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More dirty tricks questions raised in .africa saga

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2015, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrica leaned on a former employee and used suspected astroturf in an unsuccessful attempt to have the Kenyan government support its .africa bid, newly published documents reveal.

Evidence to the .africa Independent Review Process case published for the first time by ICANN Monday night shows how DCA CEO Sophia Bekele attempted to secure Kenyan backing via a former chair of its own advisory board, who had gone on to be an adviser for Kenya on the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee.

Emails suggest that this adviser tried to support DCA, against the wishes of his superiors in the Kenyan government, while they were distracted by a contested presidential election result.

They also show that Bekele on at least two occasions sent “news” stories published on web sites she has links to to another senior Kenyan official.

The full story is not yet on the public record — ICANN is still refusing to un-redact anything that the GAC has deemed confidential, including discussions on the GAC mailing list — but some interesting questions have nevertheless emerged.

Kenya divided

Three sets of emails were published.

One was between Bekele and a newly appointed Kenyan GAC adviser, Sammy Buruchara, dating to the ICANN meeting in Beijing, April 2013.

That was the meeting at which the GAC decided, by consensus, to issue advice to the effect that DCA’s .africa application should be trashed.

If Kenya, or any other single government, had disagreed with that proposed GAC advice, it would not be “consensus” advice and would therefore be substantially weakened when the ICANN board came to consider it.

Until his GAC appointment, Buruchara had been chair of DCA’s Strategic Leadership Advisory Board. DCA press released his move in March 2013.

It’s significant that Buruchara was not Kenya’s GAC voting “representative” — that was Michael Katundu — rather merely an “adviser”.

When Bekele (pictured here with Buruchara, March 7, 2013) was cross-examined during the IRP hearings in May this year, she was asked:

Bekele Buruchara

Q. Are you and he friends?

A. No.

Emails show that Buruchara had forwarded the proposed text of the GAC advice to Bekele, who then suggested three paragraphs of text saying the advice was “inappropriate” because the African Union Commission, as backer of the rival ZACR .africa bid, was a GAC member.

That email was dated April 10 — the Wednesday of the Beijing meeting — as the GAC was preparing its communique for submission to the ICANN board the following day.

It’s not clear from the emails published so far what, if anything, Buruchara did in response.

However, the next day, April 11, it seems his Kenyan government superiors were on his case. Buruchara told Bekele:

The matter has been escalated to our Government in Kenya with false information that I am contradicting the AUC.

I have responded accordingly.

Due to the sensitivity of this matter, I wish to leave it at the level of my previous post to the GAC until the matter settles.

Currently I am expecting a call from the President any time.

Expecting a call from the president was a big deal — Uhuru Kenyatta had been inaugurated just two days earlier following a month-long “hanging chads”-style legal challenge to his March 9 presidential election victory.

Buruchara elaborated in a subsequent email:

Someone from AUC called Ndemo and made a lot of noise to the effect that I have contradicted the Heads of State agreement in Abuja, which is obviously lies.

So Ndemo is beside himself with madness owing to the current transition process.

Anyhow I will try and manage the situation as I have not anywhere contradicted AUC’s position.

The “transition” he refers to is Kenyatta’s transition into government, not the ICANN/IANA transition.

“Ndemo” was actually Bitange Ndemo, then the Kenyan permanent secretary for information and communications, somebody Bekele had been simultaneously lobbying for Kenyan government support.

Buruchara was not in Beijing. The actual GAC rep, Katundu, went along with the GAC consensus against DCA.

In fact, Kenya had already issued a GAC Early Warning (pdf) against DCA, so it was significant that Buruchara was expressing support for the company.

In a second email thread, dated July 8, 2013, Buruchara seems to acknowledge that he aided DCA in some way but suggests that was only possible because of political instability in Kenya:

I am glad to note that DCA application passed all the stages except the GNP [Geographic Names Panel].

As you know I stuck my neck out for DCA inspite of lack of Govt support by Ndemo.

Going forward, I would certainly be ready to support DCA so long as the Kenya Govt is behind me as I do not think I will have the same chances as I had last time which was because the govt was in transition

In these July emails, which came less than a week after DCA’s application was rejected by the ICANN board, Bekele encourages Buruchara to file a challenge on behalf of Kenya, and to try to recruit other friendly governments to its cause.

Nothing ever came of that.

Buruchara’s alleged actions were one of the controversial points argued over in the DCA Independent Review Process case.

Many pages of the relevant evidence and argument related to Buruchara’s actions (or lack thereof) are still redacted by ICANN as “GAC Confidential”, so we don’t have all the facts.

