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How Russia and China could take over the internet!

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2014, Domain Policy

Do governments have too much potential power over ICANN, and do they need reining in before the US cuts itself loose?

It’s a question that’s emerging given the recent decision of the United States government to remove itself from stewardship of the domain name system root zone.

The US National Telecommunications and Information Administration may have no intention of allowing other governments to replace it as overseer of the IANA functions, but that doesn’t mean that governments won’t be able to abuse their powers in future under ICANN’s existing structures.

Before getting into the arguments, I should first apologize for the misleading, clickbaiting headline on this post. It’s a sarcastic response to the misleading narrative that has been set by much of the mainstream media in the US.

For the record, I don’t think Russia and China are going to take over the internet, ICANN or the DNS.

What I’d like to look at here are ways in which the Governmental Advisory Committee might need to be reformed in order to maintain balance and prevent capture by any bad government in future.

And by “bad government”, I’m not just talking about Russia, China, Iran and any other boogeyman that may pop up in future; I could just as easily mean the United States and European Union member states.

I’m basing quite a lot of this on concerns raised by NetChoice Coalition’s Steve DelBianco in a Congressional hearing last week.

While DelBianco seems to be generally pro-transition, he outlined several “stress test” scenarios that he believes need to be addressed during the stewardship transition process.

Among other things, DelBianco said: “It will be important for the transition plan to prevent any government-led organization from replacing the former U.S. role after the transition is complete.”

Everyone, from the lunatic fringe of the US media that bases its reporting on GOP talking points to the senior management of ICANN and the NTIA itself, is on the same page here.

Nobody wants the US to be replaced by an intergovernmental alternative.

Indeed, baked into the NTIA’s proposal to relinquish its stewardship powers is an explicit promise that a government-led replacement will not be approved. It ain’t going to happen.

But governments already have a powerful voice within ICANN, in the form of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC

While all national governments are welcome at the GAC, it currently has around 130-odd listed members.

Typically, fewer than half actually show up to in-person ICANN meetings. DelBianco reports that there were 61 in attendance at the ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore two weeks ago.

The GAC has the ability to issue “advice” to the ICANN board of directors.

The board is free to accept or reject this advice. Rejection, which can and does happen, triggers a lengthy consultation process in which both parties attempt to reconcile their differences.

In practice, ICANN tends to bend over backwards to accommodate GAC advice, even to the point of occasionally willfully misinterpreting it in order to make it appear that it has been accepted.

Under Principle 47 of the current GAC Operating Principles it would be virtually impossible for a government or group of governments to capture the GAC. The GAC only issues advice by consensus:

The GAC works on the basis of seeking consensus among its membership. Consistent with United Nations practice, consensus is understood to mean the practice of adopting decisions by general agreement in the absence of any formal objection. Where consensus is not possible, the Chair shall convey the full range of views expressed by members to the ICANN Board.

If China and Russia managed to persuade every other GAC member to agree with a repressive policy they wanted to introduce, the United States could hold out and destroy consensus.

And, it should be said, vice versa.

How the GAC has used its power

The GAC has a track record of issuing advice, by consensus, that trickles down, via ICANN’s contracts with registrars and registries, to affect domain registrants and regular internet users.

Sometimes, the impact could be said to impact human rights issues such as free expression and privacy.

For example, when law enforcement agencies (LEA) such as the FBI and Interpol recommended that registrars should start logging their customers’ IP addresses and should suspend the domains of registrants whose contact information could not be verified, the GAC reissued those recommendations as “GAC/LEA” advice that ICANN eventually accepted.

One could argue that this has free speech and privacy implications, but it came via the consensus of a GAC that included nations with privacy rights enshrined in their constitutions and statute books.

In fact, the United States was one of the strongest advocates for the LEA recommendations becoming part of the registrar contract, as this report from the October 2011 ICANN meeting Dakar will illustrate.

Let’s be clear here: legitimate bloggers are having their web sites suspended today, right now, because of what the US did in the GAC.

