ICANN chair Steve Crocker has denied that outgoing CEO Fadi Chehade has a conflict of interest with the Chinese government, after US Senator Ted Cruz pressed him for more details on Chehade’s extra-curricular activities in the country.
“There’s no money involved, so there’s no conflict of interest involved at all,” Crocker said at a press conference, in response to a DI question, at ICANN 55 in Marrakech today.
I put the question because presidential hopeful Cruz, along with fellow senators James Lankford and Michael Lee, said in a letter last Thursday (pdf) that Chehade has a “confirmed personal conflict of interest” when it comes to the Chinese government.
That appears to be based on his admission, in a letter to Cruz et al last month, that his travel expenses to the World Internet Conference (aka, the Wuzhen Summit), where he’s agreed to be co-chair of an advisory committee after he leaves ICANN, would probably be picked up by the Chinese government.
According to Cruz, Chehade is in the pocket of the Chinese government because he has accepted or will accept flight-plus-hotel expenses to a Chinese conference, which could distract him from his $900,000-a-year ICANN salary.
Cruz’s most recent letter seeks further information about Chehade’s involvement with Wuzhen and the ICANN board’s response when they found out about it.
It appears to be basically an effort to get as much evidence as possible to support the ludicrous Republican claim that the IANA transition process initiated by the Obama administration risks handing control over internet censorship to the Chinese.
This, while some governments are complaining that the community-drafted IANA transition proposals actually weaken the hand of governments.
“There’s much less there than people are making an issue of, so there’s just no problem from our point of view,” Crocker said at the press conference.
“There are several degrees of separation between matters at ICANN and involvement with the Chinese government,” Crocker said. “[Wuzhen is] not controlled by the Chinese government and it’s intended to facilitate bringing in people from all over the world, it’s a matter of inclusion rather than exclusion.”
While Cruz asks quite a lot in his latest letter, one of the questions that leaped out at me claimed that ICANN does not publish the address of its Beijing office on its web site.
All the other local “Engagement Centers” have physical addresses listed, but not the Chinese one, Cruz said.
It turns out he’s correct.
I asked at the press conference why the address was not published on the ICANN web site and whether Cruz was correct to infer that ICANN is based in the same office as CNNIC, the government-controlled .cn ccTLD registry.
Chehade replied: “As I’m sure you’ve read in our press releases when we opened that office, that office was opened with a very clear press release by us and one by CNNIC indicating that our office would be collocated with CNNIC. So there’s nothing new here.”
He thanked Cruz for pointing out the omission on the ICANN web site and said it would be corrected.
He said that it’s ICANN’s habit to collocate engagement centers with local players, and that Beijing was nothing different. ICANN pays CNNIC for the collocation, he said.
Looking at the ICANN press release (pdf) announcing the Beijing office opening, back in 2013, it seems Chehade was incorrect, however. The press release makes no mention of CNNIC hosting the new ICANN engagement center. It does not mention CNNIC at all.
CNNIC did at the time state in its own press release, in a roundabout way, that ICANN Beijing would be sharing its office.
I also asked whether the outcome of the US presidential election would have a direct bearing on whether ICANN is able to execute the IANA transition. Would the transition happen if Cruz gets elected president of the USA in November?
Crocker gamely waffled for a couple of minutes but didn’t confirm what many take as a given: that Obama initiatives such as the IANA transition are likely to be at risk of a scuppering should a Republican, particularly Cruz, enters the White House.
“As an American I have to say this is one of the most interesting and unpredictable presidential election processes we’ve ever seen,” Crocker said, “but as chairman of the board of ICANN I hope it has no relationship at all to a process that was started in principle when ICANN was initiated in 1998.”
ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee is unlikely to provide its full backing to accountability proposals supporting the IANA transition.
In meetings at ICANN 55 in Marrkech over the weekend, a handful of GAC delegates publicly stated that they would block consensus over concerns the proposals reduce government power in ICANN.
The most vocal opposition came from Brazil, but it was backed up by the countries including Peru and Russia.
The proposals currently up for debate would make it harder for the ICANN board to disagree with consensus GAC advice, but it clarifies that non-consensus advice does not carry the same weight.
Currently, the ICANN board can reject GAC advice by a simple majority vote, but doing so kick-starts a bilateral negotiation process where the board and GAC have to try to resolve their differences.
The new accountability proposals would raise the threshold to 60% of the board, and the negotiations would only have to take place if the advice carried the full consensus of the GAC.
Under the GAC’s current operating rules, consensus means no one government formally objected to the advice. The accountability proposals would enshrine that definition in the ICANN bylaws.
The proposal was drafted like this to handle what is known as “Stress Test 18” — a scenario in which the GAC switched its decision-making mechanism to a simple majority vote, enabling it to more easily issue potentially more extreme advice.
Brazil finds the whole idea of Stress Test 18 “insulting”. Its delegate told the GAC yesterday:
We consider Stress Test 18 unacceptable. We have said this from the beginning. We think this contaminates the full proposal. I think there are many positive aspects in the proposal coming forward that we could accept, that we could support… I think this compounds a very ugly picture in which it is very clear that the real intent was to circumvent the possibility of governments having meaningful participation unless there is full consensus among its members.