However, the IRP proceedings revealed that Buruchara had emailed the GAC mailing list just before Beijing kicked off with reference to .africa.

According to DCA, Buruchara “explained that Kenya supported the AUC’s application for .AFRICA but did not think it was appropriate for the AUC to utilize the GAC to eliminate competition”.

Complicating matters further, there was a third Kenyan GAC “representative” in the mix, Alice Munyua.

She had been the Kenyan GAC rep, but according to DCA had left the position prior to Beijing. She was also involved in the ZACR application and the AUC .africa project.

The record shows that she spoke strongly against DCA’s application, as Kenyan GAC rep, during a meeting between the ICANN board and GAC in Beijing, April 9.

Buruchara, according to DCA, had told the GAC mailing list that Munyua was no longer a GAC rep and that the Kenyan government did not agree with her position. He was then evidently talked out of his position by other GAC members.

It’s not clear from the record whether Munyua was an authorized Kenyan GAC rep in Beijing or not. Archive.org shows her listed on the GAC’s member list in January 2013 but not May 2013.

It’s all very confusing, in other words.

What we seem to have in Beijing, at the least, is a Kenyan GAC delegation deeply divided and the possibility that one or more delegates tried to capitalize on political distractions back home.

With a partial record, it’s difficult to tell for sure.

.africa belongs to America

What’s more clear from the emails published by ICANN this week is that despite her claims to represent the African people, Bekele on at least two occasions told Kenyan officials that African governments had no right to .africa.

In one email to Ndemo, Bekele asserts that the US, rather than African governments, “owns” .africa. She wrote:

we do not believe that it is the place of African Presidents to give AU any sort of mandate for custodianship over a .africa resource that is owned by ICANN or US… the AU cannot do an RFP that is parallel to the ICANN process to appoint a registry on behalf of Africa as if they “own the resource”, which belongs to ICANN

This is in tune with Bekele’s repeated outreach to the US Congress to intervene in the .africa controversy.

While DCA is based in Mauritius, Bekele has stated in interviews that she’s lived in California for the better part of two decades.

More astroturf?

The newly published emails also show Bekele unsuccessfully lobbying Ndemo for Kenyan government support, in part by sending him links to purportedly independent domain “news” blogs that are widely believed to be under her own control.

In February 2013, Bekele sent Ndemo links to articles published on domainnewsafrica.com and domainingafrica.com.

These two domains were originally registered by Bekele, at her California business address, on November 21, 2011.

The Whois details for both domains disappeared behind Go Daddy’s privacy service on May 12, 2012, records archived by DomainTools show.

Both web sites take strongly pro-DCA views in matters relating to .africa and ICANN. Neither covers African domain name news except to the extent it relates to DCA or .africa.

Given that Bekele has a admitted history of using bogus identities to fake support for DCA, it’s my view that the sites are nothing more than astroturf/sock-puppetry.

domainingafrica.com is the site that accused me of being part of a racial conspiracy.

It’s worrying that this site was also being used to lobby government officials.

It’s perhaps fitting that Bekele’s email signature, in the newly unredacted emails, is “Nobody believes the official spokesman… but everybody trusts an unidentified source.”

All documents in the IRP case of DCA v ICANN, many still significantly redacted, can be found here.

New gTLD program thrown into chaos as ICANN loses .africa case

Kevin Murphy, July 11, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has been opened up to a world of hurt after an independent panel of judges ruled that the organization broke its own bylaws when it kicked DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid out of the new gTLD program.

The what-the-fuck ruling cuts to the very heart of how ICANN deals with advice from its Governmental Advisory Committee, which comes out of the case looking like a loose canon with far too much power to sway the ICANN board.

Witness testimony published in the panel’s opinion sheds humiliating light on the GAC’s self-defeating habit of supplying ICANN with deliberately vague advice, a practice described by its former chair under oath as “creative ambiguity”.

The ruling does not, however, give DCA a serious shot at winning the .africa gTLD, which has already been contracted to rival ZA Central Registry. More delay is, however, inevitable.

The Independent Review Panel said:

the Panel is of the unanimous view that certain actions and inactions of the ICANN Board (as described below) with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.

It also unanimously ruled that ICANN should un-reject DCA’s application and allow it to continue through the application process and that ICANN should bear the full $600,000+ cost of the IRP, not including DCA’s legal fees.

It’s an important ruling, especially coming as ICANN seeks to extricate itself from US government oversight, because it implicitly calls on ICANN’s board to treat GAC advice with much less deference.

What’s the backstory?

DCA and ZACR have competing applications for .africa, which is a protected geographic string.

