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Hacking claims resurface as .hotel losers force ICANN to lawyer up again

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The fight over .hotel has been escalated, with four unsuccessful applicants for the gTLD whacking ICANN with a second Independent Review Process appeal.

The complaint resurrects old claims that a former lead on the successful application, now belonging to Afilias, stole trade secrets from competing applicants via a glitched ICANN web site.

It also revives allegations that ICANN improperly colluded with the consultant hired to carry out reviews of “community” applications and then whitewashed an “independent” investigation into the same.

The four companies filing the complaint are new gTLD portfolio applicants MMX (Minds + Machines), Radix, Fegistry, and Domain Venture Partners (what we used to call Famous Four).

The IRP was filed November 18 and published by ICANN December 16, but I did not spot it until more recently. Sorry.

There’s a lot of back-story to the complaint, and it’s been a few years since I got into any depth on this topic, so I’m going to get into a loooong, repetitive, soporific, borderline unreadable recap here.

This post could quite easily be subtitled “How ICANN takes a decade to decide a gTLD’s fate”.

There were seven applicants for .hotel back in 2012, but only one of them purported to represent the “hotel community”. That applicant, HOTEL Top Level Domain, was mostly owned by Afilias.

HTLD had managed to get letters of support from a large number of hotel chains and trade groups, to create a semblance of a community that could help it win a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to skip to the finish line and avoid a potentially costly auction against its rival applicants.

CPEs were carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an independent ICANN contractor.

Surprisingly to some (including yours truly), back in 2014 it actually managed to win its CPE, scoring 15 out of the 16 available points, surpassing the 14-point winning threshold and consigning its competing bidders’ applications to the scrap heap.

There would be no auction, and no redistribution of wealth between applicants that customarily follows a new gTLD auction.

Naturally, the remaining applicants were not happy about this, and started to fight back.

The first port of call was a Request for Reconsideration, which all six losers filed jointly in June 2014. It accused the EIU of failing to follow proper procedure when it evaluated the HTLD community application.

That RfR was rejected by ICANN, so a request for information under ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy followed. The losing applicants reckoned the EIU evaluator had screwed up, perhaps due to poor training, and they wanted to see all the communications between ICANN and the EIU panel.

The DIDP was also rejected by ICANN on commercial confidentiality grounds, so the group of six filed another RfR, asking for the DIDP to be reconsidered.

Guess what? That got rejected too.

So the applicants then filed an IRP case, known as Despegar v ICANN, in March 2015. Despegar is one of the .hotel applicants, and the only one that directly plays in the hotel reservation space already.

The IRP claimed that ICANN shirked its duties by failing to properly oversee and verify the work of the EIU, failing to ensure the CPE criteria were being consistently applied between contention sets, and failing in its transparency obligations by failing to hand over information related to the CPE process.

While this IRP was in its very early stages, it emerged that one of HTLD’s principals and owners, Dirk Krischenowski, had accessed confidential information about the other applicants via an ICANN web site.

ICANN had misconfigured its applicant portal in such a way that any user could very access any attachment on any application belonging to any applicant. This meant sensitive corporate information, such as worst-case-scenario financial planning, was easily viewable via a simple search for over a year.

Krischenowski appears to have been the only person to have noticed this glitch and used it in earnest. ICANN told applicants in May 2015 that he had carried out 60 searches and accessed 200 records using the glitch.

Krischenowski has always denied any wrongdoing and told DI in 2016 that he had always “relied on the proper functioning of ICANN’s technical infrastructure while working with ICANN’s CSC portal.”

The applicants filed another DIDP, but no additional information about the data glitch was forthcoming.

When the first IRP concluded, in February 2016, ICANN prevailed, but the three-person IRP panel expressed concern that neither the EIU nor ICANN had any process in place to ensure that community evaluations carried out by different evaluators were consistently applying the CPE rules.

The IRP panel also expressed concern about the “very serious issues” raised by the ICANN portal glitch and Krischenowski’s data access.

But the loss of the IRP did not stop the six losing applicants from ploughing on. Their lawyer wrote to ICANN in March 2016 to denounce Krischenowski’s actions as “criminal acts” amounting to “HTLD stealing trade secrets of competing applicants”, and as such HTLD’s application for .hotel should be thrown out.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, Krischenowski has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any criminal act.

