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Community calls on ICANN to cut staff spending

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN should look internally to cut costs before swinging the scythe at the volunteer community.

That’s a key theme to emerge from many comments filed by the community last week on ICANN’s fiscal 2019 budget, which sees spending on staff increase even as revenue stagnates and cuts are made in other key areas.

ICANN said in January that it would have to cut $5 million from its budget for the year beginning July 1, 2018, largely due to a massive downwards revision in how many new gTLD domains it expects the industry to process.

At the same time, the organization said it will increase its payroll by $7.3 million, up to $76.8 million, with headcount swelling to 425 by the end of the fiscal year and staff receiving on average a 2% pay rise.

In comments filed on the budget, many community members questioned whether this growth can be justified.

Among the most diplomatic objections came from the GNSO Council, which said:

In principle, the GNSO Council believes that growth of staff numbers should only occur under explicit justification and replacements due to staff attrition should always occur with tight scrutiny; especially in times of stagnate funding levels.

The Council added that it is not convinced that the proposed budget funds the policy work it needs to do over the coming year.

The Registrars Stakeholder Group noted the increased headcount with concern and said:

Given the overall industry environment where organizations are being asked to do more with less, we are not convinced these additional positions are needed… The RrSG is not yet calling for cuts to ICANN Staff, we believe the organization should strive to maintain headcount at FY17 Actual year-end levels.

The RrSG shared the GNSO Council’s concern that policy work, ICANN’s raison d’etre, may suffer under the proposed budget.

The At-Large Advisory Committee said it “does not support the direction taken in this budget”, adding:

Specifically we see an increase in staff headcount and personnel costs while services to the community have been brutally cut. ICANN’s credibility rests upon the multistakeholder model, and cuts that jeopardize that model should not be made unless there are no alternatives and without due recognition of the impact.

Staff increases may well be justified, but we must do so we a real regard to costs and benefits, and these must be effectively communicated to the community

ALAC is concerned that the budget appears to cut funding to many projects that see ICANN reach out to, and fund participation by, non-industry potential community members.

Calling for “fiscal prudence”, the Intellectual Property Constituency said it “encourages ICANN to take a hard look at personnel costs and the use of outside professional services consultants.”

The IPC is also worried that ICANN may have underestimated the costs of its contractual compliance programs.

The Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group had some strong words:

The organisation’s headcount, and personnel costs, cannot continue to grow. We feel strongly that the proposal to grow headcount by 25 [Full-Time Employees] to 425 FTE in a year where revenue has stagnated cannot be justified.

With 73% of the overall budget now being spent on staff and professional services, there is an urgent need to see this spend decrease over time… there is a need to stop the growth in the size of the staff, and to review staff salaries, bonuses, and fringe benefits.

NCSG added that ICANN could perhaps reduce costs by relocating some positions from its high-cost Los Angeles headquarters to the “global south”, where the cost of living is more modest.

The ccNSO Strategic and Operational Planning Standing Committee was the only commentator, that I could find, to straight-up call for a freeze in staff pay rises. While also suggesting moving staff to less costly parts of the globe, it said:

The SOPC – as well as many other community stakeholders – seem to agree that ICANN staff are paid well enough, and sometimes even above market average. Considering the current DNS industry trends and forecasts, tougher action to further limit or even abolish the annual rise in compensation would send a strong positive signal to the community.

It’s been suggested that, when asked to find areas to cut, ICANN department heads prioritized retaining their own staff, which is why we’re seeing mainly cuts to community funding.

I’ve only summarized the comments filed by formal ICANN structures here. Other individuals and organizations filing comments in their own capacity expressed similar views.

I was unable to find a comment explicitly supporting increased staffing costs. Some groups, such as the Registries Stakeholder Group, did not address the issue directly.

While each commentator has their own reasons for wanting to protect the corner of the budget they tap into most often, it’s a rare moment when every segment of the community (commercial and non-commercial, domain industry and IP interests) seem to be on pretty much the same page on an issue.

Sanchez beats Greenberg to ICANN board seat

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2017, Domain Policy

Mexican intellectual property lawyer León Felipe Sánchez Ambía has been selected to become a member of the ICANN board of directors by the At-Large, comfortably beating his opponent in a poll this weekend.

Sanchez took 13 votes (65%) to 10-year At-Large veteran Alan Greenberg’s 7, in a vote of At-Large Advisory Committee members and Regional At Large Organization chairs.

He’ll take the seat due to be vacated in November by Rinalia Abdul Rahim, who will leave the board after one three-year term.

