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Second new gTLD round “possible” but not “probable” in 2016

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2014, Domain Policy

If there are any companies clamoring to get on the new gTLD bandwagon, they’ve got some waiting to do.

Based on a sketchy timetable published by ICANN this week, it seems unlikely that a second application round will open before 2017, and even that might be optimistic.

While ICANN said that “based on current estimates, a subsequent application round is not expected to launch until 2016 at the earliest”, that date seems unlikely even to senior ICANN staffers.

“The possibility exists,” ICANN vice president Cyrus Namazi told DI, “but the probability, from my perspective, is not that high when you think about all the pieces that have to come together.”

Here’s an ICANN graphic illustrating these pieces:

As you can see, the two biggest time-eaters on the road-map, pushing it into 2017, are a GNSO Policy Development Process (green) and the Affirmation of Commitments Review (yellow).

The timetable envisages the PDP, which will focus on what changes need to be made to the program, lasting two and a half years, starting in the first quarter 2015 and running until mid-2017.

That could be a realistic time-frame, but the GNSO has been known to work quicker.

An ICANN study in 2012 found that 263 days is the absolute minimum amount of time a PDP has to last from start to finish, but 620 days — one year and nine months — is the average.

So the GNSO could, conceivably, wrap up in late 2016 rather than mid-2017. It will depend on how cooperative everybody is feeling and how tricky it is to find consensus on the issues.

The AoC review, which will focus on “competition, consumer trust and consumer choice” is a bit harder to gauge.

The 2009 Affirmation of Commitments is ICANN’s deal with the US government that gives it some of its authority over the DNS. On the review, it states:

If and when new gTLDs (whether in ASCII or other language character sets) have been in operation for one year, ICANN will organize a review that will examine the extent to which the introduction or expansion of gTLDs has promoted competition, consumer trust and consumer choice, as well as effectiveness of (a) the application and evaluation process, and (b) safeguards put in place to mitigate issues involved in the introduction or expansion.

The AoC does not specify how long the review must last, just when it must begin, though it does say the ICANN board must react to it within six months.

That six-month window is a maximum, however, not a minimum. The board could easily take action on the review’s findings in a month or less.

ICANN’s timeline anticipates the review itself taking a year, starting in Q3 2015 and broken down like this:

Based on the timelines of previous Review Team processes, a rough estimate for this process is that the convening of the team occurs across 3-5 months, a draft report is issued within 6-9 months, and a final report is issued within 3-6 months from the draft.

Working from these estimates, it seems that the review could in fact take anywhere from 12 to 20 months. That would mean a final report would be delivered between September 2016 and July 2017.

If the review and board consideration of its report take the longest amount of time permitted or envisaged, the AoC process might not complete until early 2018, a little over three years from now.

Clearly there are a lot of variables to consider here.

Namazi is probably on safe ground by urging caution over the hypothetical launch of a second round in 2016.

Given than new gTLD evaluations were always seen as a “rolling” process, one of the things that the GNSO surely needs to look into is a mechanism to reduce the delay between rounds.

US to give up control over ICANN

Kevin Murphy, March 15, 2014, Domain Policy

In what can only be described as an historic announcement, the United States government tonight said that it will walk away from its control of the DNS root zone.

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said during a press conference tonight that the organization has begun a consultation to figure out “accountability mechanisms” that will replace the US role as ICANN’s master.

The news comes in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about US spying, but Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker said that the changes would have been made sooner or later anyway.

So what just happened?

Earlier this evening, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced its “intent to transition key Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community.”

That’s basically referring to the IANA contract, the US government procurement contract under which ICANN has the ability to make changes — essentially by recommendation — to the DNS root zone.

The current version of the contract is due to expire next year, and the hope is that when it does there won’t be any need for a renewal.

Between now and then, the ICANN community (that’s you) is tasked with coming up with something to replace it.

It’s going to be the hottest topic at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, which kicks off a week from now, but it’s expected to be under discussion for much longer than that.

