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Concern as ICANN shuts down “independent” security review

Kevin Murphy, October 31, 2017, Domain Policy

Just a year after gaining its independence from the US government, ICANN has come under scrutiny over concerns that its board of directors may have overstepped its powers.

The board has come in for criticism from almost everyone expressing an opinion at the ICANN 60 meeting in Abu Dhabi this week, after it temporarily suspended a supposedly independent security review.

The Security, Stability and Resiliency of the DNS Review, known as SSR-2, is one of the mandatory reviews that got transferred into ICANN’s bylaws after the Affirmation of Commitments with the US wound up last year.

The review is supposed to look at ICANN’s “execution of its commitment to enhance the operational stability, reliability, resiliency, security, and global interoperability of the systems and processes, both internal and external, that directly affect and/or are affected by the Internet’s system of unique identifiers that ICANN coordinates”.

The 14 to 16 volunteer members have been working for about eight months, but at the weekend the ICANN board pulled the plug, saying in a letter to the review team that it had decided “to suspend the review team’s work” and said its work “should be paused”.

Chair Steve Crocker clarified in sessions over the weekend and yesterday that it was a direction, not a request, but that the pause was merely “a moment to take stock and then get started again”.

Incoming chair Cherine Chalaby said in various sessions today and yesterday that the community — which I take to mean the leaders of the various interest groups — is now tasked with un-pausing the work.

Incoming vice-chair Chris Disspain told community leaders in an email (pdf) yesterday:

The Board has not usurped the community’s authority with respect to this review. Rather, we are asking the SOs and ACs to consider the concerns we have heard and determine whether or not adjustments are needed. We believe that a temporary pause in the SSR2 work while this consideration is under way is a sensible approach designed to ensure stakeholders can reach a common understanding on the appropriate scope and work plan

Confusion has nevertheless arise among community members, and some serious concerns and criticisms have been raised by commercial and non-commercial interests — including governments — over the last few days in Abu Dhabi.

But the board’s concerns with the work of SSR-2 seem to date back a few months, to the Johannesburg meeting in June, at which Crocker said “dangerous signals” were observed.

It’s not clear what he was referring to there, but the first serious push-back by ICANN came earlier this month, when board liaison Kaveh Ranjbar, apparently only appointed to that role in June, emailed the group to say it was over-stepping its mandate.

Basically, the SSR-2 group’s plan to carry out a detailed audit of ICANN’s internal security profile seems to have put the willies up the ICANN organization and board.

Ranjbar wrote:

The areas the Board is concerned with are areas that indeed raise important organizational information security and organizational oversight questions. However, these are also areas that are not segregated for community review, and are the responsibility of the ICANN Organization (through the CEO) to perform under the oversight of the ICANN Board.

While we support the community in receiving information necessary to perform a full and meaningful review over ICANN’s SSR commitments, there are portions of the more detailed “audit” plan that do not seem appropriate for in-depth investigation by the subgroup. Maintaining a plan to proceed with detailed assessments of these areas is likely to result in recommendations that are not tethered to the scope of the SSR review, and as such, may not be appropriate for Board acceptance when recommendations are issued. This also can expand the time and resources needed to perform this part of the review.

This does not seem hugely unreasonable to me. This kind of audit could be expensive, time-consuming and — knowing ICANN’s history of “glitches” — could have easily exposed all kinds of embarrassing vulnerabilities to the public domain.

Ranjbar’s letter was followed up a day later with a missive (pdf) from the chair of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, which said the SSR-2’s work was doomed to fail.

Patrick Falstrom recommended a “temporarily halt” to the group’s work. He wrote:

One basic problem with the SSR2 work is that the review team seems neither to have sufficient external instruction about what to study nor to have been able to formulate a clear direction for itself. Whatever the case, the Review Team has spent hundreds of hours engaged in procedural matters and almost no progress has been made on substantive matters, which in turn has damaged the goodwill and forbearance of its members, some of whom are SSAC members. We are concerned that, left to its own devices, SSR2 is on a path to almost certain failure bringing a consequential loss of credibility in the accountability processes of ICANN and its community.

Now that ICANN has actually acted upon that recommendation, there’s concern that it sets a disturbing precedent for the board taking “unilateral” action to scupper supposedly independent accountability mechanisms.

