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Got beef with ICANN? Why you may not want to use the Ombudsman

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2021, Domain Policy

Complaining to the independent Ombudsman may not be the best way to start a beef with ICANN, and that’s according to the Ombudsman himself.

Herb Waye told DI this week that consulting him as a first port of call may well lock complainants out of escalating their complaints through his office in future procedures.

Earlier this week, I reported on a lawsuit filed by three so-far unsuccessful .hotel gTLD applicants, which among other things alleges that ICANN’s Request for Reconsideration appeals process is a “sham”.

Reconsideration has quite a high barrier to success, and complaints are rarely successful. Requests are dealt with by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, a subset of the very same board of directors that passed the resolution being complained about, advised by the same ICANN lawyers.

But RfRs are also automatically sent to the Ombudsman for a determination before the BAMC looks into them, which should provide a valuable and ostensibly independent second set of critical eyes.

However, in practice this has almost never happened since the provision was added to the ICANN bylaws five year ago.

The .hotel plaintiffs tallied up the 14 RfRs related to the new gTLD program since 2017 and found that the Ombudsman had recused himself, without detailed explanation, on every single occasion. Their complaint in California Superior Court reads:

Neither ICANN nor the Ombudsman has provided any intelligible reason for this gross flouting of ICANN’s bylaws and the Ombudsman’s dereliction of duty, other than a naked and vague claim of “conflict of interest”. The lack of any Ombudsman process not only violates ICANN’s bylaws and its contracts with Plaintiffs, but it renders the promise of a fair and independent Reconsideration process null and illusory, and the notion of true accountability a farce.

The ICANN bylaws state that the Ombudsman must recuse himself from considering RfRs “involving matters for which the Ombudsman has, in advance of the filing of the Reconsideration Request, taken a position while performing his or her role as the Ombudsman”.

According to Waye’s explanation, this is a very broad standard indeed. He told DI in an email:

it is not just me but over 18(?) years of Office of the Ombudsman involvement in complaints or investigations. So I need to go back through the archives when I receive an RR to make sure neither Chris [LaHatte] nor Frank [Fowlie] have made a determination (it doesn’t have to be a public report (or position) or a report to the Board to qualify for recusal).

Among other factors, it also doesn’t have to be a past determination directly involving the RR requestor either… if the substance of the RR has been reviewed by the Office in the past, or if the RR is about an issue similar to one that has been the subject of a complaint and a determination, then recusal is also required to avoid inconsistencies or perceived bias.

He consults with his “independent outside counsel”, Dave Marglin, when figuring out whether recusal is necessary, he said.

Waye published an explanation of his role in Reconsideration on page 19 of the Ombusdman’s most-recent annual report (pdf).

I wondered whether a 2015 decision by Waye predecessor LaHatte related to the new gTLD program’s controversial Community Priority Evaluation might account for the spate of recusals over the last few years, but Waye would not be drawn.

“I can’t identify specifics about each recusal as I must at all cost avoid identifying past complainants or subjects of complaints,” he said. “As I mentioned, some published reports may be the reason for a recusal but it may also be the result of the RfR issue having passed through my Office prior to the RfR being filed as a complaint; which may or may not be a known fact, so I err on the side of caution and treat all recusals the same.”

Given that the Ombudsman also deals with sensitive interpersonal interactions, including sexual harassment complaints, a code of confidentiality could be a good thing.

But it also means that there are an unknown number of undisclosed topics, dating back the best part of two decades, that the Ombudsman is apparently powerless to address via the Reconsideration process.

And that list of untouchable topics will only get longer as time goes by, incrementally weakening ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.

It seems to me that for companies with no interest in confidentiality but with serious complaints against an ICANN board action, complaining to the Ombudsman as the first port of call in a case that would likely be escalated to Reconsideration, Cooperative Engagement Process and Independent Review Process may be a bad idea.

Not only would they be locking the Ombudsman out of their own subsequent RfR, but they’d be preventing him or her getting involved in related RfRs for eternity.