Chehade said during the press conference tonight that the idea is not to create a new oversight body to replace the NTIA. We seem to be talking about “mechanisms” rather than “organizations”.

He also said that the US government has made it plain that any attempt to replace the US with an intergovernmental body (ie, the International Telecommunications Union) will not be considered acceptable.

Whatever oversight mechanism replaces NTIA, it’s going to have to be “multistakeholder” — not just governments.

The root zone is currently controlled under a trilateral relationship between the NTIA, ICANN and Verisign.

Essentially, ICANN says “add this TLD” or “change the name servers for this TLD” and, after the NTIA has approved the change, Verisign implements it on its root zone servers. The other root zone operators take copies and the DNS remains a unique, reliable namespace.

The NTIA has said that it’s going to withdraw from this relationship.

One question that remains is whether Verisign will retain its important role in root zone management.

Chehade appeared slightly (only slightly) evasive on this question tonight, spending some time clarifying that Verisign’s root zone management contract is not the same as its .com contract.

I assume this prevarication was in order to not wipe billions off Verisign’s market cap on Monday, but I didn’t really get a good sense of whether Verisign’s position as a root zone manager was in jeopardy.

My guess is that it is not.

A second question is whether the US stepping away from the IANA function means that the Affirmation of Commitments between the US government and ICANN also has its days numbered.

Apparently it does.

Chehade and ICANN chair Steve Crocker pointed to the ICANN board’s decision a few weeks ago to create a new board committee tasked with exploring ways to rewrite the AoC.

And they said tonight that there’s no plan to retire the AoC. Rather, the idea is to increase the number of parties that are signatories to it.

The AoC, it seems, will be ICANN’s affirmation to the world, not just to the US government.

Board confirms: ICANN seeks non-US HQ

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has given the clearest indication yet that the organization wants to set up an HQ overseas, further loosening ties with the US government.

The board has formed six new “President’s Globalization Advisory Groups”, made up of half a dozen directors each, one of which has been tasked with advising ICANN on ways to:

Establish complimentary [sic] parallel international structure to enhance ICANN’s global legitimacy. Consider complementary parallel international structure within scope of ICANN’s mandate.

This indicates that ICANN’s reported plan to base itself in Geneva may not be so far-fetched after all, but it also indicates that ICANN currently does not anticipate doing away with its original HQ in Los Angeles.

ICANN already has several offices around the world, but recently there’s been talk of it embedding itself in Switzerland, as an “international organization”, more deeply.

As we’ve previously reported, ICANN may not relocate outside of the US due to its Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce, which requires it to remain a US non-profit.

But another of the three panels set up by the board this week will advise ICANN on how to create an “enhanced Affirmation of Commitments.”

Other panels will explore the globalization of the IANA function — currently operated under a procurement contract with Commerce — and the root server system, which is independent operated but heavily US-based.

The ICANN board said in its resolution:

the continued globalization of ICANN must evolve in several ways, including: partnerships in the broader Internet eco-system to strengthen multistakeholder Internet governance frameworks; strengthening ICANN itself, including affirmations of commitments and relationships among the stakeholders; evolving the policy structures to serve and scale to the needs of the global community, and identify opportunities for the future legal structures and IANA globalization.

The plan is for these panels talk to the community at the Singapore meeting next month, before reporting back to the board before ICANN meets for its 50th public meeting in London this coming June.

This week’s move is the latest in a series of decisions made by the ICANN board following the spying revelations of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and the subsequent consternation they caused in capitals around the world.

Brazil is set to host a meeting to discuss these kinds of internet governance matters with ICANN and its coalition of the willing in Sao Paulo this April.

ICANN heading to Geneva after all?

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN could wind up being based in Geneva as a result of the current post-Snowden internet governance discussions, according to a report in a Swiss newspaper.

Le Temps, citing several anonymous ICANN sources, reported today that an HQ move from Los Angeles to Geneva was a “very likely scenario”.

That’s as an alternative to allowing its functions to be taken over by the International Telecommunications Union, the paper reported.

