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Another conflicted ICANN director?

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2012, Domain Policy

Yet another member of ICANN’s board of directors may have a conflict of interest relating to the new generic top-level domains program, it has emerged.

As well as its official open meeting last Friday, the board held three off-the-books meetings during ICANN 44 last week, the outcomes of which have just been published.

Last Wednesday, March 14, the board met in private and passed this resolution:

Resolved (2012.03.14.01), the Subcommittee of the Board Governance Committee on Ethics and Conflicts is requested to review its determination of a perceived, potential or actual conflict of interest in relation to one of the Directors to determine if the mitigation factors identified remain correct as a result of new information learned at the meeting.

In other words, a director currently identified as non-conflicted in relation to the gTLD program may in fact be conflicted as ICANN defines it, based on newly acquired information.

The resolution does not state which director it refers to.

If I had to speculate — and funnily enough I feel compelled to do so — I’d say it’s Judith Vasquez.

Vasquez’s latest statement of interest, also published last week, states that she has “indicated that she may be involved with a new gTLD application”.

This potential conflict was first identified by ICANN in October, shortly before she joined the board.

However, Vasquez discussed and voted on new gTLD-related resolutions at ICANN board meetings held in February and December.

Other directors whose employers are thinking about applying for new gTLDs – such as IBM’s Thomas Narten – have recused themselves from related discussions.

It’s not clear why Vasquez has not recused herself.

In any event, last week’s resolution could refer to another director whose SOI does not currently state a potential conflict.

Ethics at ICANN have been on ICANN’s agenda since the Singapore meeting last June – former chair Peter Dengate Thrush’s move to Minds + Machines saw to that.

The issue was raised again by CEO Rod Beckstrom during his Costa Rica opening address last Monday, in which he talked about a “tangle of conflicting agendas” on the board.

Such is the degree of concern that ICANN’s Board Governance Committee recently discussed setting up a new committee, comprising the non-conflicted directors, to hold delegated authority over all matters related to the new gTLD program.

ICANN staff were directed to create a formal proposal for such a committee for consideration in Costa Rica last week, but that does not appear to have happened.

While seven of ICANN’s 21 directors recused themselves from a February vote due to new gTLD program conflicts, only four of those were among the 16 voting directors.

Beckstrom: next ICANN CEO should be an outsider

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom has called on the organization to replace him with somebody from outside of the domain name industry.

His remarks, at the opening ceremony of its meeting in Dakar yesterday, came as the organization’s decisions are coming under increasing scrutiny from outside the domain name industry.

“I hope that the person who replaces me will be of the highest integrity and has no recent or current commercial or career interests in the domain industry, because ICANN’s fairness, objectivity and independence are of paramount importance to the future of the internet,” Beckstrom said.

“We are not here in the domain name business,” he said. “We are here to serve the global public interest.”

Beckstrom generally uses his ICANN meeting opening remarks to fire-fight the latest pieces of criticism directed at the organization and yesterday was no exception.

His comments should be read in the light of ongoing claims that the new gTLDs program was approved prematurely due in part to the business interests of former chair Peter Dengate Thrush.

Dengate Thrush left ICANN in June, shortly after helping to approve the program, and promptly took up a position with gTLD applicant Minds + Machines.

Organizations opposed to the program, such as the Association of National Advertisers, have seized on the controversy as a stick to bash ICANN with.

Since June, there have been calls for ICANN to revisit its conflicts of interest and ethics policies, which it seems to be taking very seriously.

Every member of the ICANN board of directors has already been ruled out of the CEO search, for example.

Beckstrom elaborated on his comments at a press conference yesterday.

“My view very strongly is that the organization can and should be led a party who does not have a vested personal business interest or history specifically in the domain name industry,” he said, “lest the efforts of the organization be potentially skewed in such a direction from a policy or operational standpoint, in terms of being more sensitive to the needs of the industry as opposed to the global public interest.”

Chairman of the board Steve Crocker said Beckstrom’s opinions were valuable, but his own, representing only one input into the process of creating CEO search criteria.

“We obviously want to balance two factors,” he said. “We’re very concerned about conflicts of interest and at same time we want the widest and most capable pool of candidates possible.”

There have previously been calls for ICANN to hire somebody already familiar with its operation, in order to reduce the learning curve for Beckstrom’s replacement at a time when the organization is in the midst of the new gTLD evaluation process.

ICANN to hire conflict of interest experts

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN is to bring in ethics experts to advise it on its conflicts of interest policy, addressing the ongoing controversy over its former chairman’s move to the domain industry.

The organization plans to “engage an external firm with expertise in advising on ethical issues”, according to the minutes of a September 15 meeting of its Board Governance Committee.

The consultants will be tasked with helping to “develop an ICANN Ethics Regime or set of Guidelines for the Board, the staff and the community.”

ICANN has been faced recently with calls to impose post-employment restrictions on board members and staff, in order to prevent a “revolving door” between it and the industry it essentially regulates.

This follows former chairman Peter Dengate Thrush’s move to new gTLD applicant Minds + Machines just a few weeks after voting to approve the new gTLD program.

Senator Ron Wyden and the Association of National Advertisers are among those making the call, and the US Department of Commerce, which oversees ICANN, appears to have heard it.

But as I reported earlier in the week, it may actually be illegal for ICANN, as a California corporation, to contractually ban employees from joining domain name companies after they quit.

However, the BGC has other ideas about how to strengthen ethics without imposing these potentially problematic employment restrictions.

It’s now talking about a ethics policy with “disclosure and abstention requirements” for directors “surrounding future interests or potential future interests”.

While the policy has yet to be written, one can imagine a scenario in which an ICANN director would be prevented from voting on a policy that would be likely to enrich them in a future job.

Cherine Chalaby, Bill Graham and Ray Plzak are the BGC members who will be leading the board discussions, which are expected to continue in Dakar later this month.

The ethics issue was first raised publicly by ICANN president Rod Beckstrom during his opening address at the Singapore meeting in June — before the new gTLD vote and before Dengate Thrush’s departure.