Under new gTLD program rules, only an applicant with support from over 60% of African national governments can be approved. ZACR’s support far exceeds this threshold, whereas DCA enjoys little to no government support at all.

The ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee rejected the DCA bid in June 2013, before its Initial Evaluation (which includes the Geographic Names Review) had been completed, based on the GAC’s April 2013 Beijing communique advice.

That advice invoked the GAC’s controversial (and vaguely worded) powers to recommend against approval of any application for any reason, as enshrined in the Applicant Guidebook.

A subsequent Request for Reconsideration (IRP lite) filed by DCA was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.

An IRP is the last avenue community members have to challenge ICANN’s actions or inaction without resorting to the courts.

DCA filed its IRP complaint in October 2013 and amended it in January 2014, claiming ICANN broke its own bylaws by rejecting the DCA application based on GAC advice.

Despite the IRP, ICANN went ahead and signed a Registry Agreement with rival ZACR in the May and was just days away from delegating .africa when the IRP panel ordered the process frozen.

The case dragged on, partly because one of the original three-person panel died and had to be replaced, the delay causing much consternation among African GAC members.

What did the IRP panel finally rule?

Yesterday’s ruling avoided deciding on or even commenting on any of DCA’s crazy conspiracy theories, instead limiting itself to the question of whether ICANN’s board and committees acted with bylaws-mandated transparency, fairness and neutrality.

It found that the GAC itself did not act according to these principles when it issued its Beijing advice against DCA.

It found that ICANN did not “conduct adequate diligence” when it accepted the advice, nor did the BGC or NGPC when they were processing the RfR.

In light of the clear “Transparency” obligation provisions found in ICANN’s Bylaws, the Panel would have expected the ICANN Board to, at a minimum, investigate the matter further before rejecting DCA Trust’s application.

ICANN did not do that, the panel decided, so it broke its bylaws.

both the actions and inactions of the Board with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were not procedures designed to insure the fairness required… and are therefore inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.

Does this mean DCA gets .africa?

No. The IRP panel ruled that DCA’s application must re-enter the application process, presumably at the point it exited it.

DCA’s application never had a final Initial Evaluation result issued. If it were to re-enter IE today, it would certainly be failed by the Geographic Names Panel because it lacks the requisite support of 60% of African governments.

DCA wanted the panel to rule that it should have 18 months to try to secure the needed support, but the panel refused to do so.

The application is still as good as dead, but ICANN will need to go through the motions to actually bury it.

In the meantime, ZACR’s delayed delegation of .africa is to remain on hold.

How embarrassing is this for the GAC?

Hugely. Verbal testimony from Heather Dryden, who was GAC chair at the time of the Beijing meeting, highlights what I’ve been saying for years: GAC advice is regularly so vaguely written as to be useless, inconsistent, or even harmful.

Dryden told the panel at one point: “In our business, we talk about creative ambiguity. We leave things unclear so we don’t have conflict.”

The IRP panel took a dim view of Dryden’s testimony, writing that she “acknowledged during the hearing, the GAC did not act with transparency or in a manner designed to insure fairness.”

The ruling quotes large chunks of text from the hearing, during which Dryden was grilled about the GAC’s rationale for issuing a consensus recommendation against DCA.

Dryden responded by essentially saying that the GAC did not discuss a rationale, and that there was “deference” to the governments proposing consensus objections in that regard.

ARBITRATOR KESSEDJIAN: So, basically, you’re telling us that the GAC takes a decision to object to an applicant, and no reasons, no rationale, no discussion of the concepts that are in the rules?

[DRYDEN]: I’m telling you the GAC did not provide a rationale. And that was not a requirement for issuing a GAC —

HONORABLE JUDGE CAHILL: But you also want to check to see if the countries are following the right — following the rules, if there are reasons for rejecting this or it falls within the three things that my colleague’s talking about.

[DRYDEN]: The practice among governments is that governments can express their view, whatever it may be. And so there’s a deference to that. That’s certainly the case here as well.

This and other quoted sections of the hearing depict the GAC as a body that deliberately avoids substantive discussions and deliberately provides unclear advice to ICANN, in order to avoid offending its members.

Does this mean all GAC advice on new gTLDs is open to appeal now?

Maybe. There are numerous instances of the ICANN board accepting GAC advice without demanding an explanation from the GAC.

At a bare minimum, the applicant for .gcc, which was rejected in the same breath as .africa, now seems to have a case to appeal the decision. The applicant for .thai is in a very similar situation.

Amazon’s lawyers will no doubt also be poring over yesterday’s decision closely; its .amazon bid was also killed off by GAC advice.