I’m singling out the US unfairly here just as a counterpoint to the arguments, emerging in DI comments and elsewhere, to the effect that the US is some kind of unshakeable guardian of internet freedom. It ain’t.

In truth, the GAC’s pro-LEA position at first had majority support (pdf) then, after its Operating Principles were amended in 2011 to clarify what “consensus” means, consensus support (pdf).

All governments can be credited/blamed for this situation.

Blocking TLDs

The GAC also has a track record of compelling ICANN, via its advice, to prevent certain top-level domains from entering the DNS root zone.

In the current round of new gTLD applications, two strings have so far been killed off as a direct result of GAC advice and many more at at risk.

Applications for .thai and .gcc were both thrown out by ICANN because the GAC, by consensus, did not disagree with the objections of the Thai government and the Gulf Cooperation Council.

Amazon.com’s application for .amazon is currently on hold because the GAC, again by consensus, thinks that nations such as Brazil and Peru have better rights to the term.

ICANN has still to make a formal decision on applications for .spa, which the GAC has advised (by consensus) be placed “on hold” until Belgium (unilaterally) decides whether to endorse them or not.

Several other applicants have voluntarily withdrawn their applications after receiving GAC consensus objections.

Many more face losing their deposits unless they comply with GAC advice on matters such as registrant credentialing.

If having a TLD delegated to the root zone is a free speech issue, the GAC already has the power to affect it.

What if Russia tries to ban gay?

Let’s take a hypothetical scenario: Russia wants ICANN to force registrars to suspend the domain names of web sites containing content it considers pro-homosexuality.

Today, Russia would have to get a consensus of the GAC to agree with it — that is, no government objections to its proposal — in order for full-fat GAC advice to make its way to the board.

That, clearly, would not happen. Non-homophobic nations in North America, Europe, Latin America, Asia and no doubt parts of Africa would not stand for such a thing.

There would be no shortage of governments eager to block consensus on such an appalling proposal.

Even if the GAC came to a consensus to ban the gays, ICANN’s board of directors would be able to reject the advice by going through the necessary motions.

If by some crazy turn of events the ICANN board accepted the advice, ICANN would still have to get the contractual changes past the registrars themselves, which would prove challenging.

But what if the GAC operated not by consensus but by majority rule?

What if Russia persuaded enough of its allies and client states to show up to an ICANN meeting to raise their hands at the appropriate moment? It could, conceivably swing a vote.

While the GAC does not issue advice by majority today, it would be a relatively simple matter for it to change its Operating Principles so that voting, not consensus, ruled.

In fact, the Operating Principles state that they can be amended by a simple majority. Principle 53 states:

A Member or Members may move, at a meeting, for these Operating Principles to be open to revision. If so moved, the Chair shall call for the movement to be seconded. If so seconded, then the Chair shall call for a vote to support the resolution. The deciding vote may be by ballot, by the raising or cards, or by roll call, and shall constitute a simple majority of the Members who are present at the meeting at which it was moved for these Operating Principles to be revised. If so resolved in favour of a revision of these Operating Principles, then the proposal shall sit for consultation for a period of sixty (60) days. At the next meeting following the sixty days, the Chair shall call for a vote for or against the proposal. The deciding vote may be taken by ballot, by the raising or cards, or by roll call, and shall be a simple majority of the Members who are present at the meeting at which the vote takes place.

This, the GAC’s current ability to radically change its voting procedures, is at the heart of some of DelBianco’s “stress tests”.

His example below concerns post-delegation censorship of the root itself, rather than individual web sites, but the same rules outlined above apply.

In his testimony (pdf) to Congress, DelBianco said:

a majority of governments in the GAC might advise ICANN to suspend a TLD that refuses to remove domains with content critical of governments (e.g., .corrupt ). Today, this kind of censorship routinely occurs at the edge of the Internet when governments block domestic access to websites, such as Turkey now blocking Twitter. But this scenario envisions censorship moving from the edge to the core of the internet – the root table of TLDs used by the entire world. It’s a critical stress test to examine how the new IANA mechanism could respond if a future ICANN board bowed to GAC advice for censorship at the root of the Internet.

