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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.

US unhappy with ICANN, urges more delay to many new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2014, Domain Policy

The US government is not pleased with ICANN’s rather liberal interpretation of Governmental Advisory Committee advice on new gTLDs and wants more talks about “safeguards”.

Not only that, but it wants to start talking to ICANN about extending safeguards applicable to new gTLDs to old gTLDs, presumably including the likes of .com, too.

A letter to ICANN from Department of Commerce assistant secretary Larry Strickling, obtained by DI today, calls for more talks before ICANN finalizes its handling of the GAC’s Beijing communique.

Strickling notes, as DI has previously, that ICANN softened the meaning of the advice in order to smooth its implementation.

as can be the case when translating GAC Advice to contractual provisions, the NGPC [the ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee] made adjustments to the GAC Advice that the United States believes could cause enforcement problems and as such merits further discussion. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), on behalf of the United States, is planning to raise these concerns for discussion at the March GAC meeting in Singapore and requests that ICANN take this fact into account before moving forward with applications for strings impacted by the relevant portions of GAC advice

The letter (pdf) was sent February 4, just a day before the NGPC held a meeting — the results of which we do not yet know — that had the GAC Advice on its agenda.

The New gTLD Applicants Group had urged the NGPC to finally put the GAC Advice to rest, highlighting the “heavy burden that the delay in the implementation of GAC Category 1 Advice has imposed upon affected applicants” in a letter last week.

The Category 1 advice, you may recall, comprised eight “safeguards” mandating policies such as industry engagement and registrant authentication, applicable to at least 386 gTLD applications.

Back in November, ICANN announced how it planned to handle this advice, but changed its meaning to make it more palatable to ICANN and applicants.

Those changes are what Strickling is not happy with.

He’s particularly unhappy with changes made to the GAC’s demand for many gTLDs to be restricted to only card-carrying members of the industries the strings seem to represent.

The GAC said in Beijing:

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.

In other words, you’d have to provide your doctor license before you could register a .doctor domain.

But ICANN proposed to implement it like this:

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.

The doctor under this policy would only require the doctor to check a box confirming she’s a doctor. As Strickling said:

The NGPC has changed the GAC-coveyed concept of “verification and validation” to “representation”

Requirements for registries to mandate adherence to government regulations on the protection of financial and healthcare data are also his targets for further discussion.

What all this boils down to is that, assuming ICANN paid heed to Strickling’s letter, it seems unlikely that NTAG will get closure it so desperately wants until the Singapore meeting in late March — a year after the original Beijing communique — at the earliest.

In other words, lots of new gTLD applicants are probably going to be in limbo for a bit longer yet.

But Strickling also has another bombshell to drop in the final sentence of the letter, writing:

In addition, we will recommend that cross community discussion begin in earnest on how the safeguards that are being applied to new gTLDs can be applied to existing gTLDs.

So it seems the GAC is likely to start pressing to retroactively apply its new gTLDs advice to legacy gTLDs too.

Registrant verification in .com? Stricter Whois checks and enforcement? That conversation has now started, it seems.

In the wake of .amazon, IP interests turn on the GAC

Kevin Murphy, July 19, 2013, Domain Policy

Intellectual property interests got a wake-up call at ICANN 47 in Durban this week, when it became clear that they can no longer rely upon the Governmental Advisory Committee as a natural ally.

The GAC’s decision to file a formal consensus objection against Amazon’s application for the .amazon gTLD prompted a line of IP lawyers to queue up at the Public Forum mic to rage against the GAC machine.

As we reported earlier in the week, the GAC found consensus to its objection to .amazon after the sole hold-out government, the United States, decided to keep quiet and allow other governments to agree.

This means that the ICANN board of directors will now be presented with a “strong presumption” that .amazon should be rejected.

With both previous consensus objections, against .africa and .gcc, the board has rejected the applications.

The objection was pushed for mainly by Brazil, with strong support from Peru, Venezuela and other Latin American countries that share the Amazon region, known locally as Amazonas.