He’s currently head of the IP practice and a partner at Fulton & Fulton in Mexico City. According to his bio:

He is co-lead for the Mexican chapter of Creative Commons and advisor to different Government bodies that include the Digital Strategy Coordination Office of the Mexican Presidency, the Special Commission on Digital Agenda and IT of the Mexican House of Representatives and the Science and Technology Commission of the Mexican Senate.

He drafted the Internet Users Rights Protection Act for Mexico and has been very active on issues like Anti-Counterfeit Trade Agreement (ACTA), Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and other local initiatives of the same kind, always advocating to defend users’ and creators’ rights in order to achieve a balance between regulation and freedom.

Sanchez is certainly the less experienced of the two short-listed men when it comes to length of involvement in the ICANN community, but he’s a member of the ALAC and is deeply involved as a volunteer in ICANN accountability work following the IANA transition.

The At-Large was recently criticized in a report (pdf) for the perception that it is “controlled by a handful of ICANN veterans who rotate between the different leadership positions”.

Sanchez’s appointment to the board may have an effect on that perception.

The selection of another (white, male) North American to the board, replacing an Asian woman, will of course create more pressure to increase geographic and gender diversity on the other groups within ICANN that select board members.

A written Q&A between the two candidates and At-Large members can be found here.

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.

At-Large votes to object to .health gTLD bids, but Afilias gets a pass

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee has voted to object to three of the four applications for the .health gTLD.

Afilias, which is one of the applicants, will not receive an ALAC objection. By a single vote, ALAC decided not to go after its application.

Fourteen of the 15-member ALAC panel voted on Tuesday. For DotHealth LLC’s bid, the yes/no/abstain vote was 8/3/3; dot Health Ltd’s was 10/3/1, and Donuts’ was 10/3/1.

Afilias managed to get one extra “no” vote (its result was 7/4/3). so with only 50% of the voters voting “yes”, the motion to object failed.

The ALAC did not vote on .健康, which means “healthy” or “wellness” in Chinese, despite earlier indications that it would.

The identities of the voters and the way they voted does not appear to have been revealed.

The objections will be of the Community or Limited Public Interest variety, and paid for by ICANN.

Healthcare-related gTLDs are already the most controversial of those being applied for.

Each .health bid received four Governmental Advisory Committee Early Warnings late last year, and earlier this week the Independent Objector’s list of 24 objections was dominated by medically oriented strings.

ALAC likely to object to five .health gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee is planning to formally object to four applications for the .health gTLD and one for .健康, which means “.healthy” in Chinese.

Bids backed by Afilias, Donuts, Famous Four Media and Straat Investments (the investment vehicle of .CO Internet CEO Juan Diego Calle), as well as China’s StableTone, are affected.

Dev Anand Teelucksingh, chair of the ALAC’s new gTLD review group, posted the following to an ALAC mailing list this weekend:

Objection statements on community grounds will be drafted for the applications for .health given that the four tests for community objection grounds were passed. The gTLD RG will attempt to put together the objection statements to the applications for .health in time for RALO [Regional At-Large Organization] review around 22 February 2013.

The ALAC is able to file objections to new gTLD bids, using funds provided by ICANN, on only the Community or Limited Public Interest grounds.

Of the four strings before it (.health, .nyc, .patagonia and .amazon) the ALAC review group decided that only a Community objection against .health met its criteria.

These are the only confirmed ALAC objections to date.

The ALAC had received a request to object from the International Medical Informatics Association, which said:

These five proposals are seen as problematic by the global health community for the following reasons:

  • None of the applicants demonstrates that the name will be operated in the public interest.
  • None of the applicants demonstrates adequate consumer protection mechanisms.
  • All of the applicants are commercial in nature and none represent the health community.

Two governments — France and Mali — both expressed concerns about .health on similar grounds by filing Early Warnings last November.

ICANN’s deadline for filing objections is March 13.

Satellite policy expert named ICANN director

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN has named Olga Madruga-Forti, an Argentinian telecoms policy expert, as the newest member of its board of directors.

Selected by this year’s Nominating Committee, Madruga-Forti will take over from R. Ramaraj when his second term ends at the Toronto meeting this October.

According to the biography provided by ICANN, she has extensive experience of telecommunications policy, particularly related to satellite, in both public and private sectors.

She currently works for ARSAT in Buenes Aires as international counsel. She’s previously worked for Iridium, Loral and the US Federal Communications Commission.

