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.
DotConnectAfrica has published a lengthy retort to DI’s recent post about the (probably) contested .africa gTLD, in which I accused DCA of being disconnected from reality.
According to DCA, DI’s post was “unprofessional, unwarranted, and sub judice to the ICANN evaluation process”, because it pointed out that Uniforum’s competing bid for .africa stands the best chance of being approved by ICANN.
Having read DCA’s response, I stand by what I wrote.
Geographic gTLDs are governed by special rules at ICANN. They need government support. Nobody disputes this.
In the case of .africa, which covers a lot of countries, support or non-objection from 60% of the relevant governments is required. I don’t think anyone is disputing this either.
Uniforum’s application has this March 2012 letter (pdf) from the African Union Commission, which provides the AUC’s explicit, unambiguous, exclusive support to Uniforum.
Uniforum also claims to have individual support from the required 60% of nations, though I have not seen documentary evidence of this.
DotConnectAfrica, on the other hand, has a August 2009 letter from AUC chair Jean Ping, which expresses support for the DCA application.
It is this 2009 letter that DCA is relying upon to pass the geographic support test in the ICANN evaluation process. In its latest blog post, DCA said, addressing DI:
If you state openly in your Blog that our 2009 endorsement that we got from the African Union Commission does not count, then you are obviously playing the same game that was started by our detractors who have been trying all along to deny and invalidate our hard-won endorsement in order to frustrate DCA’s chances of applying for DotAfrica. It is our sacred responsibility to make sure that our early-bird endorsement from the African Union Commission counts.
In response, all I can say is: “Good luck.”
The Uniforum letter of support, which is more recent by almost three years, states that it is “the only formal endorsement provided by the African Union and its member’s states with regard to dotAfrica.”
On the other hand, the DCA letter of support was “categorically” retracted by the African Union in this May 2011 communication.
The only possible interpretation of this, in my mind, is that Uniforum has African Union backing and that DCA does not.
Unless there’s some obscure nuance of African politics that I’ve failed to comprehend, I don’t think there’s a thing DCA can do to change that fact.
It sucks for DCA, but that’s the way it is.
As for DCA’s insinuations that DI’s position has somehow been bought, I’ll just say for the record that no opinion that has ever been expressed on DI has ever been paid for by a third party.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve probably turned down somewhere in the region of $20,000 from various parties who wanted me to give them favorable coverage in exchange for payment.
That’s just not how things work around here.
DotConnectAfrica’s campaign for .africa (or .dotafrica, depending who you talk to) is getting increasingly weird.
As you may recall, DCA is the Mauritius-based company, headed by the charismatic and telegenic entrepreneur Sophia Bekele, which has been campaigning for a .africa gTLD for the last few years.
It “accidentally” applied for “.dotafrica” — a sign of almost mind-boggling incompetence — instead of the intended “.africa”, but remains confident that ICANN will allow it to change its application to correct the error.
Despite these failings, the firm has put a lot of hard work raising the profile of the .africa gTLD, for which it should be commended. Unfortunately, it’s not going to win.
If anyone is going to get the .africa registry contract, it’s the other applicant: Uniforum, the South African ccTLD registry.
Despite this painful truth, DCA appears to be in denial.
Take this op-ed, published yesterday on CircleID.
In it, somebody from DCA (the piece does not have a byline) states:
DotConnectAfrica remains a strong contender for the DotAfrica string name and actually stands the best chance of being awarded the mandate to operate the .AFRICA gTLD registry
What’s the basis for this confidence?
[DCA] has adhered to, and respected all the guidelines of the new gTLD programme, in addition to accepting ICANN’s oversight of the entire process, unlike UniForum which might be penalized for wrongly attributing the rights of DotAfrica gTLD to the AU [African Union] instead of ICANN in direct contravention of the new gTLD programme guidelines
DCA is essentially saying that ICANN, and not the African Union, should be the body that gets to decide who should run .africa.
That’s true. It’s also complete rubbish.
Nobody, not even DCA, denies that .africa is a “geographic” gTLD application, as defined by the Applicant Guidebook.
You may have noticed that in the current new gTLD round there are no applications that are both “geographic” and contested by multiple applicants. There’s a good reason for that.