During a GAC meeting on Tuesday, statements of support were also made by countries as diverse as Russia, Uganda and Trinidad and Tobago.

Brazil said Amazon is a “very important cultural, traditional, regional and geographical name”. Over 50 million Brazilians live in the region, he said.

The Brazilian Congress discussed the issue at length, he said.

The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee was also strongly against .amazon, he said, and there was a “huge reaction from civil society” including a petition signed by “thousands of people”.

All the countries in the region also signed the Montevideo Declaration (pdf), which resolves to oppose any attempts to register .amazon and .patagonia in any language, in April.

It doesn’t appear to be an arbitrary decision by one government, in other words. People were consulted.

The objection did not receive a GAC consensus three months ago in Beijing only because the US refused to agree, arguing that governments do not have sovereign rights over geographic names.

But prior to Durban, without changing its opinion, the US said that it would not stand in the way of consensus.

It seems that there may have been bigger-picture political concerns at play. The NTIA, which represents the US on the GAC, is said to have had its hands tied by its superiors in Washington DC.

Did the GAC move the goal posts?

With the decision to object to .amazon already on the public record before the GAC’s Durban communique was formally issued yesterday, Intellectual Property Constituency interests had plenty of time to get mad.

At the Public Forum yesterday, several took to the open mic to slam the GAC’s decision.

Common themes emerged, one of which was the claim that the GAC is retroactively changing the rules about what is and is not a “geographic” string for the purposes of the Applicant Guidebook.

Stacey King, senior corporate counsel with Amazon, said:

Prior to filing our applications Amazon carefully reviewed the Applicant Guidebook; we followed the rules. You are now being asked to significantly and retroactively modify these rules. That would undermine the hard-won international consensus to the detriment to all stakeholders. I repeat, we followed these rules.

It’s true that the string “amazon” is not on any of the International Standards Organization lists that ICANN’s Geographic Names Panel used to determine what’s “geographic”.

The local-language string “Amazonas” appears four times, representing a Brazilian state, a Colombian department, a Peruvian region and a Venezuelan state; Amazon isn’t there.

But Amazon is wrong about one thing.

By filing its objection, the GAC is not changing the rules about geographic names, it’s exercising its entirely separate but equally Guidebook-codified right to object to any application for any reason.

That’s part of the Applicant Guidebook too, and it’s a part that the IPC has never previously objected to.

Amazon was not alone making its claim about retroactive changes. IPC president Kristina Rosette, wearing her hat as counsel for former .patagonia applicant Patagonia Inc, said:

Patagonia is deeply disappointed by and concerned about the breakdown of the new gTLD process. Consistent with the recommendations and principles established in connection with that process, Patagonia fully expected its .patagonia application to be evaluated against transparent and predictable criteria, fully available to applicants prior to the initiation of the process.

Yet, its experience demonstrates the ease with which one stakeholder can jettison rules previously agreed upon after an extensive and thorough consultation.

That’s not consistent with the IPC’s position.

The IPC just last month warmly welcomed (pdf) the GAC’s Beijing advice, stating that the after-the-fact “safeguards” it demanded for all new gTLDs should be accepted.

Apparently, it’s okay for the GAC to move the goal posts for gTLD applicants when its advice is about Whois accuracy, but when it files an objection — perfectly compliant with the GAC Advice section of the Guidebook — that interferes with the business objectives of a big trademark owner, that’s suddenly not cool.

The IPC also did not challenge the GAC Advice process when it was first added to the Applicant Guidebook in the April 2011 draft.

At that time, the GAC had responded to intense lobbying by IP interests and was fighting their corner with the ICANN board, demanding stronger trademark protections in the new gTLD program.

If the IPC now finds itself arguing against the application of the GAC Advice rule, perhaps it should consider whether speaking up earlier might have been a good idea.

Rosette tried to substantiate her remarks by referring back to previous GAC advice, specifically a May 26, 2011 letter in which she said the GAC “formally accepted” the Guidebook’s definition of geographic strings.

