An influential US senator has called on the US government to impose new ethics rules on ICANN.
In a letter to the US Department of Commerce, which has an oversight relationship with ICANN, Senator Ron Wyden said that new “strict ethics guidelines” should be created.
The letter appears to be in direct response to Peter Dengate Thrush’s move from his role as ICANN’s chairman to a potentially lucrative job with a new top-level domains applicant.
(And, presumably, at the behest of whoever told Wyden about it.)
Dengate Thrush’s last major act at ICANN was to lead the vote to approve its new generic top-level domains program, this June at ICANN’s public Singapore meeting.
Three weeks later, he joined Minds + Machines parent Top Level Domain Holdings, which plans to build its entire business model around applying for new gTLDs.
“As news reports have indicated, a formerly high-ranking official at ICANN has left the organization and was immediately hired by one of the domain name companies regulated by ICANN,” a Wyden press release reads.
Wyden wants new ethical guidelines designed to prevent a “revolving door” built into the IANA contract, which is the one way Commerce can still exert unilateral control over ICANN.
He wrote: “any IANA employees ought to be made subject to the same ethics rules in place as NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of Commerce] employees.”
The IANA contract is up for renewal before March next year.
Pretty much anybody with a vested interest in getting more control over of the DNS is currently doing their best to hack the contract by lobbying the NTIA, directly or indirectly.
I wonder who’s behind this particular appeal.
The European Commission wants stronger government powers over ICANN’s new top-level domain approval process, according to leaked documents.
Six “informal background papers” obtained and published by .nxt yesterday indicate that the EC, perceiving snubs over the last six months, plans to take a hard line with ICANN.
The documents cover a lot of ground, including a discussion of the various mechanisms by which governments would be able to force ICANN to reject new gTLD applications.
This article covers just the bases related to new gTLDs.
As things currently stand, ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook gives governments three ways to register their objections to any given gTLD application. The EC wants two of them strengthened.
GAC Early Warning
The Governmental Advisory Committee may formally put an applicant on notice that one or more governments have a problem with their bid.
Any government can initiate an Early Warning “for any reason”, at any point during the 60-day public comment period that is currently scheduled to begin April 27.
The mechanism is designed to give applicants a chance to get out with their cash before a more formal objection is filed by the GAC or an individual government.
Applicants in receipt of such a warning can choose to withdraw at that point, receiving a partial refund of their fees, but it’s entirely voluntary.
Under the EC’s new proposals, a GAC Early Warning would trigger an additional requirement by the applicant to show the support of “the relevant internet community”.
Because there’s little chance of getting this provision into the Guidebook now, the EC wants this provision baked into ICANN’s IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce.
The IANA contract is currently the biggest stick governments have to beat ICANN with. It’s up for renewal before March, and it’s the US that decides what goes into the contract.
The European Commission paper on new gTLDs says:
The IANA contract should include a provision requiring applicants to positively demonstrate the support of the relevant Internet community in advance of formal consultation of the GAC (and other supporting organisations and advisory committees), in cases where there are prima facie grounds to believe that the application may raise a public policy concern.
The paper explains: “in other words, if the GAC issues an early warning, the applicant would be automatically required to demonstrate the support of the relevant Internet community”.
In the Guidebook today, only applicants that have self-designated as “community” applications have to show this level of support, using a strict scoring process.
The EC’s proposal could, hypothetically, force non-community applicants to show a similar level of support if a single government initiates an Early Warning in the GAC.
If there was a vanilla, non-community application for .gay, for example, an Early Warning spurred (anonymously) by Saudi Arabia, say, could force the applicant to provide evidence of community support.
How this evidence would be evaluated is unclear. It would depend on what final language the Department of Commerce puts into the IANA contract.
At a guess, it could be a matter for the ICANN board to decide, with the Damoclean sword of IANA non-compliance hanging over its decision.
Formal GAC Advice
The Guidebook today allows for over six months, from April 27 to November 12, for the GAC to formally object to any gTLD application.
The way the GAC will create this formal “GAC Advice on New gTLDs” is a black box. We probably won’t even be told which governments objected, or what level of support they received.
ICANN had tried to enforce certain transparency and procedural requirements on this mechanism, but the GAC told it to take a hike and ICANN bent over in the interests of expediency.
But any such Advice will nevertheless “create a strong presumption for ICANN that the application should not be approved”.
The ICANN board will technically still be able to overrule one of these objections, but it practice it seems unlikely. At the very least it’s not predictable.
Under the European Commission’s new proposals, this fail-safe would be weakened further:
The ICANN by-laws should be amended to ensure that consensus GAC advice is accepted as reflecting the global public interest, and should ICANN wish to reject such advice, it would bear the burden of demonstrating that the GAC advice would conflict with ICANN’s legal obligations or create problems for the stability or security of the Domain name System.
