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.gay, .music and others in limbo as ICANN probes itself

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2017, Domain Policy

Several new gTLD applicants have slammed ICANN for conducting an investigation into its own controversial practices that seems to be as opaque as the practices themselves.

Seven proposed new gTLDs, including the much-anticipated .music and .gay, are currently trapped in ICANN red tape hell as the organization conducts a secretive probe into how its own staff handled Community Priority Evaluations.

The now broad-ranging investigation seems have been going on for over six months but does not appear to have a set deadline for completion.

Applicants affected by the delays don’t know who is conducting the probe, and say they have not been contacted by anyone for their input.

At issue is the CPE process, designed to give genuine “community” gTLD applicants a way to avoid a costly auction in the event that their choice of string was contested.

The results of the roughly 25 CPE decisions, all conducted by the independent Economist Intelligence Unit, were sometimes divergent from each other or just baffling.

Many of the losers complained via ICANN’s in-house Requests for Reconsideration and then Independent Review Process mechanisms.

One such IRP complaint — related to Dot Registry’s .inc, .llc, .llp applications — led to two of the three-person IRP panel deciding last July that ICANN had serious questions to answer about how the CPE process was carried out.

While no evidence was found that ICANN had coached the EIU on scoring, it did emerge that ICANN staff had supplied margin notes to the supposedly independent EIU that had subsequently been incorporated into its final decision.

The IRP panel majority wrote that the EIU “did not act on its own in performing the CPEs” and “ICANN staff was intimately involved in the process”.

A month or so later, the ICANN board of directors passed a resolution calling for the CEO to “undertake an independent review of the process by which ICANN staff interacted with the CPE provider”.

Another month later, in October, the Board Governance Committee broadened the scope of the investigation and asked the EIU to supply it with documents it used to reach its decisions in multiple controversial CPE cases.

A couple of weeks ago, BGC chair Chris Disspain explained all this (pdf) to the applicants for .music, .gay, hotel, .cpa, .llc, .inc, .llp and .merck, all of which are affected by the delay caused by the investigation.

He said that the investigation would be completed “as soon as practicable”.

But in response, Dot Registry and lawyers for fellow failed CPE applicant DotMusic have fired off more letters of complaint to ICANN.

(UPDATE: Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles got in touch to say his letter was actually sent before Disspain’s, despite the dates on the letters as published by ICANN suggesting the opposite).

Both applicants note that they have no idea who the independent party investigating the CPEs is. That’s because ICANN hasn’t identified them publicly or privately, and the evaluator has not contacted the applicants for their side of the story.

DotMusic’s lawyer wrote (pdf):

DotMusic’s rights are thus being decided by a process about which it: (1) possesses minimal information; (2) carried out by an individual or organization whose identity ICANN is shielding; (3) whose mandate is secret; (4) whose methods are unknown; and (5) whose report may never be made public by ICANN’s Board.

He added, pointedly:

The exclusion of directly affected parties from participation eerily reproduces the shortcomings of the EIU evaluations that are under scrutiny in the first place.

Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles, in his letter (pdf), quoted Disspain saying at a public forum in Copenhagen this March that a blog post addressing the concerns had been drafted and would be published “shortly”, but wasn’t.

He suggested the investigation is “smoke and mirrors” and, along with DotMusic, demanded more information about the investigator’s identity and methods.

It does strike me as a looking a bit like history repeating itself: ICANN comes under fire for non-transparently influencing a supposedly independent review and addresses those criticisms by launching another non-transparent supposedly independent review.

No matter what I feel about the merits of the “community” claims of some of these applicants, it has been over five years now since they submitted their applications and the courtesy of transparency — if closure itself its not yet possible — doesn’t seem like a great deal to ask.

Spurned applicant crowd-funding to fight ICANN for .gay gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 26, 2016, Domain Registries

The community-driven applicant for .gay is attempting to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars via crowd-funding to challenge a series of adverse decisions that look set to lock it out of running the gTLD.

Alongside the fundraising, dotgay LLC has launched an extraordinary broadside at its frustrators, accusing ICANN of “discrimination” and rival applicants of trying to “exploit” the gay community.

The company wants to raise $360,000 via this page, “to challenge decisions that have stalled community efforts for .GAY.”

Although the campaign has been running for 23 days, so far only three people (including a former employee) have donated a total of $110.

Given the vast number of LGBTQIA organizations that have lent their support to dotgay, I can only assume a lack of publicity is to blame for the $359,890 shortfall.