Waye does not disagree. He said:

I think anyone considering bringing a complaint to the Office of the Ombuds should now consider their desired outcome if there is any possibility the issue may be something that could eventually take the RfR route. Do they want an informal (potentially confidential) determination from the Ombuds or do they want something more “public” from the Ombuds in the form of a substantive evaluation made directly to the BAMC. It’s still a new process and my participation in the RfR accountability mechanism is still a work in progress for the people considering using the RfR. But it’s what the community wanted and we will make it work.

It strikes me that the Reconsideration policy outlined in the ICANN bylaws is, by accident or design, self-terminating and opaque. It becomes less useful the more often it is used, as the range of topics the Ombudsman is permitted to rule on are slowly whittled away in secret.

It also occurs to be that it might be open to abuse and gaming.

Worried that a rival company will try to use Reconsideration to your disadvantage? Why not file a preemptive Ombudsman complaint on the same topic, forcing him to recusing himself and leaving the eventual RfR in the hands of the far-from-objective BAMC and ICANN board?

Waye said:

I suppose it would be possible, though it would require me making a determination or taking a position of sorts related to the eventual RfR… a complaint doesn’t automatically mean recusal. And of course it would mean me and my counsel not seeing through the “gaming” agenda and declining the complaint at the outset.

Rival wants the truth about the Afilias-Donuts deal amid “collusion” claims

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2021, Domain Registries

Portfolio gTLD investor Domain Venture Partners wants ICANN to fully explain its decision to approve Donuts’ acquisition of Afilias, claiming the deal gives the combined company an unfair advantage in the long-running battle for the .hotel gTLD.

DVP has filed a formal Request for Reconsideration with ICANN, tearing it a new one for seemingly going out of its way to avoid its transparency obligations when it came to the December approval of the acquisition.

ICANN’s board of directors had been scheduled to discuss the mega-deal at a special meeting December 17, but instead it carried out these talks off-the-books, in such a way as to avoid bylaws rules requiring it to publish a rationale and meeting minutes.

As I noted recently, it was the second time in 2020 (after the Ethos-PIR deal) the board resorted to this tactic to avoid publicly stating why it was approving or rejecting a large M&A transaction.

DVP notes the contrast with the Ethos-PIR proposal, which endured months of public scrutiny and feedback, adding in its RfR:

Why did the ICANN Board have a Special Meeting on this topic? Why did they not publish or otherwise identify a single background fact or point of discussion from the Special Meeting? Why did they not identify a single source of evidence or advice relied upon in coming to the decision? Why have they refused to provide even the slightest hint as to anything they considered or any reason why they came to their decision? How did they vote, was there any dissent? Nobody knows, because ICANN has kept all that secret.

The company argues that all this secrecy leaves itself and other registries at a loss to predict what might happen should they be involved in future acquisitions, particularly given the allegedly anti-bylaws “discriminatory” treatment between PIR on the one hand and Afilias on the other.

DVP stops short of asking for ICANN to overturn its decision to permit the acquisition — it would be moot anyway, as the deal has already closed — but it does demand that ICANN:

Provide complete, published rationale for the Resolution of Dec. 17, 2020 to essentially approve the Afilias acquisition of Donuts, including identification of all materials relied upon by the Board and/or Staff in evaluating the transaction, publication of all communications between Board, Staff and/or outside advisors relating to the transaction, and publication of all communications regarding the transaction between ICANN on the one hand, and Afilias, Donuts and/or Ethos Capital on the other hand.

Develop, implement, publish and report results of a clear policy as to what registry combination transactions will be approved or rejected, including clearly defined criteria to be assessed — and clearly defined process to assess that criteria – as to each and every future proposed transaction.

It’s interesting that nobody has filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request for this information yet.

But it’s not all just about transparency for DVP. Its big concern appears to be its application for .hotel, which is in one of the few new gTLD contention sets still not resolved almost a decade after the 2012 application round.