ICANN pointed out that she represents telcos at the International Telecommunications Union, a relevant data point, perhaps, given the WCIT conference coming up in December.

Madruga-Forti ticks one of the Latin-American boxes on the ICANN board.

NomCom has also reappointed two other directors for second terms on the board: Gonzalo Navarro (Latin-America) and the reliably contrarian George Sadowsky (North America).

New leadership members of three ICANN supporting organizations have also been selected by NomCom.

Jennifer Wolfe of the intellectual property law firm WolfeSBMC, which counts new gTLD applicants Microsoft, Procter & Gamble and Kraft Foods among its clients, has been appointed to GNSO Council.

I believe she’s destined to replace Carlos Dionisio Aguirre when his term is up later this year.

Canadian Alan Greenberg and Frenchman Jean-Jacques Subrenat have been reappointed to the At-Large Advisory Committee.

Mary Wong, who currently sits on the GNSO Council representing non-commercial stakeholders, has been appointed to the ccNSO Council.

The full biographies of all 2012 NomCom appointees can be found here.

At-Large mulls new gTLDs U-turn

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2011, Domain Policy

In what is likely to turn out to be a storm in a teacup, ICANN’s At-Large Advisory Committee is set to vote on a resolution calling for a delay to the new generic top-level domains program.

The ALAC, ICANN’s policy-making body tasked with representing individual end users, has been discussing a possible update to its position on new gTLDs for the last few days.

A first-draft motion, proposed by vice-chair Evan Leibovitch, said the program “would be harmful to the public interest” and requested that its January 12 launch be “suspended”.

It’s since been watered down twice, and may well be watered down further before (and if) the ALAC considers it at its January 24 monthly meeting.

The resolution currently talks about a “a deep concern about the possible harmful effect on Internet end-users of a single massive expansion of gTLDs”.

It adds that ICANN should “phase-in” the introduction of new gTLDs, “releasing no more than 25 every three months” with about a third coming from poor or community-based applicants.

It appears to be a reaction to ICANN’s newly developed applicant support program, which was weaker than many proponents of the cheaper gTLDs for worthy applicants had hoped.

Even in its current form, the resolution is attracting much more opposition than support from members of the At-Large, so it seems unlikely that it will go anywhere.

To advocate for a phased approach to new gTLDs, or to recommend a delay, would represent a huge U-turn from the ALAC’s existing position.

In 2009, the group said supported “the expedient introduction of new gTLDs” and that it did not believe a “trial run” with a limited number of applications was appropriate.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with changing one’s mind as new evidence comes to light, of course.

Poor nation support crucial to new TLD talks

Kevin Murphy, May 23, 2011, Domain Policy

Whether to provide discounts for new top-level domain applicants from poor countries has become a critical obstacle in the process of getting ICANN’s new gTLD program approved.

Not only are its policy-making bodies going through a bout of infighting over proposals to help developing nations, but it is also being seen as a “major political risk” to ICANN’s global credibility.

Sources say that the Governmental Advisory Committee is increasingly concerned that a lack of support for poorer nations could used to bash the gTLD program and discredit ICANN itself.

There are fears that the Group of 77 could use the perception that ICANN works primarily for the benefit of the developed world to push for more UN-based governmental control of the internet.

These concerns were apparently raised during the ICANN Board-GAC teleconference on Friday, and will continue to be discussed in the run-up to the Singapore meeting.

Merely applying for a new gTLD will cost a minimum of $185,000 in direct ICANN fees, potentially rising dramatically in the case of complex or contested applications.

That sum also excludes the many more hundreds of thousands of dollars required to create an application that meets ICANN’s stringent financial and technical stability demands.

Many have estimated that an application for a new gTLD could require an first-year outlay of easily over $1 million.

Unsurprisingly, this may exclude applicants from poorer nations, particularly non-profit and community-based initiatives.

There’s a worry that if support mechanisms are not in place for the first round of applications, culturally or commercially valuable IDN gTLDs will get snapped up by wealthy western companies.

Warning: More Acronyms Ahead

To come up with solutions to this problem, ICANN in April 2010 asked for what is now called the “Joint SO/AC Working Group on New gTLD Applicant Support” – JAS for short.

JAS was chartered by, and comprised of members of, the Generic Names Supporting Organization and the At Large Advisory Committee, two of ICANN’s policy bodies.

Earlier this month, JAS submitted its draft second milestone report (pdf) was submitted to the ICANN board. It’s more of a collection of ideas than a structured framework for applicant support.