A five-minute video announcing the campaign has been on YouTube since August 3, but at time of writing has only been viewed 100 times.

In the video, embedded below, dotgay says that only it can properly represent the LGBTQIA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex and Ally) community.

ICANN is dividing the community by accepting the Economist Intelligence Unit’s decision that the company should fail its Community Priority Evaluation (largely because the TQIA are not necessarily “gay”), the video voiceover suggests.

This is an old game that highlights how LGBTQIA continue to be disadvantaged and discriminated against. If .gay is not recognized as a community domain, ICANN will simply auction the namespace to the highest bidder and pocket the proceeds. If ICANN assigns to the right to operate the registry for .gay to a company seeking to exploit it for profit — very possibly without community participation in policy development for the domain, or taking into consideration LGBTQIA interests and concerns — the community will have no assurances .gay will be s safe space on the internet… In the end, ICANN and the three other applicants for the .gay domain have shown no respect for the global gay community’s wishes.

Neither the video not the crowdfunding page specify exactly what the $360,000 would be used for.

However, in order to challenge the CPE decision(s) against it, a lawsuit or an Independent Review Process — either of which could wind up costing over a million dollars — would be the most usual avenues of attack.

Perhaps eager to avoid the possibility of a legal challenge, the three other applicants — Minds + Machines, Rightside and Top Level Design — this week wrote to ICANN to demand a hasty resolution of the long-running saga.

Writing on behalf of all three, Rightside VP Statton Hammock wrote (pdf):

It has been more than FOUR years since the Applicants filed their applications for .GAY. Since this time long ago, dotGay has filed THREE community objections, one against each of the Applicants; TWO community priority applications, ONE Independent Review Panel request (later withdrawn) and ONE motion for reconsideration with the BGC which has been carefully considered by the members of that Committee and found insufficient to be granted. In total dotGay has had SIX “bites of the apple” and has been unsuccessful each time… It is simply time for the Board to affirm these decisions and allow the .GAY applications to proceed to contention set resolution.

The ICANN board had been due to consider dotgay’s latest Request for Reconsideration at at a meeting August 9, but the agenda item was removed, the letter notes. The applicants called on the board to meet again soon to make a decision.

After the board processes the RfR, .gay would presumably go to auction. Whether the auction resulted in ICANN pocketing the cash (as dotgay claims) or being distributed between the three losing applicants remains to be seen.

Whether the auction is public or private, the crowdfunding campaign strongly suggests that dotgay does not currently have the resources to win.

Ombudsman trashes ICANN’s rejection of .gay “community”

Kevin Murphy, August 1, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN’s outgoing Ombudsman fired a parting shot at his former employer last week with a scathing analysis of its rejection of .gay as a community gTLD.

ICANN should reject the decisions of two independent Economist Intelligence Unit panels, which found that Dotgay LLC’s application for .gay did not meet the strict definition of “community” under ICANN rules, LaHatte wrote.

“This is the time to recognise that even if the EIU evaluation did not achieve the appropriate number of points, that the community is real, does need protection and should be supported,” he wrote.

His recommendation appears on his personal blog, dated July 27, the same day his contract with ICANN expired. It has not appeared on the official ICANN Ombudsman blog.

The EIU is responsible for conducting Community Priority Evaluations for applicants who claim to be representing communities.

Its decisions have been unpredictable and to a degree inconsistent, but both times its panels looked at Dotgay’s .gay, they scored the application lower than the 14 out of 16 points required to pass the CPE.

Winning a CPE generally means you get the gTLD in question. Losing means you have to go to auction against competing applicants.

In the case of .gay, the other applicants are Top Level Design, Minds + Machines and Rightside.

Dotgay failed both times because its stated community — which includes straight people — does not match the string “gay”.

Nobody’s ever said that there’s no such thing as a gay community, they’ve just said there’s no such thing as a gay Community (big C) as defined by Dotgay LLC.

LaHatte’s recommendation does not delve into the nitty-gritty of the scoring process, but seems to criticize the system — and the flawed Request for Reconsideration system Dotgay has thrice unsuccessfully invoked — as “inadequate”. He wrote:

The role of the ombudsman is to deal with issues of fairness, and this encompasses issues such as respect for diversity and support for all parts of our community. Sometimes the mechanisms which we have put together to resolve challenges are simply inadequate…

But the issue that I want to emphasise in this recommendation is that it has always been open to ICANN to reject an EIU recommendation, especially when public interest considerations are involved. What is needed is to take a bold approach and demonstrate to the ICANN community, but also much more widely, to the world of Internet users, that ICANN has a commitment to principles of international law (see Article IV of the Bylaws), including human rights, fairness, and transparency.