DelBianco is not suggesting that the current ICANN board would cower over a matter of GAC censorship, but we’ve got no idea what the board is going to look like five, 10 or 20 years from now.

If the safeguard of US stewardship is going away, ICANN’s internal processes need to be tough enough to withstand a GAC that goes rogue and starts demanding things that further infringe liberties.

Does ICANN see a problem?

At a press conference during the Singapore meeting two weeks ago, I asked ICANN chair Steve Crocker and CEO Fadi Chehade if the GAC needed to be be reined in to prevent future abuse.

Crocker responded. I’m quoting my question (which wasn’t as detailed as to include references to GAC Operating Principles) so you know exactly what he’s replying to:

DI: This is about the IANA transition process. I was just wondering: the NTIA says they will not accept a multilateral or intergovernmental solution to this transition process, so does it not follow that there should be some safeguards to prevent the GAC becoming too powerful and stopping it becoming a mini-ITU within ICANN? Is that envisaged as part of this process, to put some kind of restraint on the GAC’s power?

CROCKER: As I said in my remarks this morning, the fact that the end result should not be multilateral or intergovernmental certainly did not mean that governments should not be involved. Governments have to be involved. You’ve asked about what happens if the GAC becomes too powerful.

A big problem is getting more involvement of the GAC. We’re still in the process where the GAC is a maturing organization that’s come a long way and is making ever more contributions and we’re some distance away from being worried about whether the GAC is going to take over or become all too powerful.

The way ICANN is structured is very thoroughly multistakeholder and there are a lot of checks of balances built in so that no single constituency has the ability to become dominant or to take over. I think there would be very strong reactions if that ever started to come into play. So I don’t view it as a imminent concern.

We value and encourage the involvement of governments and we understand that for many many governments it’s a novel experience to participate in an environment in which they’re not the only ones speaking.

In short, he’s saying ICANN needs more government participation via the GAC, albeit carefully counterbalanced within the multi-stakeholder environment.

With that in mind, isn’t it fair to ask whether reforms to the GAC’s Operating Principles are a necessary component of the IANA stewardship transition process?

If ICANN is going independent, its structures need to be robust enough for the long term. Maybe that needs to mean a GAC permanently handcuffed to principles of consensus, to prevent capture.

Second US bill would block IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, April 3, 2014, Domain Policy

Another bill has been introduced into the US Congress related to the IANA transition process, and this one would actually be dangerous if passed.

Rep Mike Kelly introduced the Internet Stewardship Act (pdf) to make the IANA transition a matter that requires Congressional legislation.

The press release announcing the bill is longer than the bill itself, which says just this:

NTIA PROHIBITED FROM RELINQUISHING DNS RESPONSIBILITIES.

The Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information may not relinquish or agree to relinquish the responsibilities of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration with respect to Internet domain name functions, including responsibility with respect to the authoritative root zone file, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority functions, or the related root zone management functions, unless such relinquishment is permitted by a statute enacted after the date of the enactment of this Act.

In other words, if this bill is enacted then another bill would be required in order for the NTIA to remove itself from root zone oversight.

Try to imagine a bill relinquishing control over the “critical internet functions” getting majority support in any national legislature.

Try to imagine it getting support in a national legislature that has more than its fair share of flag-waving nationalists and gung-ho xenophobes.

Try to imagine the Republican party in Congress allowing the Obama administration, which it despises, to ‘give away the internet’ to Vladimir Putin and theocratic Arab states, which is what a lot of commentators irrationally seem to think is happening.

It Kelly’s bill is passed, ICANN may as well kiss goodbye to ideas of independence from US oversight for the foreseeable future.

Fortunately, the bill is just a bill right now.

ICANN fights the fear in Congressional hearing

Kevin Murphy, April 3, 2014, Domain Policy

A Congressional hearing yesterday addressed fears that the decision to cut ICANN loose from US governmental oversight would lead to the internet being seized by backwards regimes.

