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.sucks and ICANN not invited to Congressional hearing on .sucks and ICANN

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2015, Domain Policy

The witness list in next week’s US Congressional hearing into .sucks and ICANN accountability does not feature .sucks or ICANN.

The eight witnesses are largely drawn from outspoken critics of both ICANN and Vox Populi, either companies or trade associations and lobby groups. It’s stacked heavily in favor of intellectual property interests.

The hearing is titled “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation”.

With hindsight, the “Stakeholder Perspectives” bit gives away the fact that the judiciary subcommittee holding the hearing is more concerned with listening to ICANN’s critics than ICANN itself.

Mei-lan Stark, a senior intellectual property lawyer from Fox and 2014 president of the International Trademark Association, tops the list.

A critic of the new gTLD program, in 2011 Stark told Congress that the first round of new gTLDs would cost Fox “conservatively” $12 million in defensive registration fees.

It will be interesting to see if any Congresspeople confront Stark about that claim, which appeared like a gross overstatement even at the time.

One company that has been enthusiastically embracing new gTLDs — as an applicant, registry, defensive and non-defensive registrant — is Amazon, which has VP of global public policy Paul Misener on the panel.

Amazon has beef with ICANN for siding with the Governmental Advisory Committee over the battle for .amazon, which Amazon has been banned from obtaining, so it’s difficult to see the company as an overly friendly witness.

Next up is John Horton, president of LegitScript, the company that certifies legitimate online pharmacies and backs the .pharmacy new gTLD.

LegitScript is in favor of greater regulation of the domain name industry in order to make it easier to shut down potentially dangerous web sites (though opponents say it’s more often more interested in protecting Big Pharma’s profit margins). This month it called for a ban on Whois privacy for e-commerce sites.

Steve Metalitz, counsel for the Coalition for Online Accountability (a lobbyist for the movie and music industries) and six-term president of the ICANN Intellectual Property Constituency, is also on the list.

Jonathan Zuck, president of ACT The App Association (aka the Association for Competitive Technology, backed by Verisign and other tech firms) is on the list.

NetChoice director Steve DelBianco is also showing up again. He’s an ICANN hearing mainstay and I gather with this appearance he’ll be getting the final stamp on his Rayburn Building Starbucks loyalty card. That means a free latte, which is always nice.

Internet Commerce Association counsel Phil Corwin is a surprise invitee. ICA represents big domainers and is not a natural ally of the IP side of the house.

Bill Woodcock, executive director of Packet Clearing House, rounds off the list. PCH might not have instant name recognition but it provides Anycast DNS infrastructure services for scores of ccTLDs and gTLDs.

The committee hearing will take place at 10am local time next Wednesday.

A second hearing, entitled “Stakeholder Perspectives on the IANA Transition” will be held four hours later by a subcommittee of the House Energy & Commerce committee. The witnesses for that one have not yet been announced.

It’s going to be a busy day for ICANN bods on Capitol Hill.

Congress to put .sucks on trial

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2015, Domain Policy

The US Congress is to hold a hearing to look into the .sucks gTLD and ICANN accountability.

A hearing entitled “Stakeholder Perspectives on ICANN: The .sucks Domain and Essential Steps to Guarantee Trust and Accountability in the Internet’s Operation” has been scheduled by the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet

It will take place in Washington DC next Wednesday, May 13.

The list of witnesses does not yet appear to have been published.

I would guess we’d be looking at, at the very least, somebody senior from ICANN, somebody senior from .sucks registry Vox Populi, and an intellectual property lawyer.

It was ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency that complained about .sucks’ sunrise policies and fees, causing ICANN to refer the matter to US and Canadian trade regulators.

The title of the House hearing suggests that the .sucks controversy will be inextricably tied to the broader issue of ICANN accountability, which is currently undergoing a significant review as ICANN seeks to split permanently from US government oversight.

That’s not great optics for ICANN; I’m sure the organization would rather not have its performance judged on what is quite an unusual edge case emerging from the new gTLD program.