Afilias wrote to ICANN not many weeks later, April 2016, to say that it had bought out Krischenowski’s 48.8% stake in HTLD and that he was no longer involved in the company or its .hotel application.

And ICANN’s board of directors decided in August 2016 that Krischenowski may well have accessed documents he was not supposed to, but that it would have happened after the .hotel CPE had been concluded, so there was no real advantage to HTLD.

A second, parallel battle against ICANN by an unrelated new gTLD applicant had been unfolding over the same period.

A company called Dot Registry had failed in its CPE efforts for the strings .llc, .llp and .inc, and in 2014 had filed its own IRP against ICANN, claiming that the EIU had “bungled” the community evaluations, applying “inconsistent” scoring criteria and “harassing” its supporters.

In July 2016, almost two years later, the IRP panel in that case ruled that Dot Registry had prevailed, and launched a withering attack on the transparency and fairness of the ICANN process.

The panel found that, far from being independent, the EIU had actually incorporated notes from ICANN staff into its CPE evaluations during drafting.

It was as a result of this IRP decision, and the ICANN board’s decision that Krischenowski’s actions could not have benefited HTLD, that the losing .hotel applicants filed yet another RfR.

This one lasted two and a half years before being resolved, because in the meantime ICANN launched a review of the CPE process.

It hired a company called FTI Consulting to dig through EIU and ICANN documentation, including thousands of emails that passed between the two, to see if there was any evidence of impropriety. It covered .hotel, .music, .gay and other gTLD contention sets, all of which were put on hold while FTI did its work.

FTI eventually concluded, at the end of 2017, that there was “no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process”, which affected applicants promptly dismissed as a “whitewash”.

They began lobbying for more information, unsuccessfully, and hit ICANN with yet another RfR in April 2018. Guess what? That one was rejected too.

The .hotel applicants then entered into a Cooperative Engagement Process — basically pre-IRP talks — from October 2018 to November 2019, before this latest IRP was filed.

It’s tempting to characterize it as a bit of a fishing expedition, albeit not a baseless one — any allegations of ICANN’s wrongdoing pertaining the .hotel CPE are dwarfed by the applicants’ outraged claims that ICANN appears to be covering up both its interactions with the EIU and its probe of the Krischenowski incident, partly out of embarrassment.

The claimants want ICANN to be forced to hand over documentation refused them on previous occasions, relating to: “ICANN subversion of the .HOTEL CPE and first IRP (Despegar), ICANN subversion of FTI’s CPE Process Review, ICANN subversion of investigation into HTLD theft of trade secrets, and ICANN allowing a domain registry conglomerate to takeover the ‘community-based’ applicant HTLD.”

“The falsely ‘independent’ CPE processes were in fact subverted by ICANN in violation of Bylaws, HTLD stole trade secrets from at least one competing applicant, and Afilias is not a representative of the purported community,” the IRP states.

“HTLD’s application should be denied, or at least its purported Community Priority relinquished, as a consequence not only for HTLD’s spying on its competitors’ secret information, but also because HTLD is no longer the same company that applied for the .HOTEL TLD. It is now just a registry conglomerate with no ties to the purported, contrived ‘Community’ that it claims entitled to serve,” it goes on.

ICANN is yet to file its response to the complaint.

Whether the IRP will be successful is anyone’s guess, but what’s beyond doubt is that if it runs its course it’s going to add at least a year, probably closer to two, to the delay that .hotel has been languishing under since the applications were filed in 2012.

Potentially lengthening the duration of the case is the claimants’ demand that ICANN “appoint and train” a “Standing Panel” of at least seven IRP panelists from which each three-person IRP panel would be selected.

The standing panel is something that’s been talked about in ICANN’s bylaws for at least six or seven years, but ICANN has never quite got around to creating it.

ICANN pinged the community for comments on how it should go about creating this panel last year, but doesn’t seemed to have provided a progress report for the last nine months.

The .hotel applicants do not appear to be in any hurry to get this issue resolved. The goal is clearly to force the contention set to auction, which presumably could happen at Afilias’ unilateral whim. Time-to-market is only a relevant consideration for the winner.