But in the case of .amazon, it would be hard to argue it was a .africa-style summary execution. ICANN took extensive advice and delayed its decision for a long time before killing off that application.

The ruling essentially calls the part of the Applicant Guidebook that gives the GAC its strong advisory powers over new gTLD applications into question.

Literally hundreds of new gTLD applications were affected by the Beijing communique.

Anything else of note?

Yes.

First, large parts of the decision have been redacted. The redactions mostly appear to relate to sensitive documents disclosed between the parties (reading between the lines, I think some of them related to DCA’s purported support from a certain African government) that the panel ruled should remain private last September.

Second, the decision inexplicably quotes the ICANN bylaws text “MISSION AND CORE VALUES” as “MISSION AND CORE (Council of Registrars) VALUES”, in what appears to be a weird search-and-replace error by an unknown party. CORE (Council of Registrars) is of course a registry back-end provider with apparently no involvement in .africa whatsoever.

Third, it seems I’ve been elected Pope. I hereby select “Dave” as my Papal name and will commence my program of donating all Church assets to the poor forthwith.

ICANN holds its ground on weaseled GAC advice

Kevin Murphy, September 11, 2014, Domain Policy

While many members of the community are getting upset about the plan to make it harder for ICANN’s board to overrule GAC advice, today we got a reminder that the board is not the GAC’s lapdog.

The New gTLD Program Committee is standing firm on the way it creatively reinterpreted Governmental Advisory Committee advice to make it less punishing on a few dozen new gTLD registries.

The NGPC passed a resolution on Monday approving an updated scorecard to send to the GAC. ICANN chair Steve Crocker delivered it to GAC chair Heather Dryden yesterday.

A “GAC scorecard” is a table of the GAC’s demands, taken from the formal advice it issues at the end of each public meeting, with the NGPC’s formal responses listed alongside.

The latest scorecard (pdf) addresses issues raised in the last five ICANN meetings, dating back to the Beijing meeting in April 2013.

The issues mainly relate to the GAC’s desire that certain new gTLDs, such as those related to regulated industries, be locked down much tighter than many of the actual applicants want.

One big point of contention has been the GAC’s demand that registrants in gTLDs such as .attorney, .bank and .doctor should be forced to provide a relevant licence or other credentials at point of sale.

The GAC’s exact words, from its Beijing communique (pdf), were:

At the time of registration, the registry operator must verify and validate the registrants’ authorisations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in that sector.

However, when the NGPC came up with its first response, in November last year, it had substantially diluted the advice. The creative reinterpretation I mentioned earlier read:

Registry operators will include a provision in their Registry-Registrar Agreements that requires Registrars to include in their Registration Agreements a provision requiring a representation that the Registrant possesses any necessary authorisations, charters, licenses and/or other related credentials for participation in the sector associated with the Registry TLD string.

In other words, rather than presenting your medical licence to a registrar when buying a .doctor domain, registrants would merely assert they have such a licence on the understanding that they could lose their domain if they fail to present it on demand in future.

The GAC, which isn’t entirely stupid, spotted ICANN’s reimagining of the Beijing communique.

At the Singapore meeting this March, it issued a list of passive-aggressive questions (pdf) for the NGPC, noting that its Beijing advice had been “amended” by the board and wondering whether this would lead to “greater risks of fraud and deception” in new gTLDs.

ICANN’s response this week is quite lengthy.

The NGPC said it had “to balance many competing positions” when figuring out how to respond to the Beijing communique, and that it tried “to address all of the completing concerns in a way that respected the spirit and intent of the GAC’s advice.”

The committee gives a number of examples (starting on page 15 of this PDF) explaining why the GAC’s original demands would be unreasonably burdensome not only on registries and registrars but also on registrants.

Here’s one example:

consider a potential registrant that is a multinational insurance company seeking to register a domain name in the .insurance TLD. Suppose the multinational insurance company has locations in over 30 countries, including the United States and Kenya. If the potential registrant insurance company attempts to register a domain name in the .insurance TLD, would that trigger an obligation to verify and validate its credentials, licenses, charters, etc. in the location of its headquarters, or all of the places around the globe where it does business. Is it realistic for a Registry Operator or Registrar to have the knowledge and expertise to determine precisely what credentials or authorizations are required in every country around the world (and in every city, county or other political division if those political subdivisions also require credentials [e.g. in the United States, insurance is primarily regulated at the state level and require a license in each of the 50 states])?

The short version is that the NGPC isn’t budging on this particular issue.

Rather than backpedaling, it’s giving the GAC the reasons it disagreed with its advice and explaining how it attempted to at least comply with the spirit, if not the letter, of Beijing.

