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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.

Was panel wrong to put .africa on ice or does ICANN have an accountability problem?

Kevin Murphy, May 13, 2014, Domain Policy

Did an Independent Review Process panel get it wrong when it accused ICANN of failing to implement proper accountability mechanisms, or did it actually highlight a more serious problem?

As we reported yesterday, an IRP panel has ordered ICANN to not delegate ZA Central Registry’s .africa gTLD until it’s heard an appeal by failed rival bidder DotConnectAfrica.

IRP is ICANN’s last avenue of appeal for organizations that believe they’ve been wronged by ICANN decisions. Due to the duration of the process and the need for legal representation, it’s extremely expensive.

The IRP panel in the .africa case based its decision largely on the fact that ICANN has failed to create a “standing panel” of would-be IRP panelists, something the panel said would have sped up the process.

A “standing panel” is supposed to be six to nine panelists-in-waiting — all respected jurists — from which three-person IRP panels could be selected when needed in future.

DCA would not have needed to file for an emergency injunction against .africa’s delegation had this standing panel been created, the panel said.

According to the IRP panel, the creation of a standing panel has been “required” by the ICANN bylaws since April 2013, and ICANN has “failed” to follow its own rules by not creating one. It wrote:

the Panel is of the view that this Independent Review Process could have been heard and finally decided without the need for interim relief, but for ICANN’s failure to follow its own Bylaws… which require the creation of a standing panel

But ICANN disagrees, getting in touch with us today to point out that the panel only partially quoted the ICANN bylaws.

This is the bit of the bylaws the panel quoted:

There shall be an omnibus standing panel of between six and nine members with a variety of expertise, including jurisprudence, judicial experience, alternative dispute resolution and knowledge of ICANN’s mission and work from which each specific IRP Panel shall be selected.

There seems to me to be little ambiguity in that paragraph; ICANN “shall” create a standing panel.

But ICANN reminds us that the IRP panel ignored a second bit of this paragraph, which states:

In the event that an omnibus standing panel: (i) is not in place when an IRP Panel must be convened for a given proceeding, the IRP proceeding will be considered by a one- or three-member panel comprised in accordance with the rules of the IRP Provider; or (ii) is in place but does not have the requisite diversity of skill and experience needed for a particular proceeding, the IRP Provider shall identify one or more panelists, as required, from outside the omnibus standing panel to augment the panel members for that proceeding.

Basically, the bit of the bylaws stating that ICANN “shall” create a standing panel is almost immediately negated by a bit that explains what is supposed to happen if ICANN does not create a standing panel.

It’s confusing.

Is ICANN “required” (the panel’s word) to create this standing panel or not? ICANN seems to think not, but the panel thinks otherwise.

I have no opinion because, luckily, I’m not a lawyer.

But I did a bit of digging into the public record to figure out why the bylaws are so confusing on this issue and what I found is slightly worrying if you’re concerned about ICANN accountability.

The bylaws paragraph in question was added in April 2013, but it has its roots in the findings of the first Accountability and Transparency Review Team, which is the key way ICANN’s accountability is reviewed under the 2009 Affirmation of Commitments with the US government.

The ATRT said in 2010 (pdf) that ICANN should “seek input from a committee of independent experts on the restructuring of the three review mechanisms” including the IRP.

ICANN did this, convening a three-person Accountability Structures Expert Panel, made up of widely respected corporate/legal brains Mervyn King, Graham McDonald and Richard Moran

It was this ASEP that came up with the idea for a standing panel, which it said would speed up IRP decisions and reduce costs.

Members of the standing panel would be paid an annual retainer even when not working on an IRP, but it would be cheaper because IRP complainants and ICANN wouldn’t have to repeatedly explain to a new panel of doddery old ex-judges what ICANN is and does.

The ASEP, in its report (pdf) did not specify what should happen if ICANN decided not to implement its recommendation on the standing panel.