DVP is the Gibraltar investment vehicle that controls the 16 new gTLDs that were formerly managed by Famous Four Media and are now managed by GRS Domains (which I believe is owned by PricewaterhouseCoopers). Dot Hotel Limited is one of its application shells.

Donuts is now in possession of two competing .hotel applications — its own, which is for an open, unrestricted space gTLD, and the Afilias-owned HTLD application, which is for a restricted Community-based space.

Back in 2014, HTLD won a Community Evaluation Process, which should have enabled it to skip a potentially expensive auction with its rival bidders and go straight to contracting and delegation.

But its competing applicants, including DVP and Donuts, challenged the CPE’s legitimacy with an Independent Review Process appeal.

To cut a long story short, they lost the IRP but carried on delaying the contention set and came back with a second IRP (this one not including Donuts as a complainant), which involves claims of “hacking”, one year ago.

The contention set is currently frozen, but DVP thinks Donuts owning two applications is a problem:

Donuts now owns or controls both that Community Application, and another pending standard application in the contention set for .hotel. There is no provision in the Applicant Guidebook for applicants to own more than one application for the same gTLD string. It certainly indicates collusion among applicants within a contention set, since two of them are owned by the same master.

DVP is concerned that Donuts may have no intention of honoring those Community commitments, and instead intends to operate an open registry.

DVP wants ICaNN to publish a rationale for why it’s allowing Donuts to own two applications for the same TLD.

It also wants ICANN to either force Donuts to cancel its HTLD application — which would likely lead to a .hotel auction among the remaining applicants, with the winning bid flowing to either ICANN or the losing applicants — or force it to stick to its Community designation commitments after launch, which isn’t really Donuts’ usual business model.

RfRs are usually resolved by ICANN’s lawyers Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee in a matter of weeks, and are rarely successful.

ICANN throws out “Ugly Houses” UDRP appeal

Kevin Murphy, July 20, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has rejected an unprecedented attempt to get a UDRP decision overturned using the Reconsideration process.

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee late last week summarily dismissed a Request for Reconsideration filed by a group called the Emily Rose Trust.

Emily Rose had lost a UDRP case in May concerning the domain name uglyhousesri.com, which it had been using for the last couple of years to run a home renovation-and-resale service in Rhode Island.

The complainant was a company called HomeVestors, which has been running a near-identical service called We Buy Ugly Houses (a phrase it has trademarked) for substantially longer.

The National Arbitration Forum panelist had decided that the domain was confusingly similar to the mark, and that the similarity of the services constituted bad faith use.

In filing the rather poorly-written RfR, Emily Rose argued among other things that “Ugly Houses” is a generic term not protected by the mark.

But ICANN did not consider the merits of its request, instead rejecting the RfR for being outside the scope of the process.

The BAMC said that UDRP decisions do not involved the action or inaction of the ICANN board or staff, and are therefore not subject to board Reconsideration.

While UDRP decisions are often contested in court, this RfR makes it clear that ICANN is not an avenue for appeal in individual cases.

Surprise! ICANN throws out complaints about .org price caps

Kevin Murphy, November 4, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has rejected two appeals against its decision to lift price caps and introduce new anti-cybersquatting measures in the .org space.

In other news, gambling is going on in Rick’s Cafe.

NameCheap and the Electronic Frontier Foundation both filed Requests for Reconsideration with ICANN back in July and August concerning the .org contract renewal.

NameCheap argued that ICANN should have listened to the deluge of public comments complaining about the removal of price caps in Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, while EFF complained about the inclusion of the Uniform Rapid Suspension rights protection mechanism.

Reconsideration requests are usually handled by the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee but this time around three of its four members (Sarah Deutsch, Nigel Roberts, and Becky Burr) decided to recuse themselves due to the possibility of perception of conflicts of interest.

That meant the committee couldn’t reach a quorum and the RfRs went to ICANN’s outside lawyers for review instead, before heading to the full ICANN board.

This hasn’t happened before, to my recollection.

