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.
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:
Q. Are you and he friends?
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.
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.
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.
ICANN has finally published the letter it controversially drafted for the African Union Commission in order to help it express support for ZA Central Registry’s .africa bid.
Having now read the draft letter for the first time, on balance I’d have to say my previous opinions on its contents were more wrong than right.
The letter was central to claims by rival .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica that ICANN treated ZACR preferentially during the evaluation of both applications.
It was drafted by ICANN staffer Trang Nguyen around June 25, 2013, and sent to ZACR.
It was then edited by ZACR and the AUC, signed by the AUC, and returned to ICANN, whereupon it was forwarded to the new gTLD’s program’s Geographic Names Panel at InterConnect Communications.
The GNP took the letter as an official endorsement of ZACR’s bid, enabling it to pass the Geographic Names Review and proceed to the next stage of the program.
Having seen (and published) the signed AUC letter, I opined here in July that it looked like it had been mostly been written by ZACR and/or the AUC.
I no longer believe that.
It’s now proven that the AUC redraft goes far beyond the “minor edits” that have been claimed by DCA and others — for starters, it’s 40% longer — but a lot of the text that I believed to be ZACR’s work turns out in fact to have come from ICANN.
I’ve put the two letters into a single document (pdf), so you can do a side-by-side comparison if you wish.
There’s still no question that ZACR had African government support for its bid and DCA did not. The dispute centers entirely on whether InterConnect had received expressions of support in the correct format.
An Independent Review Process panel declined to issue an opinion on whether ICANN did anything wrong by drafting the letter, though it is mentioned in its final declaration.
ICANN itself says that it did nothing wrong by drafting the letter, and had DCA had any governmental support it would have done exactly the same thing for it.
The draft letter was among hundreds of pages of documents published last night by ICANN following a Documentary Information Disclosure Process request filed by DI a little over a month ago.
ICANN has committed to post more unredacted documents from its Independent Review Process case with DotConnectAfrica, following a request from DI.
The organization told DI today that it will publish the documents on its web site by August 31, in response to our July 27 Documentary Information Disclosure Request.
I’d asked ICANN to publish, unredacted, the entire declaration of the IRP panel, along with all equally unredacted exhibits and hearing transcripts.
Aware that ICANN enjoys invoking its “Defined Conditions for Non-Disclosure” in order to stop material being released sometimes, I added “that the public interest and transparency benefits to ICANN of disclosing this information far outweigh any benefit that could be accrued by invoking the Defined Conditions for Non-Disclosure”.
In response, ICANN said today (pdf) that it evaluates the public interest when processing DIDP requests, adding:
we have determined that to the extent additional information warrants disclosure and can be released without further consultation with third parties ICANN will publish that unredacted information no later than 31 August 2015. We will send you an email notification upon that publication. To the extent that disclosure of some information designated as confidential by third parties may be warranted and requires further consultation with third parties, or consultation with other third parties not previously consulted, ICANN has already initiated that consultation process. ICANN will publish such further unredacted information promptly upon, and to the extent that we receive, authorization from the relevant parties to release the information, and will send you an email notification upon that publication.
Since the DIDP was filed, ICANN has published over 700 pages of redacted transcripts from two in-person IRP hearings that took place in May.
Today, it also published a letter from DCA’s competing .africa applicant, ZA Central Registry, comprising an ultimately unsuccessful request for a couple of seats at the hearing.
What has not yet been published are the IRP exhibits showing exactly what ICANN did to oil the gears for ZACR’s application.
Due to Kieren McCarthy’s articles at The Register and ICANN’s subsequent admissions, we know that ICANN staff drafted a letter that the African Union Commission could use to express its support for ZACR in the correct format.
However, the IRP exhibits that would give clarity into what exactly ICANN sent and why remain redacted.
Communications between ICANN and InterConnect, which ran the Geographic Names Panel, and references to the Kenyan government’s did-they-didn’t-they support for DCA also remain redacted.
The African Union Commission has criticized ICANN’s “dysfunctional accountability process” that has kept the proposed .africa gTLD in limbo for the last few years.
In a communique yesterday (pdf), the AUC also reiterated that .africa applicant ZA Central Registry has the support of both the AUC and its member states, and that governments used almost every avenue available to them to object to the rival DotConnectAfrica bid.
The letter reads:
The Africa region, African Internet stakeholders, the ZACR and AUC are the unfortunate victims of a dysfunctional accountability process and an independent review panel that did not delve more deeply to understand the new gTLD process, the role of governments in that process, and how the ICANN multistakeholder model functions in general.
A few weeks ago, an Independent Review Process panel controversially ruled that ICANN had treated DCA’s application unfairly, in violation of its bylaws, when it accepted Governmental Advisory Committee advice to reject it.
The panel said that ICANN should have at least asked the GAC for the rationale behind its advice, something that the new gTLD program’s rules did not require it to do.
One of the issues at the heart of the subsequent debate is whether ICANN inappropriately helped out ZACR’s bid by drafting an AUC letter of support and then tried to cover its actions up by inappropriately redacting information from the IRP ruling before publication.
On Friday, ICANN published a new version of the ruling that had these references restored, while retaining redactions related to the actions of Kenyan government officials.
We know what the still-redacted text says because Kieren McCarthy, writing for The Register, obtained a clean copy and published it a couple of weeks ago.
ICANN also promised to publish its reasoning if it makes redactions to any documents in future.
In a blog post on Friday, general counsel John Jeffrey said that ICANN helping the AUC draft its letter of support was not a unique case, nor was it inappropriate:
ICANN staff has helped many applicants and their supporters understand how to properly document support. Not only did we make a template support letter publicly available to all as part of the New gTLD Program Applicant Guidebook (see Appendix to Module 2), we have answered questions, received through our customer service channel, as to how interested parties can document support for a given gTLD application. In the case of ZA Central Registry, ICANN appropriately assisted the applicant in documenting support from the AUC.