However, that letter (pdf) has a massive caveat. It says:

Given ICANN’s clarifications on “Early Warning” and “GAC Advice” that allow the GAC to require governmental support/non-objection for strings it considers to be geographical names, the GAC accepts ICANN’s interpretation with regard to the definition of geographic names.

In other words, “The GAC is happy with your list, as long as we can add our own strings to it at will later”.

Rosette’s argument that the GAC has changed its mind, in other words, does not hold.

It wasn’t just IP interests that stood up against the .amazon decision, however. The IPC found an unlikely ally in the Registries Stakeholder Group, represented at the Public Forum by Verisign’s Keith Drazek.

Drazek sought to link the “retroactive changes” on geographic strings to the “retroactive changes” the GAC has proposed in relation to the so-called Category 1 strings — which would have the effect of demanding that hundreds of regular gTLD bids convert into de facto “Community” applications. He said:

While different stakeholders have different views about particular aspects of the GAC advice, we have a shared concern about the portions of that advice that constitute retroactive changes to the Applicant Guidebook around the issues of sovereign rights, undefined and unexplained geographic sensitivities, sensitive industry strings, regulated strings, etc.

This appears to be one of those rare instances where the interests of registries and the interests of IP owners are aligned. The registries, however, have at least been consistent, complaining about the GAC Advice process as soon as it was published in April 2011.

There’s also a big difference between the substance of the advice that they’re currently complaining about: the objection against .amazon followed the Guidebook rules on GAC Advice almost to the letter, whereas the Category 1 advice came completely out of the left field, with no Guidebook basis to cling to.

The GAC in the case of .amazon followed the rules. The rules are stupid, but the time to complain about that was before paying your $185,000 to apply.

If anyone is trying to change the rules after the fact, it’s Amazon and its supporters.

Is the GAC breaking the law?

Another recurring theme throughout yesterday’s Public Forum commentary was the idea that international trademark law does not support the GAC’s right to object to .amazon.

I’m going to preface my editorializing here with the usual I Am Not A Lawyer disclaimer, but it seems to be a pretty thin argument.

Claudio DiGangi, secretary of the IPC and external relations manager at the International Trademark Association, was first to comment on the .amazon objection. He said:

INTA strongly supports the recent views expressed by the United States. In particular, that it does not view sovereignty as a valid basis for objecting to the use of terms, and we have concerns about the effect of such claims on the integrity of the process.

J Scott Evans, head of domains at Yahoo, who left the IPC for the Business Constituency recently (apparently after some kind of disagreement) was next. He said:

There is no international recognition of country names as protection and they cannot trump trademark rights. So giving countries a block on a name violates international law. So you can’t do it.

There were similar comments along the same lines.

Heather Forrest, a senior lecturer at an Australian university and former AusRegistry employee, said she had conducted a doctoral thesis (available at Amazon!) on the rights of governments over geographic names, with particular reference to the Applicant Guidebook.

She told the Public Forum:

My study was comprehensive. I looked at international trade law, unfair competition law, intellectual property law, geographic indications, sovereign rights and human rights. As the board approved the Applicant Guidebook, I completed my study and found that there is not support in international law for priority or exclusive right of states in geographic names and found that there is support in international law for the right of non-state others in geographic names.

Kiran Malancharuvil, whose job until recently was to lobby the GAC for special protections for her client, the International Olympic Committee, now works for MarkMonitor. Calling for the ICANN board to reject the GAC’s advice on .amazon, she said at the Public Forum:

To date, governments in Latin America including the Amazonas community countries have granted Amazon over 130 trademark registrations that have been in continuous use by Amazon since 1994 without challenge. Additionally, Amazon has used their brand within domain names including some registered by MarkMonitor and including registrations in Amazonas community ccTLDs without objection.

Amazonas community countries and all other nations who have signed the TRIPS agreement have obligated themselves to maintain and protect these trademark registrations. Despite these granted rights, members of the community signed the Montevideo declaration and resolved to reject Amazon and Patagonia in any language as well as any other top-level domains referring to them. This declaration appears inconsistent with national and international law.