I can’t know for sure, but from the public record it seems that the confusing second part of the bylaws amendment was the creation of the ICANN board, possibly based on a single comment from gTLD registries.

The provision about a standing panel was formally added to the bylaws with an April 2013 resolution of ICANN’s board of directors, which followed a December 2012 resolution that approved the change in principle.

The second part of the amendment, the bit about what happens if ICANN does not institute a standing panel, was added at some point between those two resolutions.

The April resolution sheds a little light on the reason for the addition, saying (with my added emphasis):

Whereas, as contemplated within the [December 2012] Board resolution, and as reflected in public comment, further minor revisions are needed to the Bylaws to provide flexibility in the composition of a standing panel for the Independent Review process (IRP).

Resolved (2013.04.11.06), the Bylaws revisions to Article IV, Section 2 (Reconsideration) and Article IV, Section 3 (Independent Review) as approved by the Board and subject to a minor amendment to address public comments regarding the composition of a standing panel for the IRP, shall be effective on 11 April 2013.

The notes to the resolution further explain (again with my emphasis):

The Bylaws as further revised also address a potential area of concern raised by the community during the public comments on this issue, regarding the ability for ICANN to maintain a standing panel for the Independent Review proceedings. If a standing panel cannot be comprised, or cannot remain comprised, the Bylaws now allow for Independent Review proceedings to go forward with individually selected panelists.

The “minor amendment” referred to in the resolution seems to have enabled ICANN to basically ignore the ASEP recommendations, which (remember) stem from the ATRT review, for the last 12 months.

The April 2013 resolution was on the consent agenda for the meeting, so there was no minuted discussion by the board, but it seems pretty clear that “public comments” are responsible for the second part of the bylaws amendment.

But whose public comments?

When the ASEP report was open for comment, only two people responded — the Registries Stakeholder Group and former ICANN director Alejandro Pisanty, apparently commenting in a personal capacity.

On the subject of the proposed standing panel, the RySG said it wasn’t happy:

We also are concerned with the concept of standing panels for the IRP. A key component of the IRP is that the review is “independent.” To keep this independence, we believe that service on an IRP tribunal should be open to all eligible panelists, not just those with previous experience with or knowledge of ICANN. Determining whether an organization has complied with its bylaws or articles of incorporation should not require historic knowledge of the organization itself, and we believe that any jurist generally qualified by the IRP provider should be more than capable of acting as a panelist for an IRP.

It wasn’t the RySG’s main concern, and it wasn’t given much space in its comment.

Pisanty, commenting during the comment-reply period, seemed to disagree with the RySG, saying that the ongoing institutional knowledge of a standing panel could be a boon to the IRP.

When the ASEP report was discussed at a lightly attended early-morning session of the ICANN Toronto meeting in October 2012, the only person to comment on the standing panel was Neustar lawyer Becky Burr, and she liked the idea (transcript).

It’s not what you’d call a groundswell of opposition to the standing panel idea. There were few opinions, those opinions were split, and if anything the balance of commentary favors the notion.

In any event, when ICANN compiled its usual compilation report on the public comments (pdf) its legal staffer said:

After review of the comments, no changes to the ASEP recommendations are recommended, and the report will be forwarded to the Board for consideration and action, along with the proposed Bylaws amendments.

ICANN staff, it seems, didn’t think the RySG’s (lone?) opposition to the standing panel concept was worth messing with the ASEP’s recommendations.

And yet the ICANN board added the text about what happens in the event of a standing panel not existing anyway.

I could be wrong, but it does look a little bit like the ICANN board giving itself a carte blanch to ignore the recommendations of the ASEP, and therefore, indirectly, the ATRT.

ICANN may well have a point about the .africa IRP panel inappropriately ignoring some key sentences in the ICANN bylaws, but I can’t help but wonder how those sentences got there in the first place.

.africa frozen by panel after ICANN screwup

Kevin Murphy, May 12, 2014, Domain Policy

ZA Central Registry’s bid for the .africa new gTLD has been put on ice by an arbitration panel which admonished ICANN for failing to follow its own bylaws.