In other words, the bar for an ICANN board decision to overrule the GAC would be raised to only include cases where there was a legal or technical reason not to comply.
The GAC would have an effective veto on every decision ICANN is asked to make. The term “multi-stakeholder” would be subverted in almost textbook Orwellian fashion.
To have this proposal implemented, the EC suggests that ICANN and the GAC enter talks. There’s no talk of running to the US government to have it unilaterally imposed.
Currently, all new gTLD registries will be forced to reserve strings such as country names from their spaces, and deal with individual governments to open them up.
The EC wants the list expanding to include basically any word that governments ask for, and it wants the US government to make this a condition of IANA contract renewal:
In relation to reserved and blocked names at the second level, the IANA contract should require the contractor to develop appropriate policies to allow governments and public administrations to identify names to be included in a reference list to be respected by all new gTLD operators.
This request appears to have been inspired by ICM Registry’s offer to block “culturally sensitive” strings from .xxx at the request of governments.
Yet again, we find global internet policy being driven by sex. What is it with these politicians?
Domain Name Takedown
Incredibly, the EC also wants the IANA contract to include a provision that would allow any government to ask any gTLD registry to turn off any domain:
The contractor [ICANN] should also be required to ensure that governments and public administrations can raise concerns about particular names after their registration if a serious public order concern is involved, and with a view to the registry “taking down” the name concerned.
This clearly hasn’t been thought through.
Facebook.com and Twitter.com have both been blamed recently for raising “serious public order concerns” in everything from the Egyptian revolution to the London riots.
The new powers the EC is discussing would have given the despotic former government of Egypt a legal basis for having Twitter shut down, in other words.
Finally, the EC is still concerned, on competition grounds, about ICANN’s decision to drop the vertical separation rules that apply to registries and registrars.
It suggests that the IANA contract should create a new oversight body with an “extra-judicial review” function over ICANN, enabling its decisions to be challenged.
This would enable antitrust authorities in Europe or elsewhere to challenge the vertical integration decision without having to resort to the US courts.
Overall, the proposals seem to represent a depressingly authoritarian ambition by the European Commission, as well as a disdain for the idea of the ICANN multi-stakeholder model and a shocking lack of respect for the rights of internet users.
While the documents are “informal background papers”, they do seem to give an indication of what certain elements within the EC think would make reasonable policy.
Whether the positions outlined in the papers became a reality would largely depend on whether the EC’s requests, if they were made, were compatible with US public policy.
As usual, the Department of Commerce still holds all the cards.
The new African nation of South Sudan has officially been given the two-letter country code SS, meaning it is likely just months away from getting the top-level domain .ss.
The SS string appeared on the International Standards Organization’s ISO 3166-1-alpha-2 code list this week, following a request by the government of the country.
The 3166 list is the standard by which ICANN judges a territory’s eligibility to be delegated a country-code top-level domain.
South Sudan does not yet appear on IANA’s list of ccTLDs, but it’s likely to be added soon.
The last three nations to form, following the breakup of the Netherlands Antilles last October, already have ccTLD records in the IANA database, although none have yet been officially delegated to a registry or added to the DNS root system.
The delegation of a new ccTLDs is usually a much more straightforward proposition than the redelegation of an existing ccTLD to a new manager, which can take many years.
South Sudan declared independence July 9 this year and was officially recognized by the United Nations five days later.
It’s one of the world’s poorest and unhealthiest nations: it is estimated that 11% of its children die before their fifth birthday and that 2% of mothers die in childbirth.
Getting a ccTLD is probably quite low on the nation’s list of priorities.
According to reports, the South Sudan government was well aware of the connection “SS” has to the Nazis in Europe when it asked for the string.
It’s pretty tenuous connection, and I doubt anyone reasonable would take offense, but the incoming registry may want to add a few well-chosen strings to its reserved list just in case.
The music, movie and advertising industries have backed a US move that could see governments getting more control over the approval of new top-level domains.
They’ve urged the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to keep a proposed rule that would force ICANN to show a new gTLD is in the “global public interest” before giving it the nod.
But they are opposed by many other stakeholders who responded to the NTIA’s Further Notice Of Inquiry on the renewal of ICANN’s IANA contract.
The FNOI resulted in about 35 responses, from companies and organizations on five continents.
The most controversial question posed by the NTIA was whether the IANA contract should include this provision:
For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.
This was broadly interpreted as a way for governments to have a de facto veto over new gTLD applications, via ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.
The proposed measure has now been supported by the Recording Industry Association of America, the Association of National Advertisers, and the Coalition for Online Accountability, which represents the music and movie industries.