It’s not the first time a move to Geneva has been touted.

Back in September, DI rubbished — and ICANN denied — claims that the organization had already put the wheels in motion for a move to Switzerland.

It still appears to be unlikely in the short term, and for the same reason: ICANN’s Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce requires it to remain a US non-profit corporation.

But the AoC is now open for discussion again.

Barely a month after the Geneva move was first raised as a possibility, Edward Snowden’s revelations about widespread US spying on internet users had led to the Montevideo Declaration, in which ICANN spoke of the need for further “internationalization” of ICANN.

Later last October, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade called America’s unique role in ICANN’s oversight “just not sustainable“.

Coming this April, governments, standards bodies, industry and others are set to meet in Sao Paolo, Brazil, for early-stage discussions that may eventually lead to the US cutting ICANN loose.

If ICANN does leave the US, Geneva does seem like the most plausible venue for its headquarters. It already has a small office there and has obtained international non-profit status for its local subsidiary.

ICANN using PRISM as excuse to break from the US

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, with backing from government leaders, is using the recent revelations about the PRISM mass surveillance program to try to speed up ICANN’s split from the US.

Speaking to an American radio station, Chehade said yesterday:

I think the current role the United States has with ICANN was always envisaged to change. The timing of that was the question — not if, it was just when. I think now it is clear that we need to talk about changing that role and evolving it to become a more global role where all stakeholders, not just governments, have an equal footing in the governance of the Internet. So the timing has been put into clear focus right now, that is what’s happening.

He was speaking from the latest Internet Governance Forum in Bali, where today he reiterated his calls for “all governments and all stakeholders” to work together “on equal footing”.

Similar rhetoric has been dribbling out of ICANN for the last couple of weeks.

Earlier this month, Chehade met in Montevideo, Uruguay, with the leaders of the five Regional Internet Registries, the World Wide Web Consortium, the IETF, ISOC and the IAB to discuss “current issues affecting the future of the Internet.”

They came out with the Montevideo Declaration, which states in part:

They reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.

They identified the need for ongoing effort to address Internet Governance challenges, and agreed to catalyze community-wide efforts towards the evolution of global multistakeholder Internet cooperation.

They called for accelerating the globalization of ICANN and IANA functions, towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

The first and third paragraphs, taken together, suggested that ICANN was yet again ready to start talking about casting off the US government’s special oversight role, and that it would use Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations as a way back into the conversation.

Milton Mueller of the Internet Governance Project first blogged about this, talking about ICANN “abandoning the US government”, prompting much media speculation about America’s future role in internet governance.

Chehade has been on the road, it seems, since Montevideo, first stopping off in Brazil to lend his encouragement to President Dilma Rousseff’s proposal for an April 2014 conference to discuss internet governance in light of the Snowden revelations.

Rousseff herself was targeted by the NSA and has become one of the most vocal government leaders in criticizing the US spy programs.

Lately it seems Chehade has been in India, where he told the Economic Times:

When any government decides to use a resource like the internet in ways that erodes the public trust, it is very regrettable. I feel like I’m the public trustee of the internet. All of us should be equal stewards of the public trust.

So when any one takes it away, it distresses all of us. It is not just by the recent revelations about PRISM, but there are other revelations that are coming out as well. Countries are employing millions of people to track the movements of their fellow citizens.

I would argue that the recent developments have emboldened people to make sure all stakeholders are participating on equal footing, including all governments.

All of this posturing raises a few basic questions, the first of which is: what does PRISM have to do with ICANN?

The answer, it seems, is “nothing”.

The PRISM revelations have implicated the likes of Google, Microsoft and Facebook — all apparently cooperating with the NSA’s mass gathering of data on civilian internet users — but no domain name players.

If the Guardian were to report tomorrow that major infrastructure players such as Verisign or Go Daddy were also involved, I would not be in the least surprised, but so far I have yet to see a connection between the domain name business and NSA spying.