According to ICANN’s rules: “If an applicant has applied for a gTLD string that is a geographic name (as defined in this Guidebook), the applicant is required to submit documentation of support for or non-objection to its application from the relevant governments or public authorities.”
Geographic gTLDs only get approved if the government(s) of that geographic region don’t object, in other words.
These letters of support or non-objection are not being published by ICANN, but the public record has quite a bit to say about which governments support which bids.
In the case of .africa, which covers a lot of countries, ICANN requires letters of support or non-objection from 60% of the nations concerned, and no more than one letter of objection from a government.
Uniforum executives told me recently that the company has this 60% support. It also has the explicit, exclusive, unambiguous support of the African Union Commission.
Here’s what the AU has to say on the matter (pdf):
the AU Commission selected UniForum SA (the ZA Central Registry Operator or ZACR), to administer and operate dotAfrica gTLD on behalf of the African community. The endorsement of the ZACR is the only formal endorsement provided by the African Union and its member’s states with regard to dotAfrica.
If DotConnectAfrica wanted to scupper the Uniforum bid, its best bet would be to lobby African governments that are not already supporting Uniforum — such as those that are not members of the AU — in order to secure more than one letter of objection.
That wouldn’t give DCA a chance to win .africa — contested geographic gTLDs do not go to auction — but it would mean Uniforum’s bid would be rejected for want of support.
But DCA is taking a different — and completely inexplicable — approach.
In a June press release, which tried and failed to explain why DCA applied for .dotafrica instead of .africa, the company said:
Uniforum should really be worrying about the more serious problem it has on its hand, to wit: the agreement signed with the AU is with Uniforum SA/ZA Central Registry, but the putative registry operator/applicant for ‘Africa’ is UniForum SA trading as Registry.Africa.
Where is UniForum SA trading as Registry.Africa’s endorsement for ‘Africa’ gTLD? Is it the specious letter of appointment to apply for DotAfrica gTLD, or the purported agreement between the AU and Uniforum SA/ZA Central Registry? DCA Trust will be watching closely to see how UniForum will try to correct these documentation problems to ensure that no illegal acts are committed.
Did you understand that?
DCA is saying that because Uniforum plans to operate .africa under a standard “doing business as” brand of Registry.Africa — something fully disclosed in its gTLD application — its official letter of support from the AU is somehow open to debate.
To make the company look even more out of touch, DCA has recently had an unhealthy focus on the “insidious mass media manipulation” campaign that it reckons Uniforum has been waging against it. Presumably this blog post can be added to that file at DCA HQ.
I’m struggling to recall where I’ve witnessed such nutty PR before.
If DCA wants to be taken seriously it’s going to have to explain — in plain, unobfuscated English — one of two things:
2) Why the 60% rule does not apply to its .africa bid.
Until either of those things are clarified, DCA’s messaging is just a confusing mess.
The .africa top-level domain may well be unique — the only geographic gTLD to be contested.
DotConnectAfrica, which has been campaigning for .africa for years, has confirmed that it has applied for the string, despite the fact that another bidder has support of the African Union.
DCA chief Sophia Bekele blogged:
because of the history of the DotAfrica gTLD and our experience during the ‘Yes2DotAfrica’ promotional campaign, we anticipate a prolonged process
The AU in February announced that it was providing its support to a .africa application from UniForum, the South African ccTLD registry.
DCA had previously secured what appeared to be a letter of support from an AU official, but it has since been withdrawn.
According to ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook, if you want to run a geographic gTLD representing multiple countries, you need the express support or non-objection of 60% of those countries.
I’m pretty certain DCA doesn’t have this support, but the AU’s membership does include more than 60% of the nations in Africa.
Is DCA applying in order to get a pay-off from the Uniforum bid? It’s possible, but without the required government support its negotiating position appears to be pretty weak.
Sedari has been contracted to support the controversial African Union-backed .africa top-level domain application.
The new gTLD specialist will supply UniForum with its usual suite of financial, technical and policy support services, Sedari said today.
South Africa-based UniForum was given approval for its .africa bid by the AU last week, raising questions over a longstanding rival application by DotConnectAfrica.
UniForum is already responsible for South Africa’s .za country-code top-level domain.