The US government itself expressed concern, during a session between the board and the Governmental Advisory Committee in Abu Dhabi today.

“This is unprecedented,” US GAC rep Ashley Heineman said. “I just don’t believe it was ever an expectation that the ICANN board would unilaterally make a decision to pause or suspend this action. And that is a matter of concern for us.”

“It would be one thing if it was the community that specifically asked for a pause or if it was a review team that says ‘Hey, we’re having issues, we need a pause.’ What’s of concern here is that ICANN asked for this pause,” she said.

UK GACer Mark Carvell added that governments have been “receiving expressions of grave concern” about the move and urged “maximum transparency” as the SSR-2 gets back on track.

Jonathan Zuck of the Innovators Network Foundation, one of the volunteers who worked on ICANN’s transition from US government oversight, also expressed concern during the public forum session yesterday.

“I think having a fundamental accountability mechanism unilaterally put on hold is something that we should be concerned about in terms of process,” he said. “I’m not convinced that it was the only way to proceed and that from a precedential standpoint it’s not best way to proceed.”

Similar concerns were voiced by many other parts of the community as they met with the ICANN board throughout today and yesterday.

The problem now is that the bylaws do not account for a board-mandated “pause” in a review team’s work, so there’s no process to “unpause” it.

ICANN seems to have got itself tangled up in a procedural quagmire — again — but sessions later in the week have been scheduled in order for the community to begin to untangle the situation.

It doubt we’ll see a resolution this week. This is likely to run for a while.

Egyptian elected new GAC chair

Kevin Murphy, October 31, 2017, Domain Policy

Manal Ismail, Egypt’s representative to ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, has been elected its new chair.

She will replace outgoing chair Thomas Schneider, a Swiss official, after the current ICANN 60 public meeting in Abu Dhabi wraps up later this week.

Ismail is director of international technical coordination at Egypt’s National Telecom Regulatory Authority, NTRA.

Schneider said he was stepping down from the GAC earlier this year, having received a promotion back home that will limit his availability for ICANN work.

The handover means that both the GAC and the ICANN board of directors will, from this Thursday, be chaired by Egyptians.

The ICANN board will on Thursday formally elect current vice chair Cherine Chalaby as Steve Crocker’s replacement.

Chalaby was born in Egypt, also holds British citizenship, and lives in the United States.

I believe it’s the first time both chair roles have been held by people of the same nationality.

“We own your name” government tells Amazon in explosive slapdown

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2017, Domain Policy

Amazon suffered a blistering attack from South American governments over its controversial .amazon gTLD applications this weekend.

A Peruvian official today excoriated Amazon’s latest peace offering, telling the tech giant in no uncertain terms that the word “Amazon” is not its property and demanding an apology for the company’s alleged behavior during recent legal proceedings.

“We will be giving you permission to use a certain word, not the other way around,” she said. “We are the owners of the Amazonian region.”

Speaking for almost 10 minutes during a session at the ICANN 60 meeting in Abu Dhabi this afternoon, Peru’s representative to the Governmental Advisory Committee pulled rank and scolded Amazon like a naughty schoolchild.

She claimed that Amazon had been bad-mouthing Peru by saying former GAC reps had “lied to and manipulated” the rest of the GAC in order to get support for its objection. She then demanded an apology from the company for this.

She was speaking in support of the idea that the string “Amazon” belongs to the people of the Amazonas region, which covers as many as eight South American countries, rather than the American company, despite the fact that none of those countries use the English word to describe the region.

Her remarks drew applause from parts of the audience.

Amazon had showed up at the session — described by two GAC reps later as a “lion’s den” — to offer a “strong, agreed-upon compromise that addresses the needs of the governments”.

The proposed deal would see the GAC drop its objections to .amazon in exchange for certain safeguards.

Amazon is promising to reserve geographically and culturally sensitive words at the second level in .amazon.

The domain rainforest.amazon, its associate general counsel Dana Northcott said by way of example, would be never be used by anyone.

Affected governments would get to negotiate a list of such terms before .amazon went live and there’d be an ongoing consultation process for more such terms to be protected in future.

The company has also promised not to object to — and in fact to actively support with hard resources — any future applications for .amazonas or other local-language variants by the people of the region.