Brazil was one of nine governments to put its name to a letter (pdf) last month criticizing the post-transition accountability proposals.
The letter points out that the current definition of GAC consensus would allow a single government to block consensus, even in the face of overwhelming support from other governments, simply by formally objecting.
This could lead to GAC “paralysis”, the letter stated.
Indeed, we saw something like this a couple of years ago when the US blocked GAC advice against the .amazon gTLD, before eventually withdrawing its objection.
Once it became clear yesterday that the GAC might not be able to provide full consensus on the accountability proposals, some GAC delegates worried aloud about what kind of message that would send to the rest of the world.
The proposals are inextricably linked to the IANA transition, which would see ICANN management of the DNS root zone become independent from US government oversight for the first time.
Some on the hard right of US politics, such as presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, are convinced that the transition will allow China to start censoring the internet.
.doosan today became the first new gTLD to be removed from the domain name system.
It’s no longer showing up in the DNS root zone file, and IANA’s record lists it as “retired”.
.doosan was a dot-brand managed by Korean conglomerate Doosan Group. The company never did anything with it before deciding to kill the TLD off last September.
A month ago, ICANN used the pending deletion to test its Emergency Back-End Registry Operator safety net.
If memory serves, it’s the only gTLD to be ever be removed from the root zone, excluding test internationalized TLDs previously operated by ICANN.
ccTLDs are removed somewhat regularly, when international borders are redrawn.
Terrifying US presidential candidate Ted Cruz has told outgoing ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade to recuse himself from crucial decisions, claiming Chehade is conflicted.
Republican Cruz yesterday said that Chehade can’t be trusted to make decisions related to the IANA transition because he’s already signed up to a Chinese internet governance committee.
Chehade said in December that he’s become co-chair of an advisory committee of the World Internet Conference.
Also known as the Wuzhen Summit, it’s a China-led talking shop that has been criticized for pushing China’s agenda of limiting free speech and promoting governmental control over the internet.
Cruz quizzed Chehade about his involvement in a letter earlier this month, basically fishing for evidence that Chehade was in some way conflicted.
In response (pdf), Chehade said he wasn’t being paid for the committee role, but that his travel expenses would probably be picked up.
Aha! Cruz seized on that admission, writing yesterday:
Travel compensation from the Chinese government can be a form of personal conflict of interest, which could impair Chehade’s ability to act impartially and in the best interest of the [US] government when performing under the [IANA] contract. As such, Chehade should recuse himself from all ICANN decisions that could impact the Chinese government, which include all negotiations and discussions pertaining to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) transition.
Chehade, who says he only joined the committee in order to promote the notion of multi-stakeholder internet governance, makes $900,000 a year at ICANN in salary and bonuses.
With pay so criminally low, it’s easy to see how he could be tempted to subvert his principles for any foreign government who offered him a free business-class flight and a few nights in a swanky Beijing hotel.
He has kids to feed and clothe, after all.
Cruz, on the other hand, has raised a mere $54 million in campaign contributions over the last five years, and not a single dollar of that will influence his political positions in any way whatsoever.
US presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has taken time out of his busy primaries schedule to lay into ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade over his new job on a Chinese policy panel.
Cruz said in a letter to Chehade that China is known for its terrible track record on freedom of speech, and wondered aloud whether Chehade’s involvement in the panel constituted a conflict of interest.
Chehade said in December that he’d joined, as co-chair, an advisory committee of the World Internet Conference.
Also known as the Wuzhen Summit, the WIC is an annual conference organized by the Chinese government in order to push its agenda of national sovereignty over the internet.
The conference, apparently regarded as a bit of a joke even in China, actually has little international participation from government leaders.
It’s also been criticized by Reporters Without Borders, which called for a boycott of the 2015 conference after some Western news outlets were barred from attending.
While Chehade stressed that his involvement is in a personal capacity, that his panel is not due to meet until mid-2016 (after he will have left ICANN), and that he remains committed to ICANN’s “one internet” mantra, Cruz doesn’t believe him.
Cruz said in his letter (pdf) that he was “surprised and dismayed” to learn of Chehade’s involvement in Wuzhen, writing:
your participation as a co-chair of the committee raised concerns about a personal conflict of interest while you serve as the Chief Executive Officer of ICANN under contract with the United States Government.
Cruz poses nine key questions that appear to be designed to get Chehade to admit that his conduct in some way represents a conflict of interest, or that he’s a loose cannon operating without the approval of his board of directors.
He wants to know whether, for example, Wuzhen has already discussed the IANA transition, which will see the US government sever formal oversight of the DNS root zone later this year.
It’s a view common to US Republican politicians, of which Cruz is one, that the transition will open the door to China, Russia and other boogeymen to initiate a crackdown on free speech, which has always seemed a little far-fetched.
Cruz is currently considered one of the front-runners for the Republican nomination in the presidential race, following his victory over Donald Trump in Iowa this week.
His letter, which demands answers before February 19, was also signed by fellow Republican senators James Lankford and Michael Lee.
Chehade is due to leave ICANN at the end of March.