Panel slaps ICANN in .africa case

Kevin Murphy, August 18, 2014, Domain Policy

A panel of arbitrators had some stern words for ICANN as it handed controversial .africa gTLD applicant DotConnectAfrica another win in its Independent Review Process case.

In a 33-page procedural ruling (pdf) published by ICANN late Friday, the IRP panel disagreed with ICANN’s lawyers on almost every argument they made, siding with DCA instead.

The panel strongly indicated that it believes ICANN has attempted to render the IRP toothless, after losing the first such case against ICM Registry a few years ago.

The ruling means that ICANN’s top executives and board may have to face hostile cross-examination by DCA lawyers, rather than simply filing written statements with the panel.

It also means that whatever the IRP panel ultimately decides will in all likelihood be binding on ICANN.

DCA filed the IRP with the International Center for Dispute resolution after ICANN, accepting Governmental Advisory Committee advice, rejected the company’s application for .africa.

The ICDR panel has not yet ruled on the merits of the case — personally, I don’t think DCA has a leg to stand on — but last week’s ruling is certainly embarrassing for ICANN.

On a number of counts, ICANN tried to wriggle out of its accountability responsibilities, the ruling suggests.

Primarily, ICANN lawyers had argued that the eventual outcome of the IRP case should be advisory, rather than binding, but the panel disagreed.

The panel noted that new gTLD applicants sign away their rights to sue when they apply for a gTLD, meaning IRP is their last form of appeal against rejection.

It also called into question ICANN’s ability to police itself without a binding decision from an independent third party, pointing to previously reported accountability problems (my emphasis):

The need for a compulsory remedy is concretely shown by ICANN’s longstanding failure to implement the provision of the Bylaws and Supplementary Procedures requiring the creation of a standing panel. ICANN has offered no explanation for this failure, which evidences that a self-policing regime at ICANN is insufficient. The failure to create a standing panel has consequences, as this case shows, delaying the processing of DCA Trust’s claim, and also prejudicing the interest of a competing .AFRICA applicant.

Moreover, assuming for the sake of argument that it is acceptable for ICANN to adopt a remedial scheme with no teeth, the Panel is of the opinion that, at a minimum, the IRP should forthrightly explain and acknowledge that the process is merely advisory. This would at least let parties know before embarking on a potentially expensive process that a victory before the IRP panel may be ignored by ICANN.

The decision is the opposite of what the IRP panel found in the ICM Registry case, which was ruled to be “non-binding” in nature.

While deciding that its own eventual ruling will be precedential, the panel said it did not have to follow the precedent from the ICM case, due to changes made to the IRP procedure in the meantime.

ICANN had also argued against the idea of witnesses being cross-examined, but the panel again disagreed, saying that both parties will have the opportunity “to challenge and test the veracity of statements made by witnesses”.

The hearing will be conducted by video ink, which could reduce costs somewhat, but it’s not quite as streamlined as ICANN was looking for.

Not only will ICANN’s top people face a grilling by DCA’s lawyers, but ICANN’s lawyers will, it seems, get a chance to put DCA boss Sophia Bekele on the stand.

I’d pay good money for a ticket to that hearing.

Unanimous support for new ICANN appeals process

Kevin Murphy, June 30, 2014, Domain Policy

The Generic Names Supporting Organization has issued an “unprecedented” statement of “unanimous” support for a new way for ICANN community members to appeal ICANN decisions.

All seven constituency groups signed onto a statement that was read by representatives of registries, non-commercial users and intellectual property interests at the ICANN 50 public forum last week.

“It only took us 50 meetings, but I think the rarity of what you’re witnessing this afternoon sends a very strong message about our views,” the Registries Stakeholder Group’s Keith Drazek said.

This is the meat of the demand:

The entire GNSO joins together today calling for the Board to support community creation of an independent accountability mechanism that provides meaningful review and adequate redress for those harmed by ICANN action or inaction in contravention of an agreed upon compact with the community.

Rafik Dammak of the Non-Commercial Users Constituency added that the creation of such a mechanism is “a necessary and integral element of the IANA stewardship transition.”