With .hotel, and Afilias’ lawsuit attempting to block the .web sale to Verisign, the last round of new gTLD program, it seems, is going to take at least a decade from beginning to end.

Looks like .music is finally on its way

The hard-fought battle for .music appears to be over.

I’m not yet in a position to tell you which of the eight applicants for the new gTLD has been successful, but I can tell you some of those who were not.

Two applicants have this week withdrawn their bids, an almost certain sign that the contention set has been privately settled.

The first applicant to ditch its bid was dot Music Ltd, an application vehicle of Domain Venture Partners (we used to call this outfit Famous Four Media, but that’s changed).

The other is .music LLC, also known as Far Further.

We can almost certainly expect all but one of the remaining applicants to withdraw their applications over the coming days.

Applicants typically sign NDAs when they settle contention privately, usually via an auction.

Far Further was one of two unsuccessful “community” applicants for .music. It had the backing of dozens of music trade groups, including the influential Recording Industry Association of America. Even Radiohead’s guitarist chipped in with his support.

Evidently, none of these groups were prepared to fund Far Further to the extent it could win the .music contention set.

The .music contention set has been held up by the continuing protestations of the other community applicant, DotMusic Limited, the company run by long-time .music cheerleader Constantinos Roussos.

After DotMusic lost its Community Priority Evaluation in 2016, on the basis that the “community” was pretty much illusory under ICANN rules, it started to complain that the process was unfair.

The applicant immediately filed a Request for Reconsideration with ICANN.

.music then found itself one of several proposed gTLDs frozen while ICANN conducted an outside review of alleged irregularities in the CPE process.

That review found no impropriety in early 2018, a verdict DotMusic’s lawyer dismissed as a “whitewash”.

It has since stalled the process several times with requests for information under ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, and more RfRs when those requests were denied.

But this series of appeals finally came to an end March 14, when ICANN’s board of directors finally ruled against DotMusic’s 2016 RfR.

That appears to have opened up the .music set for private resolution.

So who won? I don’t know yet, but the remaining applicants are: DotMusic itself, Google, Amazon, MMX, Donuts and Radix.

There are certainly two very deep-pocketed companies on that list. Could we be looking at Google or Amazon as the new proprietors of .music?

If either of those companies has won, prospective registrants might find they have a long wait before they can pick up a .music domain. Neither of these giants has a track record of rushing its new gTLDs to market.

If the victor is a conventional gTLD registry, we’d very probably be looking at a launch in 2019.

Yanks beat Aussies to accountancy gTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2019, Domain Registries

The contention set for .cpa has been resolved, clearing the way for a new accountancy-themed gTLD.

The winner is the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, which submitted two bids for the string — one “community”, one vanilla, both overtly defensive in nature — back in 2012.

Its main rival, CPA Australia, which also applied on a community basis, withdrew its application two weeks ago.

Commercial registries Google, MMX and Donuts all have withdrawn their applications since late December, leaving only the two AICPA applications remaining.

This week, AICPA withdrew its community application, leaving its regular “single registrant” bid the winner.

AICPA is the US professional standards body for accountants, CPA Australia is the equivalent organization in Australia. ACIPA has 418,000 members, CPA Australia has 150,000.

Both groups failed their Community Priority Evaluations back in 2015 on the basis that their communities were tightly restricted to their own membership, and therefore too restrictive.

AICPA later amended its community application to permit CPAs belonging to non-US trade groups to register.

Both organizations were caught up in the CPE review that also entangled and delayed the likes of .music and .gay. They’ve also both appealed to ICANN with multiple Requests for Reconsideration and Cooperative Engagement Process engagements.

CPA Australia evidently threw in the towel after a December 14 resolution of ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee decision to throw out its latest RfR. It quit its CEP January 9.

It’s likely a private resolution of the set, perhaps an auction, occurred in December.

The winning application from AICPA states fairly unambiguously that the body has little appetite for actually running .cpa as a gTLD:

The main reasons for which AICPA submits this application for the .cpa gTLD is that it wants to prevent third parties from securing the TLD that is identical to AICPA’s highly distinctive and reputable trademark

So don’t get too excited if you’re an accountant champing at the bit for a .cpa domain. It’s going to be an unbelievably restrictive TLD, according to the application, with AICPA likely owning all the domains for years after delegation.