Brand owners want another bite
In his strongly worded response, ANA president Robert Liodice wrote that the new gTLD program “is likely to cause irreparable injury to brand owners”, adding that it supported the NTIA’s proposal.
[It] provides a layer, however thin, of contractual protection that gTLDs will not be deposited to the authoritative root zone without appropriate justification. While the ANA believes that these protections are marginal at best, and that a more secure, safe and permanent solution must be found to prevent the harms to brand owners and consumers described above; nonetheless, “something is better than nothing”
The RIAA said in its filing that it “strongly supports” the proposal, on the basis that it thinks .music, if approved as a gTLD, could lead to more online music piracy.
there are no concrete obligations in the latest application guidebook to implement heightened security measures for these types of gTLDs that are focused on particular industries such as record music. Given the the risk that such a gTLD application could pass through the ICANN process without committing to such measures, it should be incumbent on the IANA contractor to document how its entry into the root would meet the “global public interest” standard.
It’s a drum the RIAA, never afraid of making special-interest arguments on matters of internet governance, has been beating for some time.
It stopped short of asking for all existing TLDs (and IP addresses, in the case of peer-to-peer applications) to be banned outright, which would presumably do much more to prevent piracy.
Oh no you ditn’t!
The COA, which includes the RIAA among its members, has the honor of being the first of ICANN’s critics to raise the Peter Dengate Thrush Situation to officially bash the organization.
PDT, as you’ll recall, joined Minds + Machines, likely to be a volume gTLD applicant next year, just a few weeks after he helped push through ICANN’s approval of the gTLD program.
COA counsel Steve Metalitz wrote:
This development tends to confirm COA’s view that “the new gTLD process, like so much of ICANN’s agenda, has been ‘led’ by only a small slice of the private sector, chiefly the registrars and registries who stand to profit from the introduction of new gTLDs.”
If a “check and balance” on addition of these new gTLDs to the root was advisable prior to this announcement, it now appears to be indispensable.
Plenty of ICANN stakeholders on both sides of the new gTLD debate have been calling for a review of ICANN’s ethics policies recently, so the COA is far from alone in highlighting the perception problem PDT’s move, and others, may have created.
It looked dodgy, and people noticed.
But on the other hand…
Many responses to the FNOI take the opposing view – saying that the “global public interest” requirements appear to run contrary to IANA’s technical coordination mandate.
IANA’s statement of work, which mandates IANA staff independence from ICANN policy-making, seems like a very odd place to introduce a vague and highly policy-driven oversight check.
Opposition came from the gTLD registry community and likely applicants, as you might expect, as well as from a number of ccTLD operators, which was perhaps less predictable.
A typical response, from the ccNSO, was:
While recognising and supporting the need for ensuring that new gTLDs have consensus support and are consistent with the global public interest, the ccNSO suggests that the IANA contractor’s role should simply be to verify that ICANN has followed the Guidebook process and that all the evaluation criteria (not just the two referred to) have been met.
A number of responses also call for the strict separation of IANA staff from ICANN’s policy-making functions to be relaxed. The way the NTIA’s proposal is currently worded, it’s not clear if IANA’s experts would be able to provide their input to important work.
Will Oman’s .om domain follow in the footsteps of .co? Or .cm? Or neither?
The country-code top-level domain is set to be transferred to a new manager following an ICANN vote this coming Thursday.
The redelegation is one item on a unusually light agenda for the board’s July 28 telephone meeting. It’s on the consent agenda, so it will likely be rubber-stamped without discussion.
The domain is currently assigned to Oman Telecommunications Company, but the new owner is expected to be the national Telecommunications Regulatory Authority or an affiliated entity.
The Omani TRA was given authority over the nation’s domain names by Royal Decree in 2002.
It has already successfully had the Arabic-script ccTLD .عمان approved by ICANN for use as an internationalized domain name, but the IDN has not yet been delegated.
AusRegistry International this March won a $1.3 million contract with the TRA to provide software and services for the .om and .عمان registries.
At the time, the TRA said it planned to market both Latin and Arabic extensions to increase the number of domain registrations.
The .om ccTLD is of course a .com typo, like .co and .cm, but squatting is not currently possible due to its strict registration policies.
Only Omani entities may register .om domains today, and only third-level domains (such as example.com.om and example.net.om) may be registered. Domains may not be resold.
I have no particular reason to believe this situation will change under new stewardship, but it will certainly be worth keeping an eye on the TLD for possible policy changes.
When Cameroon’s .cm opened up, it implemented a widely vilified blanket wildcard in an attempt to profit from .com typos.
Colombia’s .co of course took the responsible route, disowning wildcards and embracing strong anti-squatting measures, even if its mere existence was still a headache for some trademark owners.