Also unprecedented, the board’s full discussion of both requests was webcast live (and archived here), which negates the need for NameCheap or the EFF to demand recordings, which is their right under the bylaws.

But the upshot is basically the same as if the BAMC had considered the requests in private — both were denied in a unanimous (with the three recusals) vote.

Briefing the board yesterday, ICANN associate general counsel Elizabeth Le said:

There was no evidence to support that ICANN Org ignored public consultation. Indeed both renewals went out for public comments and there were over 3,700 comments received, all of which ICANN reviewed and evaluated and it was discussed in not only the report of public comments, but it was discussed through extensive briefings with the ICANN board…

Ultimately, the fact that the removal of the price caps was part of the Registry Agreements does not render the public comment process a sham or that ICANN failed to act in the public benefit or that ICANN Org ignored material information.

General counsel John Jeffrey and director Avri Doria both noted that the board may not have looked at each individual comment, but rather grouped together based on similarity. Doria said:

Whether one listens to the content once or listens to it 3,000 times, they have understood the same content. And so I really just wanted to emphasize the point that it’s not the number of comments, it’s the content of the comments.

This seems to prove the point I made back in April, when this controversy first emerged, that letter-writing campaigns don’t work on ICANN.

As if to add insult to injury, the board at the same meeting yesterday approved paying an annual bonus to the ICANN Ombudsman, who attracted criticism from NameCheap and the Internet Commerce Association after dismissing many of the public comments as “more akin to spam”.

Another victory for Amazon as ICANN rejects Colombian appeal

Kevin Murphy, September 9, 2019, Domain Registries

Amazon’s application for .amazon has moved another step closer to reality, after ICANN yesterday voted to reject an appeal from the Colombian government.

The ICANN board of directors voted unanimously, with two conflict-related abstentions, to adopt the recommendation of its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which apparently states that ICANN did nothing wrong when it decided back in May to move .amazon towards delegation.

Neither the board resolution nor the BAMC recommendation has been published yet, but the audio recording of the board’s brief vote on Colombia’s Request for Reconsideration yesterday can be found here.

As you will recall, Colombia and the seven other governmental members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization have been trying to stymie Amazon’s application for .amazon on what you might call cultural appropriation grounds.

ACTO governments think they have the better right to the string, and they’ve been trying to get veto power over .amazon’s registry policies, something Amazon has been strongly resisting.

Amazon has instead offered a set of contractual Public Interest Commitments, such as giving ACTO the ability to block culturally sensitive strings, in the hope of calming the governments’ concerns.

These PICs, along with Amazon’s request for Spec 13 dot-brand status, will likely be published for 30 days of public comment this week, Global Domains Division head Cyrus Namazi told the board.

Expect fireworks.

After comments are closed, ICANN will then make any tweaks to the PICs that are necessary, before moving forward to contract-signing with Amazon, Namazi .said.

.amazon domain isn’t a slam dunk after all

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2019, Domain Policy

Amazon’s application for the .amazon dot-brand may not be as secure as it was thought, following an ICANN decision over the Christmas period.

Directors threw out a South American government demand for it to un-approve the .amazon bid, but clarified that ICANN has not yet made a “final decision” to allow the gTLD to go live.

The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee formally rejected (pdf) a Request for Reconsideration filed by the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, which is made up of the governments of the eight countries near that big foresty, rivery, basiny thing, on December 21.

ACTO had asked the board to overturn its October resolution that took .amazon off its longstanding “Will Not Proceed” (ie, rejected) status and put it back on the path to delegation.

Secretary general Jacqueline Mendoza last month blasted ICANN for multiple “untrue, misleading, unfortunate and biased statements”, in connection with ACTO’s purported acquiescence to the .amazon bid.

Refusing ACTO’s request, the BAMC stated that ACTO had misinterpreted the resolution, and that ICANN did not intend to delegate .amazon until Amazon the company and ACTO had sat down to talk about how they can amicably share the name.

