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CPE probe: “whitewash” or “fig leaf”?

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2018, Domain Policy

A few weeks ago, when I was reporting the conclusions of a probe into ICANN’s new gTLD program, I wrote a prediction on a piece of paper and placed it into a sealed envelope.*

I wrote: “They’re gonna call this a whitewash.”

And I was correct! Ta-dah! I’m here all week.

The lawyer for applicants for .music and .gay gTLDs has written to ICANN to complain that a purportedly independent review of the Community Evaluation Process was riddled with errors and oversights and should not be trusted.

In a letter on behalf of dotgay LLC, Arif Ali calls the report a “whitewash”. In a letter on behalf of DotMusic, he calls it a “fig leaf”.

Both companies think that the CPE probe was designed to give ICANN cover to proceed with auctions for five outstanding gTLD contention sets, rather than to get to the bottom of perceived inconsistencies in the process.

Both of Ali’s clients applied for their respective gTLDs as “community” applicants, trying to avoid auctions by using the Community Priority Evaluation process.

During their CPEs, both carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, neither applicant scored highly enough to win the exclusive right to .gay or .music, meaning the next stage was to auction the strings off to the highest bidder.

After repeated complaints from applicants and an Independent Review Process finding that ICANN lacked transparency and that staff may have had inappropriate influence over the EIU, ICANN hired FTI Consulting to look into the whole CPE process.

FTI’s report was finally delivered late last year, clearing ICANN on all counts of impropriety and finding that the EIU’s evaluations had been consistent across each of the applications it looked at.

The remaining gTLDs affected by this are .music, .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck.

ICANN’s board of directors is due to meet to discuss next steps this weekend, but Ali says that it should “critically evaluate the [FTI] Report and not accept its wholesale conclusions”. He wrote, on behalf of DotMusic:

The report reveals that FTI’s investigation was cursory at best; its narrow mandate and evaluation methodology were designed to do little more than vindicate ICANN’s administration of the CPE process.

It is evident that FTI engaged in a seemingly advocacy-driven investigation to reach conclusions that would absolve ICANN of the demonstrated and demonstrable problems that afflicted the CPE process.

Among the applicants’ list of complaints: their claim that FTI did not interview affected applicants or take their submissions seriously, and the fact that ICANN was less than transparent about who was conducting the probe and what its remit was.

The same letter quotes ICANN chair Cherine Chalaby, then vice-chair, saying in a January 2017 webinar that he had observed inconsistencies in how the CPEs were carried out; inconsistencies FTI has since found did not occur.

That should be enough to provoke discussion when the board meets to discuss this and other issues in Los Angeles on Saturday.

* I didn’t actually do this of course, I just thought about it, but you get my point.

.music and .gay possible in 2018 after probe finds no impropriety

Kevin Murphy, January 2, 2018, Domain Policy

Five more new gTLDs could see the light of day in 2018 after a probe into ICANN’s handling of “community” applications found no wrongdoing.

The long-running investigation, carried out by FTI Consulting on ICANN’s behalf, found no evidence to support suspicions that ICANN staff had been secretly and inappropriately pulling the strings of Community Priority Evaluations.

CPEs, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, were a way for new gTLD applicants purporting to represent genuine communities to avoid expensive auctions with rival applicants.

Some applicants that failed to meet the stringent “community” criteria imposed by the CPE process appealed their adverse decisions and an Independent Review Process complaint filed by Dot Registry led to ICANN getting crucified for a lack of transparency.

While the IRP panel found some hints that ICANN staff had been nudging EIU’s arm when it came to drafting the CPE decisions, the FTI investigation has found:

there is no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE Provider with respect to the CPE reports issued by the CPE Provider or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process.

FTI had access to emails between EIU and ICANN, as well as ICANN internal emails, but it did not have access to EIU internal emails, which EIU declined to provide. It did have access to EIU’s internal documents used to draft the reports, however.

Its report states:

Based on FTI’s review of email communications provided by ICANN organization, FTI found no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process. FTI found that the vast majority of the emails were administrative in nature and did not concern the substance or the content of the CPE results. Of the small number of emails that did discuss substance, none suggested that ICANN acted improperly in the process.

FTI also looked at whether EIU had applied the CPE rules consistently between applications, and found that it did.

It also dug up all the sources of information EIU used (largely Google searches, Wikipedia, and the web pages of relevant community groups) but did not directly cite in its reports.

In short, the FTI reports very probably give ICANN’s board of directors cover to reopen the remaining affected contention sets — .music, .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck — thereby removing a significant barrier to the gTLDs getting auctioned.

If there were to be no further challenges (which, admittedly, seems unlikely), we could see some or all of these strings being sold off and delegated this year.

The probe also covered the CPEs for .llc, .inc and .llp, but these contention sets were resolved with private auctions last September after applicant Dot Registry apparently decided it couldn’t be bothered pursuing the ICANN process any more.

The FTI’s reports can be downloaded from ICANN.

DotKids doesn’t want .kids auction to go ahead

Kevin Murphy, December 7, 2017, Domain Registries

One of the applicants for the .kids gTLD has asked ICANN to stop the planned last-resort auction.

DotKids Foundation is competing with Amazon for .kids and, because the two strings were ruled confusingly similar, with Google’s application for the singular .kid.

ICANN last month set a January 25 date for the three contenders to go to auction, having unfrozen DotKids’ application back in October.

DotKids’ bid had been put on hold due to it losing a Community Priority Evaluation — which found overwhelmingly that the organization did not represent a proper community — and its subsequent appeals of that ruling.