Long-term DI readers may recall that I’m usually quite snarky whenever a Congressional subcommittee convenes to pretend to be interested in ICANN — with the reason that they usually talk a lot of nonsense.

But this time the majority of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology seemed genuinely interested, surprisingly clueful, and relatively low on hyperbolic fearmongering.

The hearing was arranged due to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s March 14 decision to remove itself from the DNS root zone management triumvirate.

Whole cartloads of horse pucky have been wheeled out in response, exemplified by breathless editorials about how the world’s most repressive governments will immediately step in to fill the NTIA-shaped void.

It’s Obama’s policy of “appeasement”, designed to allow a shirtless Vladimir Putin to drive a tank directly into the root zone file, if you believe right-leaning American commentators.

There was some of that in yesterday’s hearing, but it was overshadowed by a discussion that seemed to be more interested in addressing genuine concerns and clearing up misconceptions.

Basically, Congressmen are afraid that if the NTIA leaves its role as steward of the DNS root zone, that will somehow lead to other governments taking over and internet freedoms being diminished.

How that fear manifested itself on the committee ranged from thoughtful and understandable expressions of concern and caution to wild-eyed, nonsensical, Putin-obsessed ranting.

It was the job of witnesses Larry Stricking of the NTIA, Fadi Chehade of ICANN and Ambassador David Gross, formerly of the Department of State, to reassure Congress that everything is going to be okay.

Rep. Scalise thinks Putin is magic

At the risk of being accused of sensationalism, I’m starting with the nut-job, but only to illustrate the misinformation ICANN and the NTIA have been dealing with for the last few weeks.

In a way, Rep. Steve Scalise’s portion of the hearing’s Q&A section is a microcosm of the dialogue that has been playing out in the media since the NTIA announcement.

Scalise was the guy on the committee who seems to believe that Russia and China possess the supernatural powers necessary to “take over the internet”. Red Magic, perhaps.

Here’s an exchange with Strickling and Chehade, which began when Scalise asked the panel to address concerns about authoritarian regimes taking over the internet:

STRICKLING: We won’t let that happen, number one.

SCALISE: What’s an assurance of that? It’s good to say we won’t let that happen, it’s nice to hear it, but nobody knows what’s gong to happen. You can’t tell me what’s going to happen. How do you know you won’t let it happen?

STRICKLING: I’m saying that we will not accept a proposal that has that as its outcome. Period. End of story. So it won’t happen. Second, nobody has yet explained to me the mechanism by which any of these individual governments could somehow seize control over the internet as a whole—

SCALISE: You really don’t think that Russia… Look, Russia and China have made it very clear what they want to do to suppress internet freedom. They’ve made it very clear—

STRICKLING: And they do it within their own countries—

SCALISE: At the end of the day y’all are going to come up with some sort of process if you’re going to transfer away, and I say IF — capital I, capital F — if you transfer it away you will come up with some sort of process. Do you really not thnk that Vladimir Putin, with all the other things he’s busy with right now, ain’t going to try to figure out some way to get control? It won’t be through the Russian government directly necessarily, but China and Russia have proven very resourceful at trying to figure out what that process so that they can manipulate it. You can do all the things you want to stop that from happening but at end of the day it comes out to where those countries have figured out a way, like they’ve figured out a lot of other ways too, to do something subversive that goes against all the intentions that we have. You can’t stop that.

STRICKLING: Well, Congressman, what do you think they could do that they can’t do today?

SCALISE: What do you really think…? Look at what Putin’s doing right now! The President just doesn’t seem to take this seriously what he’s doing through Eastern Europe. He’s trying to rebuild, get the old band back together, get the Soviet Union back together, right now before our very eyes. Secretary of State Kerry says the international community won’t accept this. They’re doing it! They don’t care what the international community thinks. They’re invading a country. So what would they do to get control of the internet if you threw something out there? These are real concerns that are being expressed. The other two panelists can touch on this as well.

CHEHADE: Thank you, Congressman. Let me be clear that at ICANN it is impossible for them today to do so. They’ve been trying for 15 years—

SCALISE: Exactly! Which is why it’s working.