“The Board’s decisions must be open to challenge and the Board cannot be in a position of reviewing and certifying its own decisions,” he said.

“We need an independent accountability structure that holds the ICANN Board, Staff, and various stakeholder groups accountable under ICANN’s governing documents, serves as an ultimate review of Board/Staff decisions,” said Kristina Rosette of the Intellectual Property Constituency.

What they’re basically looking for is a third way to appeal ICANN decisions beyond the existing Independent Review Process and Request for Reconsideration mechanisms.

IRP is considered too time-consuming and expensive for anyone other than well-funded commercial stakeholders. It cost ICM Registry millions in legal fees to win its IRP in 2010.

RfR, meanwhile, sees the ICANN board review its own decisions, and is only successful (in 15 years it’s only happened once, a week ago) when a requester can bring new evidence to the table.

What the GNSO seems to be looking for is a third way — independent review of ICANN decisions that doesn’t cost a bomb and can be used to reexamine decisions on the merits.

In many ways the demand represents the low-hanging fruit of the amorphous “accountability” discussion that took place at length at the London meeting last week.

ICANN accountability is being examined simultaneously with the proposed transition of the IANA stewardship functions from the US Department of Commerce to a yet-undefined mechanism.

There seems to be broad community consensus that the transition should be linked to improvements in accountability.

During the “constituency day” sessions on Tuesday, during which the ICANN board visits in turn with each GNSO constituency, accountability was the theme common to each and every session.

Time and again, CEO Fadi Chehade pushed the constituency he was addressing to provide some specifics.

“What is accountability and how accountable are we today?” he asked the RySG. “Who are we accountable to for what? We need to get precise before you ask us to answer a question that says when you finish accountability, then you can move to the transition.”

The GNSO statement two days later, which still needs fleshing out with details, appears to be the first step toward providing the precision Chehade wants.

Chehade said multiple times that the accountability review and the IANA transition discussions are “interrelated” but not “interdependent.”

If one were dependent on the other, it would be easier for opponents to stonewall the IANA transition by delaying the accountability review, he said.

“There are people in this community would like the transition from the US government to never happen,” he told the RySG. “They won’t admit it, but there are several, in this room even, who want this to never happen.”

He later told the NCUC that these bogeymen were “not in this room”, highlighting perhaps his belief that one or more gTLD registries is preparing to throw a spanner in the works.

Suspicion immediately fell on Verisign, forcing Drazek to issue a separate statement at the public forum on Thursday denying that the company (his employer) opposes the transition:

VeriSign supports NTIA’s March 14th, 2014 announcement. VeriSign supports NTIA’s four key principles. VeriSign Supports the bottom-up multistakeholder process that is now under way and that we have already been very much engaged. VeriSign supports the target date of September 2015 for transition. We support these things provided the multistakeholder community recommendations for ICANN’s accountability reforms are accepted by NTIA before the final transition, and sufficiently implemented by ICANN subject to measurable deliverables.

It’s not much of a denial, really, more of a clarification of where Verisign stands and confirmation that it wants, as Chehade alluded to, accountability reform prior to the IANA transition.

In my view, accountability is the more important of these two threads.

The Department of Commerce doesn’t actually do much in terms of its hands-on role as steward of the IANA functions as they related to domain names. It merely checks that ICANN’s proper procedures have been followed before signing off on DNS root zone changes.

If sanity prevails in the ICANN community’s transition discussions (and I have no reason to believe it will) whatever replaces the US should be similarly mute and invisible.

However, Commerce’s arguably more important role has been to act as a constant Sword of Damocles, a threat that ICANN could lose its IANA powers if it goes rogue and starts acting (in the US government’s view) against the best interests of the internet community.

That’s a very crude accountability mechanism.

What ICANN needs in future is not a direct replacement of that existential threat, but a mechanism of accessible, independent third-party review that will give the ICANN community and internet users everywhere confidence that ICANN isn’t a loose cannon with its hand on the internet’s tiller.

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