Having read TRIPS — the World Trade Organization’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights treaty — this morning, I’m still none the wiser how it relates to .amazon.

It’s a treaty that sought to create some uniformity in how trademarks and other types of intellectual property are handled globally, and domain names are not mentioned once.

As far as I can tell, nobody is asking Amazon to change its name and nobody’s trying to take away its trademarks. Nobody’s even trying to take away its domain names.

If the international law argument is simply that the GAC and/or ICANN cannot prevent a company with a trademark from getting its mark as a TLD, as Yahoo’s Evans suggested, it seems to me that quite a lot of the new gTLD program would have to be rewritten.

We’re already seeing Legal Rights Objections in which an applicant with a trademark is losing against an applicant without a trademark.

Is that illegal too? Was it illegal for ICANN to create an LRO process that has allowed Donuts (no trademark) to beat Express LLC (with trademark) in a fight over .express?

What about other protections in the Guidebook?

ICANN already bans two-character gTLDs, on the basis that they could interfere with future ccTLDs — protecting the geographic rights of countries that do not even exist — which disenfranchises companies with two-letter trademarks, such as BT and HP.

What about 888, the poker company, and 3, the mobile phone operator? They have trademarks. Should ICANN be forced to allow them to have numeric gTLDs, despite the obvious risks?

The Guidebook already bans country names outright, and says thousands of other geographic terms need government support or will be rejected. Is this all illegal?

If the argument is that trademarks trump all, ICANN may as well throw out half the Guidebook.

Now what?

Unlike .patagonia, which dropped out of the new gTLD program last week (we’ll soon discover whether that was wise), the objection to .amazon will now go to ICANN’s board of directors for consideration.

While the Guidebook calls for a “strong presumption” that the board will then reject the application, board member Chris Disspain said yesterday that outsiders should not assume that it will simply rubber-stamp the GAC’s advice.

In both previous cases, the outcome has been a rejection of the application, however, so it’s not looking great for Amazon.

This is how stupid the GAC’s new gTLDs advice is (part two)

Kevin Murphy, July 15, 2013, Domain Policy

When Donuts and ICANN signed a new gTLD contract for .游戏, on a stage in front of hundreds of people at ICANN 47 this morning, it made a mockery of the relationship between ICANN and the GAC.

游戏 is the Chinese for “game” or “games”. It was an uncontested application with no objections and, importantly, no Governmental Advisory Committee advice standing in its way.

Donuts got lucky. The six companies that have applied for .game or .games in English are all currently prohibited from entering into contract negotiations with ICANN because they did receive GAC advice.

When the GAC drafted its “Advice on New gTLDs” in Beijing three months ago, it included a long but “non-exhaustive” set of strings that it said needed extra “safeguards” on security and community support.

ICANN has called these strings the “Category 1” list. It’s already been the subject of some strong discussion with the GAC at the meeting in Durban, which kicked off over the weekend.

So was it the GAC’s intention with Category 1 to introduce a language bias into the new gTLD program? Did it intend to give Chinese-script strings special privileges over ASCII-based languages?

If there was a sensible rationale for including .game/.games on the Category 1 list, why didn’t it apply to .游戏?

Or did the GAC simply not give its Beijing advice the care and attention it deserved?

Based on sessions in Durban over the weekend, the latter explanation appears to be closer to the truth.

“Vague and unimplementable”

At session between the GAC and ICANN’s board-level New gTLD Program Committee yesterday, the GAC heard in the strongest terms (within the bounds of polite discourse) how silly its Beijing advice was.

The session kicked off with NGPC member Chris Disspain delivering a witheringly but necessarily blunt assessment of the “Category 1” list and the associated safeguards.

He first noted that ICANN already rejected the GAC’s advice to make certain strings mandatory “community” gTLDs — something that would have had the same effect as the Beijing advice — back in 2011.