But Peru was not impressed, telling the company that not only is the English version of the name of the region not its property but also that it must show more respect to governments.

“No government is going to accept any impositions from you,” she said, before appealing to fellow GAC members that the issue represents a kind of existential threat.

“The core issue here… is our survival as governments in this pseudo-multi-stakeholder space that has been invented,” she said.

“They want us to believe this is a place where we have dignity but that is increasingly obvious that this is not the case,” she said. “We don’t have it. And that is because of companies like yours… Companies that persist in not respecting the governments and the people they represent.”

The Peruvian GAC rep, listed on the GAC web site as María Milagros Castañon Seoane but addressed only as “Peru” during the session, spoke in Spanish; I’ve been quoting the live interpretation provided by ICANN.

Her remarks, in my opinion, were at least partially an attempt to strengthen her side’s negotiating hand after an Independent Review Process panel this July spanked ICANN for giving too much deference to GAC advice.

The IRP panel decided that ICANN had killed the .amazon applications — in breach of its bylaws — due to a GAC objection that appeared on the face of the public record to be based on little more than governmental whim.

The panel essentially highlighted a clash between ICANN’s bylaws commitments to fairness and transparency and the fact that its New gTLD Applicant Guidebook rules gave the GAC a veto over any application for any reason with no obligation to explain itself.

It told ICANN to reopen the applications for consideration and “make an objective and independent judgment regarding whether there are, in fact, well-founded, merits-based public policy reasons for denying Amazon’s applications”.

That was back in July. Earlier today, the ICANN board of directors in response to the IRP passed a resolution calling for the GAC to explain itself before ICANN 61 in March next year, resolving in part:

Resolved (2017.10.29.02), the Board asks the GAC if it has: (i) any information to provide to the Board as it relates to the “merits-based public policy reasons,” regarding the GAC’s advice that the Amazon applications should not proceed; or (ii) any other new or additional information to provide to the Board regarding the GAC’s advice that the Amazon applications should not proceed.

Other governments speaking today expressed doubt about whether the IRP ruling should have any jurisdiction over such GAC advice.

“It is not for any panelist to decided what is public policy, it is for the governments to decide,” Iran’s Kavouss Arasteh said.

During a later session today the GAC, talking among itself, made little progress in deciding how to formally respond to the ICANN board’s resolution.

A session between the GAC and the ICANN board on Tuesday is expected to be the next time the issue raises its increasingly ugly head.

Double-charging claims as registries ramp up new gTLD refund demands

Kevin Murphy, October 10, 2017, Domain Registries

Registry operators have stepped up demands for ICANN to dip into its $100 million new gTLD cash pile to temporarily lower their “burdensome” accreditation fees.

A new missive from the Registries Stakeholder Group to ICANN this week also introduces a remarkable claim that ICANN may have “double charged” new gTLD applications to the tune of potentially about $6 million.

The RySG wants ICANN to reduce the quarterly fixed fees new gTLD registries must pay by 75% from the current $6,250, for a year, at a cost to ICANN of $16.87 million.

ICANN still has roughly $96 million in leftover money from the $185,000 per-TLD application fees paid in 2012, roughly a third of which had been earmarked for unexpected expenses.

When Global Domains Division president Akram Atallah refused this request in August, he listed some of the previously unexpected items ICANN has had to pay for related to the program, one of which was “implementation of the Trademark Clearinghouse”.

But in last week’s letter (pdf), the RySG points out that each registry was already billed an additional $5,000 fee specifically to set up the TMCH.

Your letter states that registry operators knew about the fee structure from the start and implies that changes of circumstance should be irrelevant. The TMCH charge, however, was not detailed in the applicant guidebook. ICANN added it on its own after all applications were accepted and without community input. Therefore, ICANN is very much in a position to refund registry operators for this overcharge, and we request that ICANN do so. Essentially, you would be refunding the amounts we paid with our own application fees, which should have been used to set up the TMCH in the first place.

These additional fees could have easily topped $6 million, given that there are over 1,200 live new gTLDs.

Was this a case of double-charging, as the RySG says?

My gut feeling is that Atallah probably just forgot about the extra TMCH fee and misspoke in his August letter. The alternative would be a significant accounting balls-up that would need rectifying.

