ICANN has been opened up to a world of hurt after an independent panel of judges ruled that the organization broke its own bylaws when it kicked DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid out of the new gTLD program.
The what-the-fuck ruling cuts to the very heart of how ICANN deals with advice from its Governmental Advisory Committee, which comes out of the case looking like a loose canon with far too much power to sway the ICANN board.
Witness testimony published in the panel’s opinion sheds humiliating light on the GAC’s self-defeating habit of supplying ICANN with deliberately vague advice, a practice described by its former chair under oath as “creative ambiguity”.
The ruling does not, however, give DCA a serious shot at winning the .africa gTLD, which has already been contracted to rival ZA Central Registry. More delay is, however, inevitable.
The Independent Review Panel said:
the Panel is of the unanimous view that certain actions and inactions of the ICANN Board (as described below) with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.
It also unanimously ruled that ICANN should un-reject DCA’s application and allow it to continue through the application process and that ICANN should bear the full $600,000+ cost of the IRP, not including DCA’s legal fees.
It’s an important ruling, especially coming as ICANN seeks to extricate itself from US government oversight, because it implicitly calls on ICANN’s board to treat GAC advice with much less deference.
What’s the backstory?
DCA and ZACR have competing applications for .africa, which is a protected geographic string.
Under new gTLD program rules, only an applicant with support from over 60% of African national governments can be approved. ZACR’s support far exceeds this threshold, whereas DCA enjoys little to no government support at all.
The ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee rejected the DCA bid in June 2013, before its Initial Evaluation (which includes the Geographic Names Review) had been completed, based on the GAC’s April 2013 Beijing communique advice.
That advice invoked the GAC’s controversial (and vaguely worded) powers to recommend against approval of any application for any reason, as enshrined in the Applicant Guidebook.
A subsequent Request for Reconsideration (IRP lite) filed by DCA was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.
An IRP is the last avenue community members have to challenge ICANN’s actions or inaction without resorting to the courts.
DCA filed its IRP complaint in October 2013 and amended it in January 2014, claiming ICANN broke its own bylaws by rejecting the DCA application based on GAC advice.
The case dragged on, partly because one of the original three-person panel died and had to be replaced, the delay causing much consternation among African GAC members.
What did the IRP panel finally rule?
Yesterday’s ruling avoided deciding on or even commenting on any of DCA’s crazy conspiracy theories, instead limiting itself to the question of whether ICANN’s board and committees acted with bylaws-mandated transparency, fairness and neutrality.
It found that the GAC itself did not act according to these principles when it issued its Beijing advice against DCA.
It found that ICANN did not “conduct adequate diligence” when it accepted the advice, nor did the BGC or NGPC when they were processing the RfR.
In light of the clear “Transparency” obligation provisions found in ICANN’s Bylaws, the Panel would have expected the ICANN Board to, at a minimum, investigate the matter further before rejecting DCA Trust’s application.
ICANN did not do that, the panel decided, so it broke its bylaws.
both the actions and inactions of the Board with respect to the application of DCA Trust relating to the .AFRICA gTLD were not procedures designed to insure the fairness required… and are therefore inconsistent with the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws of ICANN.
Does this mean DCA gets .africa?
No. The IRP panel ruled that DCA’s application must re-enter the application process, presumably at the point it exited it.
DCA’s application never had a final Initial Evaluation result issued. If it were to re-enter IE today, it would certainly be failed by the Geographic Names Panel because it lacks the requisite support of 60% of African governments.
DCA wanted the panel to rule that it should have 18 months to try to secure the needed support, but the panel refused to do so.
The application is still as good as dead, but ICANN will need to go through the motions to actually bury it.
In the meantime, ZACR’s delayed delegation of .africa is to remain on hold.
How embarrassing is this for the GAC?
Hugely. Verbal testimony from Heather Dryden, who was GAC chair at the time of the Beijing meeting, highlights what I’ve been saying for years: GAC advice is regularly so vaguely written as to be useless, inconsistent, or even harmful.
Dryden told the panel at one point: “In our business, we talk about creative ambiguity. We leave things unclear so we don’t have conflict.”
The IRP panel took a dim view of Dryden’s testimony, writing that she “acknowledged during the hearing, the GAC did not act with transparency or in a manner designed to insure fairness.”
The ruling quotes large chunks of text from the hearing, during which Dryden was grilled about the GAC’s rationale for issuing a consensus recommendation against DCA.
Dryden responded by essentially saying that the GAC did not discuss a rationale, and that there was “deference” to the governments proposing consensus objections in that regard.