CHEHADE: But it’s not because the US actually has the current stewardship role, it’s because of the multistakeholder model. It stops them. Where they will try to do what you’re suggesting is in the international intergovernmental organizations. They’ve been trying to do that there. We want to take away from them any argument that they still go to the UN and try to take over what ICANN does, by making sure that ICANN is free of one government control. To show them that ICANN believes in the multistakeholder model and this great country that created that model trusts it.

Chehade 1 – Scalise 0.

But did Scalise have a point, even accidentally? I’m going to cover that question in a separate post.

Rep Shimkus really wants you to support his bill

A recurring theme of the hearing was the Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act, introduced by Rep. John Shimkus and others last week.

I called the bill “pointless” when it emerged, as all it does is delay any transition for a year until the US Government Accountability Office has conducted a study of the ramifications.

But there’s also a feeling that the Act would be a distraction at best and may cast more uncertainty than is necessary over the transition process at a critical time for internet governance.

Both Strickling and Chehade prevaricated when Shimkus asked them outright, repeatedly, if they were opposed to the GAO review.

Strickling said he “neither or supports or opposes” such a review but said he was “in favor of full discussion of these issues”.

Chehade, seemingly reluctant to tie himself to a one-government review said he did not have a view, but that he committed to full transparency in the issue.

The fact that Chehade had said that there was “no rush” to conclude the transition process was later used by Shimkus as a gotcha, when he pointed out that the Act’s one-year delay would not have an impact.

On a second panel, Carolina Rossini of the Internet Governance and Human Rights Program of the New American Foundation, gave perhaps a fuller explanation of why there’s caution about the bill.

My concern is that if we wait one year, if we block the transition now and wait one year until we have a report, that is the risk. And that’s the risk that we have non-democratic governments to actually make their voices even louder and manipulate the narrative both in NetMundial and in the [ITU] plenipot in November.

Shimkus said he’d concluded that Chehade and Strickling has “in essence supported the bill”, which I don’t think was necessarily a fair interpretation of what they said.

The two-and-a-half hour hearing had a couple of other diversions — Rep Blackburn going off on a crazy tangent about net neutrality and Rep Latta wasting everyone’s time to score points on behalf of a constituent, a .med gTLD applicant — but otherwise it was generally sane stuff.

The committee seemed to be fairly well-briefed on the subject before them. Most of the Congressmen expressed their concerns about the transition in sensible terms and seemed to take the answers on board.

Special recognition should also be given to Chehade, who won the slightly condescending praise and admiration of some of the committee when he choked up on an abridged version of his immigrant origin story.

He has an uncanny ability to speak to his audience at every occasion and he put it to excellent use yesterday.

Republicans introduce pointless ICANN bill

Kevin Murphy, March 28, 2014, Domain Policy

Three Republican Congressmen have introduced a bill that would prevent the US government removing itself from oversight of the DNS root zone.

For a year.

The inappropriately titled Domain Openness Through Continued Oversight Matters (DOTCOM) Act is designed to:

prohibit the National Telecommunications and Information Administration from relinquishing responsibility over the Internet domain name system until the Comptroller General of United States submits to Congress a report on the role of the NTIA with respect to such system.

Basically, the NTIA would be barred from walking away from root zone oversight until an analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the transition was published, which would have to happen within a year.

The report would also have to include a definition of “multi-stakeholder”.

The three Republicans who introduced the bill — Representatives Todd Rokita, John Shimkus, and Marsha Blackburn — either have no idea what they’re talking about, or they’re being intellectually dishonest.

Blackburn said in a press release:

We can’t let the Internet turn into another Russian land grab. America shouldn’t surrender its leadership on the world stage to a “multistakeholder model” that’s controlled by foreign governments. It’s imperative that this administration reports to Congress before they can take any steps that would turn over control of the Internet.

