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ICANN beefs up background checks on directors amid concerns about vice-chair

Kevin Murphy, November 6, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN is to beef up background screening procedures for its own board of directors after concerns were raised about financial integrity.

Directors in four seats that were not previously subject to screening have voluntarily agreed to checks “immediately” and ICANN has urged two of its supporting organizations to bring in such checks as standard.

Chris Disspain and Mike Silber, selected by the Country Code Names Supporting Organization, and Generic Names Supporting Organization selectees Becky Burr and Matthew Shears are these volunteers.

Neither the GNSO nor ccNSO currently screen their director picks to the same standard as other supporting organizations and the Nominating Committee.

ICANN said that they will be checked for “negative indicators such as discrepancies on a resume (including licenses, educational history and employment history), or publicly reported issues of financial mismanagement, fraud, harassment and mishandling of confidential information”.

The board passed a resolution last Thursday calling for the two SOs to bring in “the same or similar” screening procedures for future directors.

The resolution was passed minutes before the formal handover of power from outgoing chair Steve Crocker to new chair Cherine Chalaby. Disspain is the new vice-chair, replacing Chalaby.

ICANN had been put under pressure to widen its director due diligence earlier in the week by consultant and long-time ICANN community member Ron Andruff, who is known to have concerns about Disspain’s financial integrity.

Andruff spoke at an open-mic session with the board last Monday to recommend that the four anomalous directors face screening before the board was re-seated just a few days later.

“We’re talking about risk,” he said. “We’re talking about making sure that we do not put our institution that we’ve worked so hard to put into ICANN 2.0 in a place where we have four people that might have something, or not. And quite frankly, I don’t expect we’re going to find anything. I just want to make sure that we’ve checked that box,” Andruff said.

“We have the resources to do four background screenings between now and Thursday. No one expects any issues to surface. But this simple act will ensure that the institution is properly protected,” Andruff said.

Then-chair Crocker responded that it would not be possible to do the checks so quickly, but agreed in principle with the need for screening and said the board had had “substantial discussions” on the matter.

Andruff is former chair-elect of the Nominating Committee, which chooses eight directors and subjects all of its appointees to background screening.

He recently made a Freedom of Information Act request in Australia related to the circumstances leading to Disspain getting fired as CEO of local ccTLD administrator auDA in March 2016.

Disspain was let go after his relationship with the auDA board became “increasingly strained over issues of process, transparency and accountability”, according to an external review published by auDA in October last year.

auDA’s practices had “not kept pace with auDA’s growth in scale and importance to the Australian community, nor with evolving good practice in governance and accountability”, this review found.

The review did not directly allege any wrongdoing by Disspain.

A separate and currently unpublished review around the same time by PPB Advisory found that auDA had been “under-reporting” so-called “fringe benefit tax” to the Aussie tax authorities, according to auDA board meeting minutes.

FBT is tax companies must pay on employee benefits such as a company car or payment of private expenses.

There’s no clear indication in the public record that this under-reporting was directly related to benefits Disspain received, though the under-reporting very likely happened at least partially during his 15 years as CEO.

A slide deck discussing the PPB review published by auDA identified “a lack of formal policies and procedures governing how travel and expenses were managed”.

It added: “There were high levels of expenditure on international travel and reimbursement arrangements with international bodies that lacked transparency, which should have warranted a more robust process”.

All expenses incurred by ICANN’s directors and reimbursed in relation to their duties are a matter of public record.

Disspain receives not only a $45,000 annual salary but also tens of thousands of dollars in reimbursements each year, much of which is related to directors’ extensive travel obligations, these records show.

In its last reported tax year, to June 30, 2016, he received $68,437 in reimbursements, according to a published document (pdf). ICANN directly paid another $32,951 on his behalf.

A number of allegations have been made to DI (and, I believe, to other bloggers) over the last few months about alleged wrongdoing by Disspain in connection to these nuggets of information, but they’ve come from sources who refuse to identify themselves or provide corroborating evidence.

Despite efforts, I’ve been unable to independently verify these anonymous claims, which come amid turbulent times for auDA and its members, so I’ve chosen not to repeat them.

Andruff, meanwhile, has used FOI law to ask the Australian government, which has oversight of auDA, for the full PPB report, as well as documents related to the FBT issue, Disspain’s termination and his travel expenses.

Andruff and Disspain are known to have a history of friction.

Two years ago, Andruff expressed his anger after having been passed over for the job of chair of the NomCom, a role that be believes should have gone to him as chair-elect.

He lost the opportunity after the ICANN board, exercising its bylaws-permitted discretion, accepted the recommendation of its Board Governance Committee — at the time chaired by Disspain — that it be given to Stephane Van Gelder instead.

The original deadline for the Australian government response to Andruff’s FOI request was October 16, but this has been extended twice, now to November 19, due to the complexity of the request.

The eventual response will no doubt be read with interest.

ICANN won’t say how Demand Media passed its new gTLD background check

After badgering ICANN for a few weeks, I’ve finally got a firm “no comment” on the question of how new gTLD applicant Demand Media managed to pass its background checks.

The question of whether it’s possible for serial cybersquatters to bypass ICANN screening and be awarded new gTLDs just by setting up shell companies is still open, it seems.

As DI and other blogs have been reporting for the past few years, there was a question mark over Demand Media’s eligibility for the new gTLD program due to its history of cybersquatting.

Under ICANN rules, any company that lost three or more UDRP decisions with at least one loss in the last three years would not pass its background screening. The Applicant Guidebook states:

In the absence of exceptional circumstances, applications from any entity with or including any individual with convictions or decisions of the types listed in (a) – (m) below will be automatically disqualified from the program.

m. has been involved in a pattern of adverse, final decisions indicating that the applicant or individual named in the application was engaged in cybersquatting as defined in the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), or other equivalent legislation, or was engaged in reverse domain name hijacking under the UDRP or bad faith or reckless disregard under the ACPA or other equivalent legislation. Three or more such decisions with one occurring in the last four years will generally be considered to constitute a pattern.

Demand Media subsidiary Demand Domains has lost over 30 UDRP cases, most recently in 2011, but its United TLD Holdco subsidiary has sailed through its Initial Evaluations.

Technically, shouldn’t it have failed screening and therefore IE?

Domain Name Wire speculated in November 2010 that ICANN had deliberately introduced loopholes in order to let Demand — and, at the time, Go Daddy — into the new gTLD program.

At that time, ICANN had just removed references to “any person or entity owning (or beneficially owning) fifteen percent or more of the applicant” in the background screening section of the Guidebook.

That might have introduced a loophole allowing subsidiaries of cybersquatters to apply.

But Demand Media seemed to think it was still at risk, asking ICANN in December 2010 to change the background check rules.

ICANN did. In the next version of the Guidebook, published in April 2011, it added the “In the absence of exceptional circumstances” qualifying language.

It’s also possible that this was the loophole that allowed Demand to pass screening.

Judging by the UDRP complaints it was involved in in the past, the company usually argued against the “bad faith” element of the policy. It often said it didn’t know about the complainant’s trademark and/or said it had offered to transfer the domain at no charge.

But more than 30 UDRP panelists didn’t buy that argument and still found against Demand. The company lost far more complaints than it won.

The fact that the company apparently managed to clean its act up a few years ago — not being hit with any complaints since 2011 — suggests that its act wasn’t all that clean to begin with.

Either way, neither ICANN nor Demand wants to talk about how the company passed screening, so I guess we’re still left wondering whether this section of the Guidebook is worth the PDF it’s written on.