ARBITRATOR KESSEDJIAN: So, basically, you’re telling us that the GAC takes a decision to object to an applicant, and no reasons, no rationale, no discussion of the concepts that are in the rules?
[DRYDEN]: I’m telling you the GAC did not provide a rationale. And that was not a requirement for issuing a GAC —
HONORABLE JUDGE CAHILL: But you also want to check to see if the countries are following the right — following the rules, if there are reasons for rejecting this or it falls within the three things that my colleague’s talking about.
[DRYDEN]: The practice among governments is that governments can express their view, whatever it may be. And so there’s a deference to that. That’s certainly the case here as well.
This and other quoted sections of the hearing depict the GAC as a body that deliberately avoids substantive discussions and deliberately provides unclear advice to ICANN, in order to avoid offending its members.
Does this mean all GAC advice on new gTLDs is open to appeal now?
Maybe. There are numerous instances of the ICANN board accepting GAC advice without demanding an explanation from the GAC.
At a bare minimum, the applicant for .gcc, which was rejected in the same breath as .africa, now seems to have a case to appeal the decision. The applicant for .thai is in a very similar situation.
Amazon’s lawyers will no doubt also be poring over yesterday’s decision closely; its .amazon bid was also killed off by GAC advice.
But in the case of .amazon, it would be hard to argue it was a .africa-style summary execution. ICANN took extensive advice and delayed its decision for a long time before killing off that application.
The ruling essentially calls the part of the Applicant Guidebook that gives the GAC its strong advisory powers over new gTLD applications into question.
Literally hundreds of new gTLD applications were affected by the Beijing communique.
Anything else of note?
First, large parts of the decision have been redacted. The redactions mostly appear to relate to sensitive documents disclosed between the parties (reading between the lines, I think some of them related to DCA’s purported support from a certain African government) that the panel ruled should remain private last September.
Second, the decision inexplicably quotes the ICANN bylaws text “MISSION AND CORE VALUES” as “MISSION AND CORE (Council of Registrars) VALUES”, in what appears to be a weird search-and-replace error by an unknown party. CORE (Council of Registrars) is of course a registry back-end provider with apparently no involvement in .africa whatsoever.
Third, it seems I’ve been elected Pope. I hereby select “Dave” as my Papal name and will commence my program of donating all Church assets to the poor forthwith.
Ownership of the contested gTLD .cruise will be resolved by auction, despite protests from one applicant that the other left it too late to drop its “closed generic” plans.
Applications from Cruise Lines International Association and Viking River Cruises were both placed in “In Auction” status by ICANN overnight.
Both original applications had been to operate .cruise for the registry’s own exclusive use, a so-called closed generic bid.
However, following objections from its Governmental Advisory Committee in April 2013, ICANN eventually decided to disallow such applications.
CLIA changed its plans in September 2013 as a result of the GAC advice.
But it wasn’t until mid-June this year, around about the same time as ICANN was mulling its final determination on the matter, that Viking changed its application to remove the exclusive access bits.
This prompted an angry response from CLIA.
In a letter to ICANN last month (pdf) the group accused Viking of waiting too long to change its application and said it should be given a chance to formally object.
CLIA further accused Viking of deliberately delaying the .cruise contention set so its own dot-brand, .viking, could get a head-start. The .viking gTLD is contracted and currently in pre-delegation testing.
ICANN dismissed CLIA’s request, however, saying that applicants can amend their applications at any time and that there are no plans to reopen the objection filing period for one special case.
The gTLD now seems set to head to an ICANN auction or private settlement between the two parties.
ICANN has slapped a de facto ban on so-called “closed generic” gTLDs, at least for the remaining 2012 round applicants.
The ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee passed a resolution Sunday that un-freezes the remaining new gTLD applications that envisage a namespace wholly controlled by the applicant.
The affected strings are .hotels, .dvr and .grocery, which are uncontested, as well as .food, .data and .phone, which are contested by one or two other applicants.
The NGPC said five strings are affected, but the ICANN web site currently shows these six.
The resolution allows the contested strings to head to dispute resolution or auction, but makes it clear that “exclusive generic gTLDs” will not be able to sign a registry contract.
Instead, they will either have to withdraw their applications (receiving a partial refund), drop their exclusivity plans, or have their applications carried over to the second new gTLD round.
The GNSO has been asked to develop a policy on closed generics for the second round, which is still probably years away.
It’s not clear whether other applicants would be able to apply for strings that are carried over, potentially making the close generic applicant fight two contention sets.
The NGPC decision comes over two years after the Governmental Advisory Committee advised that closed generics must serve “a public interest goal” or be rejected.