Shimkus said:

In the month of March alone we’ve seen Russia block opposition websites, Turkey ban Twitter, China place new restrictions on online video, and a top Malaysian politician pledge to censor the Internet if he’s given the chance. This isn’t a theoretical debate. There are real authoritarian governments in the world today who have no tolerance for the free flow of information and ideas. What possible benefit could come from giving the Vladimir Putins of the world a new venue to push their anti-freedom agendas?

This is hysterical nonsense.

Not only has ICANN no intention of allowing the IANA function to be controlled by foreign governments, the NTIA has explicitly stated from the start that no governmental solution would be acceptable.

It’s also ironic that the only two governments to ever consider censoring the root zone were the European Commission and the United States, under the Republican Bush administration.

The current expectation, assuming community talks proceed as swiftly as hoped, is for stewardship of the IANA function to leave the NTIA’s hands when the current contract expires in October 2015.

Even if the DOTCOM (really?) Act were to be passed into US law this year, it shouldn’t have any serious impact on the timing of the root transition.

With that in mind, the three-page bill (pdf) looks quite a lot like an extended press release, rather than a serious attempt to keep the root in US hands.

Under global spotlight, ICANN forced to choose between GAC and the GNSO

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has angered the Generic Names Supporting Organization and risks angering the Governmental Advisory Committee as it prevaricates over a controversial rights protection mechanism.

It looks like the ICANN board of directors is going to have decide whether to reject either a hard-won unanimous consensus GNSO policy recommendation or a piece of conflicting GAC advice.

ICANN is “stuck in a bind”, according to chairman Steve Crocker, and it’s a bind that comes at a time when the bottom-up multi-stakeholder process is under the global microscope.

The issue putting pressure on the board this week at the ICANN 49 public meeting here in Singapore is the protection of the names and acronyms of intergovernmental organizations.

IGOs pressured the GAC a few years ago into demanding protection in new gTLDs. They want every IGO name and acronym — hundreds of strings — blocked from registration by default.

For example, the Economic Cooperation Organization would have “economiccooperationorganization” and “eco” blocked at the second level in all new gTLDs, in much the same way as country names are reserved.

Other IGO acronyms include potentially useful dictionary-word strings like “who” and “idea”. As I’ve said before, protecting the useful acronyms of obscure IGOs that never get cybersquatted anyway is just silly.

But when ICANN approved the new gTLD program in 2011, for expediency it placed a temporary block on some of these strings and asked the GNSO to run a formal Policy Development Process to figure out a permanent fix.

In November 2012 it added hundreds more IGO names and acronyms to the list, while the GNSO continued its work.

The GNSO concluded its PDP last year with a set of strong consensus recommendations. The GNSO Council then approved them in a unanimous vote at the Buenos Aires meeting last November.

Those recommendations would remove the IGO acronyms from the temporary reserved names list, but would enable IGOs to enter those strings into the Trademark Clearinghouse instead.

Once in the TMCH, the acronyms would be eligible for the standard 90-day Trademark Claims mechanism, which alerts brand owners when somebody registers a name matching their mark.

The IGOs would not, however, be eligible for sunrise periods, so they wouldn’t have the special right to register their names before new gTLDs go into general availability.

The PDP did not make a recommendation that would allow IGOs to use the Uniform Rapid Suspension service or UDRP.

Unfortunately for ICANN, the GNSO recommendations conflict with the GAC’s current advice.

The GAC wants (pdf) the IGOs to be eligible for Trademark Claims on a “permanent” basis, as opposed to the 90-day minimum that trademark owners get. It also wants IGOs — which don’t generally enjoy trademark protection — to be made eligible for the URS, UDRP or some similar dispute resolution process.

Since Buenos Aires, the ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee has been talking to the GAC and IGOs about a compromise. That compromise has not yet been formally approved, but some initial thinking has been circulated by Crocker to the GAC and GNSO Council.

ICANN proposes to give IGOs the permanent Trademark Claims service that the GAC has asked for, as well as access to the URS. Both policies would have to be modified to allow this.

It would also create an entirely new arbitration process to act as a substitute for UDRP for IGOs, which are apparently legally unable to submit to the jurisdiction of national courts.