The internet is about to get a lot gayer

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2019, Domain Registries

Seven years after four companies applied for the .gay top-level domain, we finally have a winner.

Three applicants, including the community-driven bid that has been fighting ICANN for exclusive recognition for years, this week withdrew their applications, leaving Top Level Design the prevailing bidder.

Top Level Design is the Portland, Oregon registry that already runs .ink, .design and .wiki.

The withdrawing applicants are fellow portfolio registries Donuts and MMX, and community applicant dotgay LLC, which had been the main holdout preventing the contention set being resolved.

I do not yet know how the settlement was reached, but it smells very much like a private auction.

As a contention set only goes to auction with consent of all the applicants, it seems rather like it came about after dotgay finally threw in the towel.

dotgay was the only applicant to apply as a formal “community”, a special class of applicant under ICANN rules that gives a no-auction path to delegation if a rigorous set of tests can be surmounted.

Under dotgay’s plan, registrants would have to have been verified gay or gay-friendly before they could register a .gay domain, which never sat right with me.

The other applicants, Top Level Design included, all proposed open, unrestricted TLDs.

dotgay, which had huge amounts of support from gay rights groups, failed its Community Priority Evaluation in late 2014. The panel of Economist Intelligence Unit experts awarded it 10 out the 16 available points, short of the 14-point prevailing threshold.

Basically, the EIU said dotgay’s applicant wasn’t gay enough, largely because its definition of “gay” was considered overly broad, comprising the entire LGBTQIA+ community, including non-gay people.

After dotgay appealed, ICANN a few months later overturned the CPE ruling on a technicality.

A rerun of the CPE in October 2015 led to dotgay’s bid being awarded exactly the same failing score as a year earlier, leading to more dotgay appeals.

The .gay set was also held up by an ICANN investigation into the fairness of the CPE process as carried out by the EIU, which unsurprisingly found that everything was just hunky-dory.

The company in 2016 tried crowdfunding to raise $360,000 to fund its appeal, but after a few weeks had raised little more than a hundred bucks.

Since October 2017, dotgay has been in ICANN’s Cooperative Engagement Process, a form of negotiation designed to avert a formal, expensive, Independent Review Process appeal, and the contention set had been on hold.

The company evidently decided it made more sense to cut its losses by submitting to an auction it had little chance of winning, rather than spend six or seven figures on a lengthy IRP in which it had no guarantee of prevailing.

Top Level Design, in its application, says it wants to create “the most safe, secure, and prideful .gay TLD possible” and that it is largely targeting “gay and queer people as well as those individuals that are involved in supporting gay cultures, such as advocacy, outreach, and civil rights.”

But, let’s face it, there’s going to be a hell of a lot of porn in there too.

There’s no mention in the winning bid of any specific policies to counter the abuse, such as cyberbullying or overt homophobia, that .gay is very likely to attract.

Top Level Design is likely to take .gay to launch in the back end of the year.

The settlement of the contention set is also good news for two publicly traded London companies.

MMX presumably stands to get a one-off revenue boost (I’m guessing in seven figures) from losing another auction, while CentralNic, Top Level Design’s chosen back-end registry provider, will see the benefits on an ongoing basis.

Donuts backs away from .spa fight

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2018, Domain Registries

Donuts has finally admitted defeat in its long-running fight to run the .spa gTLD, withdrawing its application and leaving rival Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council the victor.

ASWPC, run from Hong Kong by .asia’s Edmon Chung, has now entered into contracting with ICANN.

The company had won a Community Priority Evaluation back in 2015, with a passing score of 14 out of 16, which Donuts has been challenging ever since.

Donuts and ICANN were in a so-called Cooperative Engagement Process, a form of informal arbitration designed to stave off a more expensive Independent Review Process fight, from January 2016 until this month.

This meant ASWPC has been sitting twiddling its thumbs, unable to sign its contract or launch its TLD, for the better part of three years.

It’s not clear why Donuts decided not to go to a full-blown IRP. The company declined to comment for this article.

As a community applicant, the company had the backing of hundreds of spas worldwide.

It also had the backing of the Belgian government, which was important because spas are (little-known fact alert!) named after the tiny Belgian town of Spa.