The GAC Early Warning system was introduced instead, he said, to give governments the ability to work with or object to applicants for specific strings that they were worried about.

Disspain continued with a catalog of criticisms against the Category 1 advice:

The difficulties we see at the moment are that the categories of strings are broad and undefined. There’s no principled basis for distinguishing certain categories and strings.

Generic terms are in the same category as highly regulated industries. Some strings have segments that are both licensed and unlicensed.

It’s difficult to determine relevant regulatory agencies and self-regulatory organizations. Some strings refer to industries that may be sensitive or regulated in a single or a few jurisdictions only.

The safeguard advice items three to eight create obligations that are vague and unimplementable.

And these are the outcomes that we sought to avoid when we rejected the advice in the first place. And we agreed to put in place the Early Warning system so that governments could deal directly with applicants if they had issues with the string.

He received some push-back from GAC members, some of whom — insisting that the Beijing communique was well-considered and easily understood — appear to be in denial.

“In the end, you should come with us, trying to implement,” the member for Italy said. “Because I’m sure that you well understood the meaning of this Annex 1.”

In response, Disspain reiterated that the NGPC really doesn’t understand what the GAC wants and really doesn’t understand how it came up with the Category 1 list in the first place.

“We’re unclear how we could implement at all some pieces of the advice,” he said. “The issue for us is not so much that there could be other names that could be added to the list but rather there are names that appear on the list that we don’t understand why they’re there in the first place.”

Now what?

Impasse thus reached, much of the discussion during the hour-long session focused on ways to potentially move the process forward, with participants acknowledging they’re in “uncharted territory”.

Switzerland suggested — contrary to what is plainly spelled out in the Applicant Guidebook, which asks the GAC to comment on specific applications — that the GAC didn’t think that its job was to come up with a definitive list of worrying strings. He said:

Initially, we did not think that it’s the task of the GAC to put together a finite list of sensitive strings, but we have been informed that it would be helpful to come up with concrete names.

So don’t take this list as a list that has been worked out over months and years and every TLD has been tested. These are examples, as we identified it in a rather short time.

There might be a few names that are not on the list that you could easily also add. There are some inconsistencies in that sense. But this is not meant to be a finite, absolute list.

The UK rep said he was disappointed with the “negative” tone of the NGPC’s response to the safeguard advice, but also suggested that the next step might be to come up with a proper list of strings.

“I think the next step forward is for the committee to try and prepare a first draft list for consultation with the whole community,” he said. “And we, the governments, we could obviously seize the opportunity to contribute to that consultation.”

The European Commission provided a statement that its representative said represented the views of EU states on the GAC. The statement said that the Beijing list should be an “at-minimum” list.

European GAC members consider the role of the GAC in this discussion is to provide high-level clarifications regarding the Beijing GAC advice rather than precise implementation means.

We would also like to note that the list of sensitive strings provided in the Beijing communique is a non-exhaustive one… meaning the list should be considered an at-minimum list.

What does this all mean for applicants?

Based on yesterday’s hour-long discussion, ICANN can surely be no closer to understanding which applications are affected by the GAC advice and presumably still doesn’t have a clue what some of it means.

This afternoon, during another session in Durban, program manager Christine Willett said that ICANN is using the Category 1 list published in Beijing when deciding which applicants can be contracted with.

“The NGPC is still considering the Category 1 advice and we have no direction or indication from them yet that a definitive list will be created,” she said.

I can’t see it being resolved this week, and inter-sessional meetings are very rare, so we could now be looking at Buenos Aires — November — before any of this gets sorted out.

For applicants who were — it now seems — selected at random to appear on the Beijing list, they’re facing months more delay while applicants that were not included are free to sign registry contracts today.

Is this fair?

Is it fair to allow applicants that were inexplicably excluded from the GAC’s Beijing list to go ahead and contract with ICANN, while others that were inexplicably included are delayed by many more months?

Is it fair that some applications will get bumped up the queue to delegation just because the GAC didn’t spend enough time thinking about its task?