This weekend’s resolution sidesteps the “public interest” question altogether.
A bispartisan group of US Congresspeople have called on ICANN to stop bowing to Governmental Advisory Committee meddling.
Showing characteristic chutzpah, the governmental body advises ICANN that advice from governments should be viewed less deferentially in future, lest the GAC gain too much power.
The members wrote (pdf):
Recent reports indicate that the GAC has sought to increase its power at the expense of the multistakeholder system. Although government engagement in Internet governance is prudent, we are concerned that allowing government interference threatens to undermine the multistakeholder system, increasing the risk of government capture of the ICANN Board.
The letter was signed by 11 members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, which is one of the House committees that most frequently hauls ICANN to Capitol Hill to explain itself.
Most of the signatories are from the Republican majority, but some are Democrats.
It’s not entirely clear where they draw the line between “engagement” and “interference”.
The letter highlights two specific pieces of GAC input that the signatories seem to believe constitute interference.
First, the GAC’s objection to Amazon’s application for .amazon. The letter says this objection came “without legal basis” and that ICANN “succumbed to political pressure” when it rejected the application.
In reality, the GAC’s advice was consensus advice as envisaged by the Application Guidebook rules. It was the US government that succumbed to political pressure, when it decided to keep its mouth shut and allow the rest of the GAC to reach consensus.
The one thing the GAC did wrong was filing its .amazon objection outside of the window envisaged by the Guidebook, but that’s true of almost every piece of advice it’s given about new gTLD applications.
Second, the Congresspeople are worried that the GAC has seized for its members the right to ban the two-letter code representing their country from any new gTLD of their choosing.
I’ve gone into some depth into how stupid and hypocritical this is before.
The letter says that it has “negative implications for speech and the world economy”, which probably has a grain of truth in it.
But does it cross the line from “engagement” to “interference”?
The Applicant Guidebook explicitly “initially reserved” all two-letter strings at the second level in all new gTLDs.
It goes on to say that they “may be released to the extent that Registry Operator reaches agreement with the government and country-code manager.”
While the rule is pointless and the current implementation convoluted, it comes as a result of the GAC engaging before the new gTLD program kicked off. It was something that all registries were aware of when they applied for their gTLDs.
However, the GAC’s more recent behavior on the two-letter domain subject has been incoherent and looks much more like meddling.
At the ICANN meeting in Los Angeles last October, faced with requests for two-character domains to be released, the GAC issued formal advice saying it was “not in a position to offer consensus advice on the use of two-character second level domain names”.
ICANN’s board of directors accordingly passed a resolution calling for a release mechanism to be developed by ICANN staff.
But by the time February ICANN meeting rolled around, it had emerged that registries’ release requests had been put on hold by ICANN due to letters from the GAC.
The GAC then used its Singapore communique to advise ICANN to “amend the current process… so that relevant governments can be alerted as requests are initiated.” It added that “Comments from relevant governments should be fully considered.”
ICANN interpreted “fully considered” to mean an effective veto, which has led to domains such as it.pizza and fr.domains being banned.
So it does look like thirteenth-hour interference but that’s largely because the GAC is often incapable of making its mind up, rarely talks in specifics, and doesn’t meet frequently enough to work within timelines set by the rest of the community.
However, while there’s undoubtedly harm from registries being messed around by the GAC recently, governments don’t seem to have given themselves any powers that they did not already have in the Applicant Guidebook.
Donuts and ICANN are currently in the process of signing new gTLD agreements for .wine and .vin, after the European Union and wine sellers dropped objections.
As of today, both gTLDs are “In Contracting” rather than “On Hold”, according to ICANN’s web site.
ICANN revealed earlier this week that the European Union and various wine trade associations have both dropped their Cooperative Engagement Process complaints.
CEP is less formal precursor to a much more expensive and lawyer-hungry Independent Review Process complaint.
With the CEPs out of the way, Donuts is now free to sign its contracts.
Donuts won the auction for .wine back in November, but its application was frozen due to ongoing arguments about the protection of “geographic indicators” representing wine-making regions.
Governments, particularly in Europe and Latin America, had protested that .wine and .vin should not be allowed to launch until areas such as Rioja and Champagne were given special privileges.
Last October, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told the French government that it was negotiating with applicants to get these protections included in the contracts.
Either Donuts has agreed to such protections, or the EU and wine-makers have gotten bored of complaining.
My feeling is the former is probably more likely, which may be controversial in itself.
There is no international agreement on GI protection — the US and Australia opposed the EU’s position on .wine — so this may be seen as a case of ICANN creating new rights where none previously existed.