It calls for, among other things, fees and financial commitments reduced by as much as three quarters for applicants from about 50 poor nations, if they can show they are (essentially) worthy and needy.

It also suggests that such applicants could have their requirements to support the new DNSSEC and IPv6 technologies from day one – which would raise start-up costs – eliminated.

Unfortunately, the GNSO and ALAC apparently had quite different expectations about what the JAS would produce, and since January the group has been working under a split charter.

Registries and registrars were (and are) worried that JAS was going too far when it recommended, for example, discounted application fees.

Because ICANN has priced applications on a cost-recovery basis, there’s a real concern that discounts for poor applicants will translate into higher fees for wealthier applicants.

Broadly, it’s an example of the usual tensions between commercial domain name industry stakeholders and other groups playing out through quite arcane due process/jurisdictional arguments.

For the last couple of weeks, this has manifested itself as a row about the fact that JAS submitted its report the report was submitted to the ICANN board before it was approved by the GNSO.

Mind The GAC

If it’s the case, as sources say, that the GAC is urgently pressing for applicant support measures to be available in the first round of new gTLD applications, this puts another question mark over ICANN’s ability to approve the Applicant Guidebook in Singapore a month from now.

The GAC “scorecard” of problematic issues has since November stated that ICANN should adopt the findings of the JAS.

But today the JAS is nowhere near producing a comprehensive solution to the problem. Its recommendations as they stand are also unlikely to attract broad support from registry/registrar stakeholders.

Many of its current suggestions are also highly complex, calling for ICANN to establish special funds, staggered payment or repayment programs and additional applicant background checks.

They would take time to implement.

There’s been some talk about the idea that ICANN could approve the Applicant Guidebook before the JAS work is complete, but I’m not sure how realistic that is or whether it would receive the GAC blessing.

If the GAC is worried that ICANN’s very legitimacy could be at risk if it goes ahead with the program before the developing world is catered for, we could be looking at another big roadblock.

No cheap TLDs for poor countries

Kevin Murphy, January 17, 2011, Domain Registries

Applicants in the developing world that hoped to get a new top-level domain on the cheap will be disappointed after proposals to help subsidize their applications were watered down.

The ICANN GNSO Council last week voted against measures that could have reduced application fees or asked ICANN set up an aid fund for applicants from poor nations.

ICANN’s application fee for a single TLD is $185,000, but it is widely expected to cost most applicants at least double or triple that, once add-on fees and consulting costs are taken into account.

While this is not a lot of money if you’re a big corporation, it’s a substantial barrier to entry if you’re an entrepreneur or community initiative from a poorer country.

So for several months an ICANN working group known as JAS, for Joint Applicant Support, has been working on ideas for how ICANN and others can support less wealthy applicants.

The group wanted to do further work to establish ways to subsidize the application fee, set up an ICANN fund using revenue from TLD auctions, and negotiate registry-level support.

But the GNSO Council voted those ideas down last Thursday, ostensibly on the basis that they were too far-reaching and “beyond the scope of the GNSO” to approve.

The vote was split roughly along party lines, with almost all of the support for the broader motions coming from non-commercial stakeholders.

Business interests such as registrars, registries, ISPs and intellectual property stakeholders voted in favor of a more “limited” set of objectives.

Proponents of the new limited charter tell me that they remain supportive of the work of the JAS, but that they did not believe it has the expertise to carry out such far-reaching work.

I suspect that commercial factors also played a role. For example, the JAS wanted to:

Discuss with Backend Registry Service Providers the extent of coordination, to be given by Backend Registry Service Providers (e.g. brokering the relationships, reviewing the operational quality of the relationship) and propose methods for coordinating that assistance

But the registry-supported replacement resolution, which was approved, asks the JAS to instead:

Propose methods for applicants to seek out assistance from registry service providers.

References to reduced application fees for needy applicants, and to the need for an ICANN-supported fund, were cut entirely.

The changes received majority support on the Council, but were not universally welcomed. Former Council chair Avri Doria called it “neocolonialism”, and wrote on her blog:

The only kind of aid the JAS WG is allowed to work on is aid that makes a applicant from a developing economy beholden and subject to the control of an incumbent or an expert.

Because the JAS working group was a joint effort of the GNSO and At Large Advisory Committee, it now has two charters – one broad, one narrow – and it’s not entirely clear how its work will proceed.

But it does seem that the $185,000 application fee is here to stay, no matter where you come from.