Our actions surrounding the .AFRICA applications were not unique, since we assist any applicant who requests assistance, or who needs clarification in learning how best to document support or other matters. We have provided assistance to all applicants regarding their applications to the maximum extent possible.
On the claims that ICANN tried to “cover up” this assistance by redacting the IRP’s ruling and previous IRP filings, Jeffrey said that the information was covered by a confidentiality agreement agreed to by itself and DCA and endorsed by the IRP panel.
He said that ICANN was “motivated by our obligation to the community to post the document quickly and the competing, yet mandatory obligation, to respect confidential information while being as transparent as possible.”
He said ICANN attempted to reach out to those affected by the “confidential” parts of the ruling to seek permission to remove the redactions.
But McCarthy also seems to have seen emails exchanged between DCA and ICANN, and he says that ICANN redacted it over DCA’s objections.
McCarthy further says that ICANN only became interested in removing the redactions after he had already published the clean version of the ruling at The Reg — five days after the initial publication by ICANN.
Jeffrey’s post, which refers to “erroneous reporting” in an apparent allusion to McCarthy’s articles, nevertheless fails to address this claim, lending credibility to the cover-up allegations.
The .africa gTLD has been contracted to ZACR, but DCA’s rejected application has been returned to evaluation per the IRP’s ruling, where it is broadly expected to fail for want of governmental support.
Disclosure #1: I recently filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request seeking the release of all the unredacted exhibits in DCA v ICANN. Given ICANN’s wont to usually respond to such requests only at the end of the full 30 days permitted by the policy, I should not expect to see an answer one way or the other until the last week of August.
Disclosure #2: As regular readers may already be aware, due to my long-held and never-disguised view that DCA was mad to apply for .africa without government support, I was once accused of being a part of a “racial conspiracy” against DCA on a blog I believe to be controlled by DCA. Naturally, after I stopped laughing, this libelous allegation pissed me off no end and enhanced my belief that DCA is nuts. Around the same time DCA also, under its own name, filed an “official complaint” (pdf) with ICANN, omitting the race card, alleging that I was part of a conspiracy against it.
Booking.com has become the first new gTLD applicant to publicly cite the recent .africa Independent Review Process ruling in an attempt to overturn an adverse ICANN decision.
The challenge relates to the decision by ICANN, under the rules of the new gTLD program, to place applications for .hotels and .hoteis into a contention set due to their potential for visual confusion.
The two strings are heading to auction, where the winner will likely have to fork out millions.
In a missive to ICANN (pdf) last week, Booking.com outside attorney Flip Petillion said that the .africa IRP ruling shows that ICANN has to revisit its decision-making over .hotels.
The letter highlights a wider issue — how can ICANN follow community-established rules whilst sticking to its rather less well-defined Bylaws commitment to be “fair”?
ICANN — and the BGC — has maintained the position 1) that the fact the process established by ICANN was followed is sufficient reason to reject that challenge and 2) that the fact that the process allowed neither for Booking.com to be heard nor for a review of the decision by the ICANN Board is of no relevance.
In the interim, IRP panels have confirmed that this process-focussed position is unsustainable. The ICANN Board has an overriding responsibility for making fair, reasoned and non-discriminatory decisions under conditions of full transparency.
He cites the .africa IRP decision to support this assertion.
Booking.com is the applicant for .hotels, while a different company, Travel Reservations (formerly Despegar Online), has applied for .hoteis, the Portuguese translation.
While both applicants are happy for the two gTLDs to co-exist on the internet, ICANN’s third-party String Similarity Review panel, part of the new gTLD evaluation process, ruled that they cannot.
They’re just too similar — in standard browser sans-serif fonts they can be indistinguishable — and would likely lead to user confusion, the panel decided in February 2013.
Booking.com challenged this decision with a Request for Reconsideration, which was dismissed.
In April, the ICANN board adopted the IRP panel’s findings, saying that the two applicants should remain in the contention set.
Booking.com, along with Travel Reservations, filed a second RfR, challenging the board’s decision, but this was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee in June.
The ICANN board has not yet formally adopted the BGC’s recommendations — I expect it to consider them at its next scheduled meeting, July 28 — hence Booking.com’s last-ditch attempt to get ICANN to change its mind.
Simply following the processes and procedures developed by ICANN cannot alone be sufficient grounds for declining to review a decision. If the requirements of fairness, reasoned decision making, non-discrimination and transparency have not been met in the implementation of the process and procedures, the ICANN Board must, when invited to, conduct a meaningful review.
In the .africa case, the IRP panel ruled that ICANN should have asked the Governmental Advisory Committee for its rationale for objecting to DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid, even though there’s nothing in the new gTLD rules or ICANN Bylaws specifically requiring it to do so.
However, in the Booking.com case, the IRP panel raised serious questions about whether the String Similarity Review rules were consistent with the Bylaws, but said that the time to challenge such rules had “long since passed”.
In both cases, ICANN followed the rules. Where the two panels’ declarations diverge is on whether you can win an IRP challenging the implementation of those rules — for DotConnectAfrica the answer was yes, for Booking.com the answer was no.
In a new gTLD program that has produced long lists of inconsistencies; IRP panel decisions appear to be but the latest example.
The question now is how the ICANN board will deal with the BGC recommendation to reject Booking.com’s latest RfR.
If it summarily approves the BGC’s resolution, without doing some extra due diligence, will it be breaking its Bylaws?