But the foundation now says that its application should be treated the same as .music, .gay, and a few others, which are currently on hold while ICANN waits for the results of a third-party review of the CPE process.

DotKids filed a Request for Reconsideration (pdf) with ICANN yesterday, immediately after being told that there were no plans to put the contention set back on hold.

Tomorrow is the deadline for the three applicants to submit their information to ICANN to participate in next month’s auction.

An ICANN last-resort auction sees the winning bid being placed in a fund for a yet-to-be-determined purpose, as opposed to private auctions where the losing bidders share the loot.

.music and .gay CPE probe could end this month

Kevin Murphy, June 5, 2017, Domain Policy

An ICANN-commissioned investigation into the fairness of its Community Priority Evaluation process for new gTLDs could wind up before the end of June.

In an update Friday, ICANN also finally revealed who is actually conducting the probe, which has been slammed by affected applicants for being secretive.

A tentative timeline sketched out in the update means applicants for gTLDs including .gay and .music could find their applications closer to release from limbo in just a few weeks.

ICANN revealed that FTI Consulting’s Global Risk and Investigations Practice and Technology Practice have been looking into claims ICANN staff meddled in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s supposedly independent CPE reviews for the last several months.

FTI is reviewing how ICANN staff interacted with the EIU during the CPE processes, how the EIU conducted its research and whether the EIU applied the CPE criteria uniformly across different gTLDs.

ICANN said that FTI finished collected material from ICANN in March and hopes to have all the information it has asked the EIU for by the end of this week.

It could deliver its findings to ICANN two weeks after that, ICANN said.

Presumably, there would be little to prevent ICANN publishing these findings very shortly thereafter.

ICANN has been harangued by some of the applicants for .music, .gay, hotel, .cpa, .llc, .inc, .llp and .merck, all of which have been affected by controversial CPE decisions and have been delayed by the investigation, for months.

.gay, .music and others in limbo as ICANN probes itself

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2017, Domain Policy

Several new gTLD applicants have slammed ICANN for conducting an investigation into its own controversial practices that seems to be as opaque as the practices themselves.

Seven proposed new gTLDs, including the much-anticipated .music and .gay, are currently trapped in ICANN red tape hell as the organization conducts a secretive probe into how its own staff handled Community Priority Evaluations.

The now broad-ranging investigation seems have been going on for over six months but does not appear to have a set deadline for completion.

Applicants affected by the delays don’t know who is conducting the probe, and say they have not been contacted by anyone for their input.

At issue is the CPE process, designed to give genuine “community” gTLD applicants a way to avoid a costly auction in the event that their choice of string was contested.

The results of the roughly 25 CPE decisions, all conducted by the independent Economist Intelligence Unit, were sometimes divergent from each other or just baffling.

Many of the losers complained via ICANN’s in-house Requests for Reconsideration and then Independent Review Process mechanisms.

One such IRP complaint — related to Dot Registry’s .inc, .llc, .llp applications — led to two of the three-person IRP panel deciding last July that ICANN had serious questions to answer about how the CPE process was carried out.

While no evidence was found that ICANN had coached the EIU on scoring, it did emerge that ICANN staff had supplied margin notes to the supposedly independent EIU that had subsequently been incorporated into its final decision.

The IRP panel majority wrote that the EIU “did not act on its own in performing the CPEs” and “ICANN staff was intimately involved in the process”.

A month or so later, the ICANN board of directors passed a resolution calling for the CEO to “undertake an independent review of the process by which ICANN staff interacted with the CPE provider”.

Another month later, in October, the Board Governance Committee broadened the scope of the investigation and asked the EIU to supply it with documents it used to reach its decisions in multiple controversial CPE cases.

A couple of weeks ago, BGC chair Chris Disspain explained all this (pdf) to the applicants for .music, .gay, hotel, .cpa, .llc, .inc, .llp and .merck, all of which are affected by the delay caused by the investigation.

He said that the investigation would be completed “as soon as practicable”.

But in response, Dot Registry and lawyers for fellow failed CPE applicant DotMusic have fired off more letters of complaint to ICANN.

(UPDATE: Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles got in touch to say his letter was actually sent before Disspain’s, despite the dates on the letters as published by ICANN suggesting the opposite).

Both applicants note that they have no idea who the independent party investigating the CPEs is. That’s because ICANN hasn’t identified them publicly or privately, and the evaluator has not contacted the applicants for their side of the story.

DotMusic’s lawyer wrote (pdf):

DotMusic’s rights are thus being decided by a process about which it: (1) possesses minimal information; (2) carried out by an individual or organization whose identity ICANN is shielding; (3) whose mandate is secret; (4) whose methods are unknown; and (5) whose report may never be made public by ICANN’s Board.

He added, pointedly:

The exclusion of directly affected parties from participation eerily reproduces the shortcomings of the EIU evaluations that are under scrutiny in the first place.

Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles, in his letter (pdf), quoted Disspain saying at a public forum in Copenhagen this March that a blog post addressing the concerns had been drafted and would be published “shortly”, but wasn’t.

He suggested the investigation is “smoke and mirrors” and, along with DotMusic, demanded more information about the investigator’s identity and methods.

It does strike me as a looking a bit like history repeating itself: ICANN comes under fire for non-transparently influencing a supposedly independent review and addresses those criticisms by launching another non-transparent supposedly independent review.

No matter what I feel about the merits of the “community” claims of some of these applicants, it has been over five years now since they submitted their applications and the courtesy of transparency — if closure itself its not yet possible — doesn’t seem like a great deal to ask.