RySG has asked ICANN for a “detailed accounting” of its new gTLD program expenses to date. If produced, that could clear up any confusion.

Group chair Paul Diaz, who signed the letter, has also asked for a meeting with Atallah at the Abu Dhabi public meeting later this month, to discuss the issue.

The letter also accuses ICANN of costing applicants lost revenue by introducing policies such as the ban on two-letter domains, increased trademark protections, and other government-requested restrictions that were introduced after application fees had already been paid.

The tone of the letter is polite, but seems to mask an underlying resentment among registries that ICANN has not been giving them a fair chance to grow their businesses.

UPDATE: This story was updated October 12 to correct the estimate of the total amount of TMCH setup fees collected.

Will ICANN punt on .amazon again?

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2017, Domain Policy

Amazon is piling pressure onto ICANN to finally approve its five-year-old gTLD applications for .amazon, but it seems to me the e-commerce giant will have a while to wait yet.

The company sent a letter to ICANN leadership this week calling on it to act quickly on the July ruling of an Independent Review Process panel that found ICANN had breached its own bylaws when it rejected the .amazon and and Chinese and Japanese transliterations.

Amazon’s letter said:

Such action is necessary because there is no sovereign right under international or national law to the name “Amazon,” because there are no well-founded and substantiated public policy reasons to block our Applications, because we are committed to using the TLDs in a respectful manner, and because the Board should respect the IRP accountability mechanism.

ICANN had denied the three applications based on nothing more than the consensus advice of its Governmental Advisory Committee, which had been swayed by the arguments of primarily Brazil and Peru that there were public policy reasons to keep the gTLD available for possible future use by its own peoples.

The string “Amazon”, among its many uses, is of course the name of a river and a rain forest that covers much of the South American continent.

But the IRP panel decided that the ICANN board should have at least required the GAC to explain its public policy arguments, rather than just accepting its advice as a mandate from on-high.

Global Domains Division chief Akram Atallah had testified before the panel that consensus GAC advice sets a bar “too high for the Board to say no.”

But the governmental objections “do not appear to be based on well-founded public policy concerns that justify the denial of the applications” the IRP panelists wrote.

The panel, in a 2-to-1 ruling, instructed ICANN to reopen Amazon’s applications.

Since the July ruling, ICANN’s board has not discussed how to proceed, but it seems likely that the matter will come up at its Montevideo, Uruguay retreat later this month.

No agenda for this meeting has yet been published, but there will be an unprecedented public webcast of the full formal board meeting, September 23.

The Amazon letter specifically asks the ICANN board of directors to not refer the .amazon matter back to the GAC for further advice, but I think that’s probably the most likely outcome.

I say this largely because while ICANN’s bylaws specifically allow it to reject GAC advice, it has cravenly avoided such a confrontation for most of its history.

It has on occasion even willfully misinterpreted GAC advice in order to appear that it has accepted it when it has not.

The GAC, compliantly, regularly provides pieces of advice that its leaders have acknowledged are deliberately vague and open to interpretation (for a reason best known to the politicians themselves).

It seems to me the most likely next step in the .amazon case is for the board to ask the GAC to reaffirm or reconsider its objection, giving the committee the chance to save face — and avoid a lengthy mediation process — by providing the board with something less than a consensus objection.

If ICANN were to do this, my feeling is that the GAC at large would probably be minded to stick to its guns.

But it only takes one government to voice opposition to advice for it to lose its “consensus” status, making it politically much easier for ICANN to ignore.

Hypothetically, the US government could return to its somewhat protectionist pre-2014 position of blocking consensus on .amazon, but that might risk fanning the flames of anti-US sentiment.

While the US no longer has its unique role in overseeing ICANN’s IANA function, it still acts as the jurisdictional overlord for the legal organization, which some other governments still hate.

A less confrontational approach might be to abstain and to allow friendly third-party governments to roadblock consensus, perhaps by emphasizing the importance of ICANN being seen to accountable in the post-transition world.

Anyway, this is just my gut premonition on how this could play out, based on the track records of ICANN and the GAC.

If ICANN can be relied on for anything, it’s to never make a decision on something today if it can be put off until tomorrow.