The October resolution “could have been clearer”, the BAMC said, adding:

the Resolution was passed with the intention that further discussions among the parties take place before the Board takes a final decision on the potential delegation of .AMAZON and related top-level domains. The language of the Resolution itself does not approve delegation of .AMAZON or support any particular solution. Rather, the Resolution simply “directs the President and CEO, or his designee(s), to remove the ‘Will Not Proceed’ status and resume processing of the .AMAZON applications.”

There are pages and pages of this kind of clarification. The committee clearly wants to help to smooth over relations between ICANN and the governments.

On the face of it, there’s a slight whiff of ret-conny spin about the BAMC recommendations.

There’s some ambiguity in the public record about what the ICANN board actually voted for in October.

Shortly before the ICANN board voted to resume processing .amazon, CEO Goran Marby stated, in front of an audience at ICANN 63 in Barcelona, both that a decision to delegate was being made and that ACTO was still at the table:

what we in practice has done is, through facilitation process, constructed a shared delegation of .AMAZON where the company has or will provide commitments to the ACTO countries how the .AMAZON will be used in the future. And the decision today is to delegate it, forward it to me to finalize those discussions between the company and those countries.

And I’m also formally saying yes to the invitation to go to Brazil from the ACTO countries to their — finish off the last round of discussions.

While the new clarifications seem to suggest that ACTO still has some power to keep .amazon out of the root, the BAMC decision also suggests that the full board could go ahead and approve .amazon at the ICANN 64 meeting in Japan this March, with or without governmental cooperation, saying:

the BAMC recommends that the Board reiterates that the Resolution was taken with the clear intention to grant the President and CEO the authority to progress the facilitation process between the ACTO member states and the Amazon corporation with the goal of helping the involved parties reach a mutually agreed solution, but in the event they are unable to do so the Board will make a decision on the next steps at ICANN 64 regarding the potential delegation of .AMAZON and related top-level domains. The BAMC encourages a high level of communication between the President and CEO and the relevant stakeholders, including the representatives of the Amazonian countries and the Amazon corporation, between now and ICANN 64.

If you’ve not been following the story, ACTO has concerns about .amazon due to its similarity to the name of the rain-forest region.

Amazon the company has promised to encode cultural safeguards in its ICANN contract and offered to donate a bunch of free stuff to the countries to sweeten the deal

The current Amazon offer has not been published.

The BAMC recommendation will now be considered by the full ICANN board, which is usually just a formality.

More delay for Amazon as ICANN punts rejected gTLD

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2017, Domain Policy

Amazon is going to have to wait a bit longer to discover whether its 2012 application for the gTLD .amazon will remain rejected.

ICANN’s board of directors at the weekend discussed whether to revive the application in light of the recent Independent Review Process panel ruling that the bid had been kicked out for no good reason.

Instead of making a firm decision, or punting it to the Government Advisory Committee (as I had predicted), the board instead referred the matter to a subcommittee for further thought.

The newly constituted Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which has taken over key functions of the Board Governance Committee, has been asked to:

review and consider the Panel’s recommendation that the Board “promptly re-evaluate Amazon’s applications” and “make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications,” and to provide options for the Board to consider in addressing the Panel’s recommendation.

The notion of a “prompt” resolution appears to be subjective, but Amazon might not have much longer to wait for a firmer decision.

While the BAMC’s charter requires it to have meetings at least quarterly, if it follows the practice of its predecessor they will be far more frequent.

It’s possible Amazon could get an answer by the time of the public meeting in Abu Dhabi at the end of next month.

ICANN’s board did also resolve to immediately pay Amazon the $163,045.51 in fees the IRP panel said was owed.

The .amazon gTLD application, along with its Chinese and Japanese versions, was rejected by ICANN a few years ago purely on the basis of consensus GAC advice, led by the geographic name collisions concerns of Peru and Brazil.

However, the IRP panel found that the GAC advice appeared to based on not a great deal more than whim, and that the ICANN board should have at least checked whether there was a sound rationale to reject the bids before doing so.