As far as I can tell, that seems to be the case in each of the 39 items in the new scorecard — explanation not capitulation. Read the full thing here.

ICANN puts .islam and other gTLD bids in limbo

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2014, Domain Policy

Or should that be Barzakh?

Rather than making the tricky decision on whether to approve .islam and .halal new gTLD applications, ICANN seems to have place both bids into permanent limbo.

It’s also put off calls on applications for .spa, .amazon, .wine and .vin, due to objections from the Governmental Advisory Committee.

On .islam and .halal, ICANN chair Steve Crocker wrote to Turkish applicant Asia Green IT System to say that the New gTLD Program Committee will not address the bids until AGIT has worked out its differences with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

He noted that AGIT has expressed a willingness in the past to work with the OIC, but that the OIC has formally decided to object to the two applications. Crocker wrote:

There seems to be a conflict between the commitments made in your letters and the concerns raised in letters to ICANN urging ICANN not to delegate the strings. Given these circumstances, the NGPC will not address the applications further until such time as the noted conflicts have been resolved.

This is not a formal rejection of the applications, but ICANN seems to have placed them in a limbo that will only be resolved when AGIT withdraws from the program or secures OIC support.

There’s also delaying treatment for .wine and .vin, which have become the subject of a raging row between Europe on the one hand and the US, Canada and Australia on the other.

Europe wants these two wine-related gTLDs to be subject to strict rules on who can register domains containing geographic indicators, such as “Champagne”. The others don’t.

ICANN in response has commissioned a third-party study on GIs, which it expects to be able to consider at its Singapore public meeting next month. Again, a decision has been avoided.

The two applicants for .spa don’t have any closure either.

Spa is the name of a town in Belgium, whereas the two applicants — Donuts and Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council — intend to use the string in its English dictionary sense.

There was a bit of a scandal during the Buenos Aires meeting last November when it was suggested that Belgium was using its position on the GAC to shake down the applicants for money.

Belgium denied this, saying the city of Spa didn’t stand to gain financially from the deals that it was trying to make with applicants. Some money would go to “the community served by .spa”, Belgium said, without elaboration.

ICANN has now decided to put .spa on hold, but wants to know more about these talks:

ICANN will not enter into registry agreements with applicants for the identified string at this time. The NGPC notes concern about concluding the discussions with the applicants and will request the GAC to (1) provide a timeline for final consideration of the string, and (2) identify the “interested parties” noted in the GAC advice.

Finally, ICANN has yet again delayed making a call on Amazon’s application for .amazon — until at least Singapore — out of an abundance of legal caution.

The GAC recommended that ICANN should reject .amazon because a few Latin American states claim ownership of the string due to it being the same as the Amazon region they share.

Amazon and others claim that it would be in violation of international law that prevents governments interfering with the use of trademarks for the GAC to block .amazon.

ICANN’s NGPC said:

ICANN has commissioned an independent, third-party expert to provide additional analysis on the specific issues of application of law at issue, which may focus on legal norms or treaty conventions relied on by Amazon or governments. The analysis is expected to be completed in time for the ICANN Singapore meeting so that the NGPC can consider it in Singapore.

In my view, the .amazon issue is the one most likely to bring a lawsuit to ICANN’s doorstep, so the organization clearly wants to get its legal position straight before making a call one way or the other.

All these decisions were made on Wednesday. You can read the NGPC’s resolution here and the important details here.

ICANN approves reworked GAC advice over US concerns

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2014, Domain Policy

No sooner had we reported on the US government’s complaint about ICANN’s reinterpretation of GAC advice on new gTLDs than it emerged that ICANN has already approved the plan.

The ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee on Wednesday approved a resolution on how to implement the so-called Category 1 advice the Governmental Advisory Committee came up with in Beijing last April. The resolution was published today.

The Category 1 advice calls for stronger regulation — stuff like forcing registrants to provide industry credentials at point of sale — in scores of new gTLDs the GAC considers particularly sensitive.

Despite US Department of Commerce assistant secretary Larry Strickling calling for more talks after ICANN substantially diluted some of the GAC’s Beijing communique, the NGPC has now formally approved its watered-down action plan.

Under the plan, registrants in gTLDs such as .lawyer and .doctor will have to “represent” that they are credentialed professionals in those verticals when they register a domain.

That’s as opposed to actually providing those credentials at point of registration, which, as Strickling reiterated in his letter, is what the GAC asked for in its Beijing communique.

The full list of eight approved “safeguards” (as interpreted from GAC advice by ICANN) along with the list of the gTLDs that they will apply to, can be found in this PDF.