An Independent Review Panel ruled yesterday that ICANN should not carry on processing .africa until it has ruled on a complaint filed by failed .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica.

If .africa were to be delegated, which could have happened as early as Thursday — ZACR and ICANN have already signed a Registry Agreement — it would render the IRP’s decision moot, the panel found.

This ruling doesn’t mean ICANN has lost the case, just that it’s temporarily enjoined from delegating .africa until the final decision has been made by the IRP panel.

However, the panel had some stern words for ICANN, saying that the matter could have been settled months ago had ICANN only followed its own bylaws.

In the Panel’s unanimous view, it would be unfair and unjust to deny DCA Trust’s request for interim relief when the need for such a relief by DCA Trust arises out of ICANN’s failure to follow its own bylaws.

ICANN’s board of directors passed a resolution in April 2013 calling for the creation of a “standing committee” of nine potential IRP panelists, from which each three-person IRP panel could be drawn.

But, over a year later, it has not created this committee, the current IRP panel said. This led to the delay that forced DCA to request the emergency injunction.

ICANN’s basically been told by one of its own accountability mechanisms that that accountability mechanism is inadequate, at a time when its accountability mechanisms are under the world’s spotlight.

Just last week, the organization launched an accountability review that it said it “interdependent and interrelated” to the process of transitioning IANA away from US government stewardship.

Yeah, it’s embarrassing for ICANN. Doubly so because it’s been beaten by a company so incompetent it accidentally applied for the wrong gTLD.

For ZACR, the panel reckons the delay in getting .africa delegated will likely last “a few months”.

Despite IRP, .africa gets a new gTLD contract

Kevin Murphy, March 26, 2014, Domain Registries

ICANN has signed a Registry Agreement with ZA Central Registry for the new gTLD .africa, despite the string being subject to a legal dispute.

The RA was signed with the South African applicant on Monday.

Rival .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica filed an Independent Review Process complaint against ICANN in January, claiming the rejection of its bid, which came because it lacked government support, was “unfair, discriminatory, and lacked appropriate due diligence and care”.

Now that ZACR is a contracted party — meaning that .africa is likely to hit the root in two or three months — it will be very difficult for DCA to get appropriate recompense should it win the IRP.

Fortunately for ICANN, I think there’s a better chance of me getting elected Pope.

DotConnectAfrica files for ICANN independent review

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2014, Domain Policy

Failed .africa gTLD applicant DotConnectAfrica has filed an Independent Review Process appeal against ICANN, it emerged today.

The nature of the complaint is not entirely clear, but in a press release DCA said it’s related to “ICANN Board decisions and actions taken with regard to DCA Trust’s application for the .africa new gTLD”.

It’s only the third time an IRP has been filed. The first two were related to .xxx; ICM Registry won its pioneering case in 2009 and Manwin Licensing settled its followup case last year.

DCA said that it’s an “amended” complaint. It turns out the first notice of IRP was sent October 23. ICANN published it December 12, but I missed it at the time.

I’d guess that the original needed to be amended due to a lack of detail. The “Nature of Dispute” section of the form, filed with the International Center for Dispute Resolution, is just a sentence long, whereas ICM and Manwin attached 30 to 60-page legal complaints to theirs.

The revised notice, which has not yet been published, was filed January 10, according to DCA.

DCA applied for .africa in the current new gTLD round, but lacked the government support required by the Applicant Guidebook for strings matching the names of important geographic regions.

Its rival applicant, South African ccTLD registry Uniforum, which does have government backing, looks set to wind up delegated, whereas ICANN has designated DCA’s bid as officially “Not Approved”.

DCA has been alleging a conspiracy — often involving DI — at almost every juncture of the process, even before it filed its application. Read more here, here and here.

To win an IRP, it’s going to have to show that it suffered “injury or harm that is directly and causally connected to the Board’s alleged violation of the Bylaws or the Articles of Incorporation”.