The board will be very aware of the human rights initiatives undertaken in the light of the IANA transition and the careful evaluation of the accountability processes. But sometimes it is necessary to take a view which evaluates whether the decision taken corresponds with the bylaws and articles of incorporation. That view should be that ICANN supports the gay community and recognises that there is a community which requires protection and recognition, which has been marginalized, threatened and attacked, and which should be considered a genuine community notwithstanding the EIU recommendation.

He’s basically calling on ICANN’s board to cast aside the rules and previous practice in this particular instance and instead make a political statement, in my reading of the recommendation.

I don’t think ICANN will do that.

On a couple of occasions when Dotgay has suffered an ICANN-induced setback in the past, ICANN has put out statements reminding everyone that there will be a .gay, they only question is who runs it.

Because Dotgay filed a community application, it would be obliged to make .gay a restricted space. Its application talks about registrants having to be approved as eligible before they register.

But it also would have the strictest measures in place to address homophobia and harassment — something the other applicants may, but have not formally committed, to implement.

dotgay loses third .gay appeal

Kevin Murphy, July 1, 2016, Domain Services

Death warrant or portent of impending legal action?

dotgay LLC has lost its third attempt to get ICANN to reconsider tossing its application for community priority status in the fight for the .gay gTLD.

According to ICANN, on Sunday its Board Governance Committee threw out dotgay’s third Request for Reconsideration, an attempt to give the company an unprecedented third go at the Community Priority Evaluation process.

CPEs allow community gTLD applicants to avoid expensive auctions, but dotgay has lost two primarily on the grounds that its definition of community includes people who are not gay.

Its latest RfR was pretty weak, based on a technicality about which staffers at the Economist Intelligence Unit (which carries out the CPEs) were in charge of verifying its letters of community support.

The rationale for the BGC’s determination, which still needs to be rubber-stamped by the full ICANN board, has not been published yet.

But it seems from a blog post that ICANN now expects .gay to go to auction, where there are four competing applicants in total.

ICANN does not usually publish blog posts on RfR decisions, but in the .gay case it has been keen to avoid being accused of any motivation beyond a dogged pursuit of correct procedure.

So will dotgay go quietly? It remains to be seen.

While all new gTLD applicants had to sign a release promising not to sue ICANN, .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica sued earlier this year and managed to get a sympathetic judge who seems bent on allowing the case to go to trial.

dotgay has a third crack at .gay appeal

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2016, Domain Policy

dotgay LLC has filed another appeal with ICANN, hoping to get its community-based .gay application back in the race.

It submitted a third Request for Reconsideration (pdf) this week, arguing on a technicality that its bid should have another Community Priority Evaluation.

The company has already lost two CPEs based on the Economist Intelligence Unit CPE panel’s belief that its definition of “gay” is too broad because it includes straight people.

It’s also lost two RfRs, which are adjudicated by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.

The newest RfR addresses not the core “not gay enough” issue, but a procedural error at the EIU it believes it has identified.

According to the filing, dotgay is in possession of emails from an EIU employee who was responsible for verifying some of the dozens of support letters it had received from dotgay’s backers (generally equal rights campaign groups).

The company argues, citing the BGC’s own words, that this employee was not one of the official CPE “evaluators”, which means the EIU broke its own rules of procedure:

considering the fact that the CPE Process Document – which is considered by the BGC to be “consistent with” and “strictly adheres to the Guidebook’s criteria and requirements”, it is clear that the verification of the letters should have been performed by an independent evaluator… and not by someone “responsible for communicating with the authors of support and opposition letters regarding verification in the ordinary course of his work for the EIU”.

It wants the CPE to be conducted again, saying “it is obvious that the outcome of a process is often, if not always, determined by the fact whether the correct process has been followed”.

It’s difficult to see how the outcome of a third CPE, should one be undertaken, could be any different to the first two. Who verifies the support letters doesn’t seem to speak to the reason dotgay hasn’t scored enough points on its other two attempts.

But the alternative for the company is an expensive auction with the other .gay applicants.

Another CPE would at least buy it time to pile more political pressure on ICANN and the EIU.