It is believed that ASWPC promised up to 25% of its profits to Spa in order to gain this backing, but only from domains registered by Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, French or German registrants.

ICANN strikes back at “offensive” .gay bidder

Kevin Murphy, March 7, 2018, Domain Policy

ICANN has responded harshly to claims that a probe of its handling of applications for the .gay gTLD was fixed from the outset.

Writing to dotgay LLC lawyer Arif Ali this week, ICANN lawyer Kate Wallace said claims that the investigation “had a pre-determined outcome in mind” were “as offensive as they are baseless”.

FTI Consulting gave ICANN the all-clear in January, dismissing allegations that ICANN staff had interfered with Community Priority Evaluations of .gay and other gTLDs conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

But dotgay quickly responded by calling the FTI report a “whitewash”, saying “a strong case could be made that the purported investigation was undertaken with a pre-determined outcome in mind.”

Now, in an unusually pointed letter (pdf) Wallace calls dotgay out for its “insulting” implications.

While dotgay LLC may have preferred a different evaluation process and may have desired a different outcome, that is not evidence that FTI undertook its investigation “with a pre-determined outcome in mind.”

Your accusations in this regard are as offensive as they are baseless. The Board initiated the CPE Process Review in its oversight role of the New gTLD Program to provide greater transparency into the CPE process. There was no pre-determined outcome in mind and FTI was never given any instruction that it was expected to come to one conclusion over another.

Your assertions that FTI would blatantly violate best investigative practices and compromise its integrity is insulting and without any support, and ICANN rejects them unequivocally.

Wallace works for ICANN outside counsel Jones Day — which contracted with FTI for the investigation — but states that she is writing at the behest of the ICANN board of directors.

The board “is in the process of considering the issues” raised by Ali and gay rights expert lawyer William Eskridge, she wrote.

The board’s agendas for next week’s ICANN 61 public meeting in Puerto Rico have not yet been published.

dotgay wants to avoid a costly (or lucrative) auction against other .gay applicants by gaining “community” status, but it failed its CPE in 2014, largely because its definition of “gay” over-stretches, and has been appealing the decision ever since.

Economist would sue ICANN if it publishes private emails

Kevin Murphy, February 14, 2018, Domain Policy

The Economist Intelligence Unit has threatened to sue ICANN if it publishes emails related to its evaluations of “community” gTLDs.

That’s according to a document published by ICANN this week, in which the organization refused to reveal any more information about a controversial probe into the Community Priority Evaluations the EIU conducted on its behalf.

EIU “threatened litigation” should ICANN publish emails sent between the two parties, the document states.

New gTLD applicant DotMusic, which failed its CPE for .music but years later continues to fight for the decision to be overturned, filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request with ICANN a month ago.

DIDP is ICANN’s equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act.

DotMusic’s request among many other items sought the release of over 100,000 emails, many sent between ICANN and the EIU, that ICANN had provided to FTI Consulting during FTI’s investigation into whether the CPEs were fair, consistent and absent ICANN meddling.

But in its response this week, ICANN pointed out that its contract with EIU, its “CPE Provider”, has confidentiality clauses:

ICANN organization endeavored to obtain consent from the CPE Provider to disclose certain information relating to the CPE Process Review, but the CPE Provider has not agreed to ICANN organization’s request, and has threatened litigation should ICANN organization breach its contractual confidentiality obligations. ICANN organization’s contractual commitments must be weighed against its other commitments, including transparency. The commitment to transparency does not outweigh all other commitments to require ICANN organization to breach its contract with the CPE Provider.

DotMusic’s DIDP sought the release of 19 batches of information, which it hopes would bolster its case that both the EIU’s original reviews and FTI’s subsequent investigation were flawed, but all requests were denied by ICANN on various grounds.

In more than one instance, ICANN claims attorney-client privilege under California law, as it was actually ICANN’s longstanding law firm Jones Day, rather than ICANN itself, that contracted with FTI.

The FTI report cleared ICANN of all impropriety and said the EIU’s CPE process had been consistent across each of the gTLD applications it looked at.

The full DIDP request and response can be found here.

ICANN has yet to make a decision on .music, along with .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck, all of which were affected by the CPE reviews.

dotgay lawyer insists it is gay enough for .gay gTLD

Kevin Murphy, February 6, 2018, Domain Policy

What do Airbnb, the Stonewall riots and the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting have in common?

