter, Cruz asked:

1. Would the termination of the NTIA’s contract with ICANN cause Government property, of any kind, to be transferred to ICANN?

2. Is the authoritative root zone file, or other related or similar materials or information, United States government property?

3. If so, does the NTIA have the authority to transfer the root zone file or, other related materials or information to a non-federal entity?

If this kind of anti-transition sentiment catches popular opinion, you can guarantee other jingoistic candidates will fall in line.

So ICANN’s on the clock, racing the US political process. In Magaziner’s view, the meat of the disagreements needs to be resolved by the end of the Dublin meeting — three weeks from now — or not long thereafter.

He seems to be of the view that the CCWG has overreached its remit. He said:

The task of accountability that was assigned to this group was, as the chair said this morning, to replace the ultimate backstop of the US government with a community-based backstop. The committee was not charged to completely rewrite the way ICANN works. I’m sure ICANN can be improved and there ought to be an ongoing process to improve the way it works, but this particular committee and NTIA didn’t ask you to completely redo ICANN.

The LA meeting didn’t seem to help much in moving the accountability debate closer.

On Saturday afternoon, Crocker spoke to confirm that the board is sticking to its guns in opposing the Sole Member model.

“We certainly did not understand and don’t believe that creating a superstructure to replace them [the US government] in a corporate sense was intended, desired, needed, or appropriate,” he said.

“So in the comments that we submitted some time ago, we did represent a board position. We did a quick check this morning, and 100% agreement that what we said then still stands,” he said.

That’s a reference to the board feedback on the CCWG proposal submitted September 11.

Now, the CCWG has to figure out what to do before Dublin.

Currently, it’s combing through the scores of public comments submitted on its last draft proposals (probably something that should have happened earlier) in order to figure out exactly where everyone agrees and disagrees.

It seems ICANN 54, which starts October 16, will be dominated by this stuff.

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