The compromise, while certainly overkill for a bunch of organizations that could hardly be seen as ripe cybersquatting targets, may seem like a pragmatic way for the board to reconcile the GNSO recommendations with the GAC advice without pissing anyone off too much.

But members of the GNSO are angry that the board appears to be on the verge of fabricating new policy out of whole cloth, ignoring its hard-won PDP consensus recommendations.

That’s top-down policy-making, something which is frowned upon within ICANN circles.

Under the ICANN bylaws, the board is allowed to reject a GNSO consensus recommendation, if it is found to be “not in the best interests of the ICANN community or ICANN”. A two-thirds majority is needed.

“That’s not what happened here,” Neustar’s vice president of registry services Jeff Neuman told the board during a meeting here in Singapore on Tuesday.

“Instead, the board on its own developed policy,” he said. “It did not accept, it did not reject, it developed policy. But there is no room in the ICANN bylaws for the board to do this with respect to a PDP.”

He said that the GNSO working group had already considered elements of ICANN’s compromise proposal and specifically rejected them during the PDP. Apparently speaking for the Registries Stakeholder Group, Neuman said the compromise should be taken out of consideration.

Bret Fausett of Uniregistry added: “The process here is as important to us as the substance. We think procedure wasn’t followed here and we detect a lack of understanding at the board level that process wasn’t followed.”

The GNSO Council seems to agree that the ICANN board can either accept or reject its recommendations, but what it can’t do is just write its own policies for the sake of a quiet life with the GAC.

To fully accept the GNSO’s recommendations would, however, necessitate rejecting the GAC’s advice. That’s also possible under the bylaws, but it’s a lengthy process.

Director Chris Disspain told the GNSO Council on Sunday that the board estimates it would take at least six months to reject the GAC’s advice, during which time the temporary reservations of IGO acronyms would remain active.

He further denied that the board is trying to develop policy from the top.

“It is not top-down, it’s not intended to be top-down, I can’t really emphasis that enough,” he told the Council.

He described the bylaws ability to reject the GNSO recommendations as a “sledgehammer”.

“It would be nice to be able to not have to use the sledgehammer,” he said. “But if we did have to use the sledgehammer we should only be using it because we’ve all agreed that’s what we have to do.”

Chair Steve Crocker summed up the board’s predicament during the Sunday meeting.

“We always do not want to be in the position of trying to craft our own policy decision,” he said. “So we’re stuck in this bind where we’re getting contrary advice from sources that feel very strongly that they’ve gone through their processes and have spoken and so that’s the end of it from that perspective.”

The bind is especially tricky because it’s coming at a time when ICANN is suddenly becoming the focus of a renewed global interest in internet governance issues.

The US government has said that it’s willing to walk away from its direct oversight of ICANN, but only if what replaces it is a “multi-stakeholder” rather than “intergovernmental” mechanism

If ICANN were to reject the proceeds of a two-year, multi-stakeholder, bottom-up, consensus policy, what message would that send to the world about multistakeholderism?

On the other hand, if ICANN rejects the advice of the GAC, what message would it send about governments’ ability to effectively participate as a stakeholder in the process?

Clearly, something is broken when the procedures outlined in ICANN’s bylaws make compromise impossible.

Until that is fixed — perhaps by getting the GAC involved in GNSO policy-making, something that has been talked about to no end for years — ICANN will have to continue to make these kinds of hard choices.

Fielding a softball question during a meeting with the GNSO Council on Saturday, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said that “to value the process as much as I value the result” is the best piece of advice he’s received.

“Policies get made here,” Chehade told the Council, “they should not be made at the board level, especially when a consensus policy was made by the GNSO. Akram [Atallah, Generic Domains Division president] today was arguing very hard at the board meeting that even if we don’t think it’s the right thing, but it is the consensus policy of the GNSO, we should stick with it.”

Will the board stick with it? Director Bruce Tonkin told the registries on Monday that the board would try to address their concerns by today, so we may not have to wait long for an answer.