They’re all cited in a lengthy, somewhat compelling memo from a Yale law professor in support of dotgay LLC’s argument that it should be allowed to proceed with its .gay gTLD application unopposed by rival applicants.

The document (pdf), written by William Eskridge, who has decades of publications on gay rights under his belt, argues that dotgay’s Community Priority Evaluation and the subsequent review of that evaluation were both flawed.

At the crux of the dispute is whether the word “gay” can also be used to describe people who are transgender, intersex, and “allied” straight — dotgay says it can, but the Economist Intelligence Unit, which carried out the CPE, disagreed.

dotgay scored 10 out of 16 points on its CPE, four shy of a passing grade. An acceptance of dotgay’s definition of the “gay” community could have added 1 to 4 extra points to its score.

The company also lost a point due to an objection from a gay community center, despite otherwise broad support from gay-oriented organizations.

Eskridge spends quite a lot of time on the history of the word “gay”, from Gertrude Stein and Cary Grant using it as a wink-wink code-word in less-tolerant times, via the 1969 Stonewall riots, to today’s use in the media.

The argument gets a bit grisly when it is pointed out that some of the 49 people killed in the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — routinely described as a “gay” club in the media — were either transgender or straight.

My research associates and I read dozens of press and Internet accounts of this then-unprecedented mass assault by a single person on American soil. Almost all of them described Pulse as a “gay bar,” the situs for the gay community. But, like the Stonewall thirty-seven years earlier, Pulse was a “gay bar” and a “gay community” that included lesbians, bisexual men and women, transgender persons, queer persons, and allies, as well as many gay men.

Eskridge argues that EIU erred by applying an overly strict definition of the applied-for string with dotgay, but not with successful community applicants for other strings.

For example, he argues, a manufacturer of facial scrubs would qualify for a “.spa” domain, and Airbnb and the Orient Express train line would qualify for “.hotel” domains under that applicant’s definition of its community, even though it could be argued that they do not fit into the narrow categories of “spas” and “hotels”.

Similarly, a transgender person may not consider themselves “gay” and a straight person certainly would not, but both might feel a part of the broader “gay community” when they get shot at a gay nightclub.

It’s an unpleasant way to frame the argument, but in my view it’s compelling nevertheless.

Eskridge also thinks that dotgay should have picked up an extra point or two in the part of the CPE dealing with community support.

It dropped one point there because the Q Center, a community center for LGBTQ people in Portland, Oregon, sent a letter objecting to the dotgay application (an objection apparently later revoked, then reinstated).

Eskridge spend some time questioning the Q Center’s bona fides as a big-enough organization to warrant costing dotgay a point, noting that it was the only member of a 200-strong umbrella organization, CenterLink, to object. CenterLink itself backed the bid.

He then goes on to cite articles seemingly showing that Q Center was in the midst of some kind of liberal paranoia meltdown — accused of racial insensibility and “transphobia” — and allegations of mismanagement at about the same time as it was objecting to dotgay’s application.

He also insinuates that Q’s base in Portland is suspicious because it’s also where rival applicant Top Level Design is based.

In summary, Eskridge reckons the EIU CPE and FTI Consulting’s subsequent investigation were both flimsy in their research, unfairly applying criteria to .gay that they did not apply to other strings, and that dotgay should have picked up enough points to pass the CPE.

It’s important to remember that this is not a case of ICANN getting decide whether the gTLD .gay gets to exist — it’s going to exist one way or the other — but rather whether the winning registry is selected by auction or not.

If dotgay wins either by getting another CPE or winning the auction then .gay will be restricted to only vetted members of the “gay” community. This could mean less homophobic abuse in .gay domains but probably also less opportunity for self expression.

If it goes to Top Level Design, MMX or Donuts, it will be open to all comers. That could increase cyber-bulling with .gay domains, but would remove barriers to entry to those who would otherwise be excluded from registering a domain.

ICANN has had .gay on hold for years while the dispute over the CPE has worked itself out, and it now has a piece of paper from FTI declaring the result hunky-dory. I doubt there’s any appetite to reopen old wounds.

My feeling is that we’re looking at an auction here.

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.