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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.