In that light, if ICANN were to sever its special relationship with the US, there would be presumably no impact whatsoever on PRISM or any other surveillance program.

Chehade’s current campaign therefore seems to be politically opportunistic at best and a distraction from the underlying problem of US human rights violations at worst.

But what is meant when people speak of “splitting from the US” anyway?

It seems to me there are three important areas where the US government has undue power over ICANN: jurisdiction, the Affirmation of Commitments and the IANA contract.

ICANN is based in California and subject to US federal law. While that continues to be the case, it will always be subject to the possibility of having its work thwarted by a US court or spurious lawsuit.

It also hampers ICANN’s ability to do business with some nations unencumbered by US trade embargoes, though ICANN is usually able to secure the requisite licenses when it needs to.

It’s also always going to be at risk of being hauled over the coals by Congress every couple of years, due to lobbying by US special interest groups, which interferes with its credibility as a global organization.

ICANN has already started setting up shop in other parts of the world. New “hub” offices in Istanbul and Singapore are being characterized as being on equal footing with the LA headquarters.

But that characterization seems disingenuous.

The Affirmation of Commitments, signed by the US Department of Commerce and former ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom in 2009 and largely negotiated under his predecessor Paul Twomey, is one of ICANN’s principal governing documents.

One of ICANN’s commitments under the AoC is to “remain a not for profit corporation, headquartered in the United States of America with offices around the world to meet the needs of a global community”.

Being US-based is baked into ICANN’s governance. If the US has to go, the AoC has to go, which means all the other accountability and review obligations in the AoC also have to go.

The third prong of US control is the IANA contract and the trilateral relationship between ICANN, Verisign and the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The NTIA, essentially, controls the DNS root. Verisign actually manages the boxes it runs on, but it only makes changes — such as adding new gTLDs or redelegating ccTLDs to new registries — with NTIA authorization. That authorization, in turn, is basically a rubber stamp on an IANA/ICANN recommendation.

To the best of my knowledge, NTIA has never abused its authority to overrule an ICANN determination, or pressured ICANN into making a US-friendly recommendation.

But the process by which ICANN recommends changes to the root is pretty opaque.

I have to wonder why, for example, it took two years for Iran’s IDN ccTLD to get approved by ICANN’s board. Only the lack of any outcry from Iran suggests to me that the delay was benign.

When ICANN was founded in 1998, the original plan was for control of the root to enter ICANN’s hands before the end of the Clinton administration (ie 2000), but over the years that plan has been abandoned by the US.

The IANA contract was put up for renewal in 2011 — with a strict provision that only US-based organizations were able to apply — and then-CEO Beckstrom also pushed for more ICANN independence.

In 2011, Beckstrom was making many of the same noises Chehade is today, saying that the IANA function should be a looser “cooperative agreement” rather than a US procurement contract.

In March that year, calling for such an agreement he said at ICANN’s San Francisco meeting:

When all voices are heard, no single voice can dominate an organization – not even governments. Not even the government that facilitated its creation.

The NTIA’s response was, basically, to give Beckstrom the finger.

It said in June 2011 that it “does not have the legal authority” to do what was asked of it, then produced an IANA contract that gave itself and governments in general much greater powers to micromanage ICANN.

After delays, rejections and giving ICANN the general runaround, the NTIA finally signed off on its new IANA contract in July last year, on the final day of Beckstrom’s tenure as CEO.

It lasts until September 30, 2015, with two two-year renewals options.

If Chehade wants to unshackle ICANN from the US, the IANA contract will have to be a cornerstone of that project.

But NTIA’s past performance makes that possibility seem unlikely, unless Chehade can rally enough political pressure from the likes of Brazil and India to change his own government’s mind.

He faces an uphill battle, in other words, and at the end of the day whether breaking from the US government would be a good thing or not depends entirely on what, if anything, replaces it.

Whatever happens, let’s not pretend that ICANN’s independence has anything to do with PRISM, and let’s not allow ICANN to distract us from the wholesale violations of our rights that the US government is perpetrating.

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