How can ICANN be certain at contracting that any application is free of GAC advice, when the GAC has made it clear that it expects its list of strings to grow?

I asked ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade some of these questions during a press conference this afternoon and he pointed out that there are mechanisms in place in the Registry Agreement to allow future GAC advice to be addressed.

If it indeed the case that Donuts, for example, might have to add some safeguard commitments to its already signed .游戏 contract, why prevent the .game and .games applicants from signing contracts too?

Wouldn’t it be fairer to delay all new gTLD applications, or none at all, rather than relying on a list of strings we now know definitively to be ad hoc and unreliable?

Governments kill off Patagonia’s dot-brand bid

Kevin Murphy, July 11, 2013, Domain Policy

The clothing retailer Patagonia has withdrawn its application for .patagonia after it became clear that ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee was unlikely to allow it.

Controversial from the outset, Patagonia’s dot-brand came under fire from governments including Argentina and Chile because the company is named after a large region of Latin America.

The GAC couldn’t find a consensus for a full-on objection to the bid, however, because the US government refused to agree that governments should have rights over such geographic terms.

However the US said last week that it would stand neutral on .patagonia and other geographic-flavored applications at next week’s ICANN meeting in Durban, smoothing the path to GAC consensus.

A GAC consensus objection would have spelled certain death to the application.

Amazon’s .amazon application is in exactly the same position as .patagonia was. Unless the company can come to some kind of arrangement with Brazil and over governments it may suffer the same fate.

New gTLD registry contract approved, but applicants left hanging by GAC advice

ICANN has approved the standard registry contract for new gTLD registries after many months of controversy.

But its New gTLD Program Committee has also decided to put hundreds more applications on hold, pending talks with the Governmental Advisory Committee about its recent objections.

The new Registry Agreement is the baseline contract for all new gTLD applicants. While some negotiation on detail is possible, ICANN expects most applicants to sign it as is.

Its approval by the NGPC yesterday — just a couple of days later than recently predicted by ICANN officials — means the first contracts with applicants could very well be signed this month.

The big changes include the mandatory “Public Interest Commitments” for abuse scanning and Whois verification that we reported on last month, and the freeze on closed generics.

But a preliminary reading of today’s document suggests that the other changes made since the previous version, published for comment by ICANN in April, are relatively minor.

There have been no big concessions to single-registrant gTLD applicants, such as dot-brands, and ICANN admitted that it may have to revise the RA in future depending on how those discussions pan out.

In its resolution, the NGPC said:

ICANN is currently considering alternative provisions for inclusion in the Registry Agreement for .brand and closed registries, and is working with members of the community to identify appropriate alternative provisions. Following this effort, alternative provisions may be included in the Registry Agreement.

But many companies that have already passed through Initial Evaluation now have little to worry about in their path to signing a contract with ICANN and proceeding to delegation.

“New gTLDs are now on the home stretch,” NGPC member Chris Disspain said in a press release “This new Registry Agreement means we’ve cleared one of the last hurdles for those gTLD applicants who are approved and eagerly nearing that point where their names will go online.”

Hundreds more, however, are still in limbo.

The NGPC also decided yesterday to put a hold on all “Category 1” applications singled out for advice in the Governmental Advisory Committee’s Beijing communique.

That’s a big list, comprising hundreds of applications that GAC members had concerns about.

The NGPC resolved: “the NGPC directs staff to defer moving forward with the contracting process for applicants who have applied for TLD strings listed in the GAC’s Category 1 Safeguard Advice, pending a dialogue with the GAC.”

That dialogue is expected to kick off in Durban a little over a week from now, so the affected applicants may not find themselves on hold for too long.

Negotiations, however, are likely to be tricky. As the NGPC’s resolution notes, most people believe the Beijing communique was “untimely, ill-conceived, overbroad, and too vague to implement”.

Or, as I put it, stupid.

By the GAC’s own admission, its list of strings is “non-exhaustive”, so if the delay turns out to have a meaningful impact on affected applicants, expect all hell to break loose.