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ICANN loses another IRP — .sport gTLD fight reopens as panel finds “apparent bias”

Kevin Murphy, February 2, 2017, Domain Registries

The future of the .sport gTLD was cast into turmoil this week after an independent panel ruled that there was “apparent bias” in the decision that awarded the string to a group linked to the Olympics.

The new Independent Review Panel ruling found that ICANN broke its own bylaws by refusing to allow Famous Four Media to appeal a 2013 decision that essentially awarded .sport to rival bidder SportAccord.

FFM claims the expert panelist tasked with deciding SportAccord’s Community Objection had undisclosed conflicts of interest that made him much more likely to rule in favor of SportAccord, which is backed by the International Olympic Committee, than FFM, which is a purely commercial operator.

And the IRP panel did not disagree, ruling this week that ICANN should have taken FFM’s claims into account before rejecting its requests for an appeal in 2014.

The ruling means that ICANN may be forced to throw out the Community Objection decision from 2013 and order it to be re-tried with a new expert, potentially allowing FFM back into the .sport contest.

As usual with IRP cases, the ruling is a complex and very dry read, involving multiple layers of objections, appeals, panels and experts.

FFM and SportAccord were the only two applicants for .sport in the 2012 application round.

SportAccord, which has the backing of dozens of sporting organizations in addition to the IOC, claims to represent pretty much all organized sport and wants to run .sport with restrictions on who can register.

FFM, conversely, wants to keep it open to everyone with a passing interest in sport.

In an attempt to kick FFM out of the contest without a potentially expensive auction, SportAccord filed, and then won, a Community Objection in 2013.

To win, it had to prove that the interests of the sport community would be harmed if FFM got to run it. The objection expert panelist, Guido Tawil, came down on SportAccord’s side.

FFM naturally enough disagreed with his conclusion, and vowed to fight to overturn it.

The registry later discovered that Tawil had undisclosed ties to the IOC, which it said should have disqualified him from acting as an independent expert.

First, Tawil attended a conference of the International Bar Association in Rio de Janeiro in 2011 called “Olympic‐Size Investments: Business Opportunities and Legal Framework”, where he co‐chaired a panel entitled “The quest for optimising the dispute resolution process in major sport‐hosting events”.

Second, the law firm he works for, Argentina-based M & M Bomchil, counts DirecTV among its key clients and at the time of the Community Objection DirecTV was negotiating with the IOC for Latin America broadcasting rights for the Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 Olympics, rights it subsequently obtained.

Third, a partner in Tawil’s law firm is president of Torneos y Competencias, a sports broadcaster with ties to DirecTV.

FFM has claimed: “Guido Tawil’s own legal practice and business is built around a company for whom IOC broadcasting rights are a core aspect of its business.”

While FFM filed two Requests for Reconsideration with ICANN in late 2013 and early 2014, raising the possibility of conflicts of interest and demanding ICANN have Tawil’s ruling thrown out, both were rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee.

It also took its claims to the ICANN Ombudsman, who drafted (but did not finalize) a finding that agreed with FFM that the Community Objection should be retried with a new expert.

The subsequent IRP filing challenged the two RfR decisions and, two years later, the IRP panel has now ruled:

the IRP Panel is of the view that in order to have upheld the integrity of the system, in accordance with its Core Values, the ICANN Board was required properly to consider whether allegations of apparent bias in fact gave rise to a basis for reconsideration of an Expert Determination. It failed to do so and, consequently, is in breach of its governing documents.

The panel also said that ICANN should have taken the Ombudsman’s draft report into account.

It declared:

that the action of the ICANN Board in failing substantively to consider the evidence of apparent bias of the Expert arising after the Expert Determination had been rendered was inconsistent with the Articles, Bylaws and/or the Applicant Guidebook.

The panel has ordered ICANN to pay FFM’s share of the $152,673 IRP costs.

ICANN’s board will now have to consider the IRP decision, and it seems very possible that a new Community Objection review might be ordered.

On the face of it, it looks like a big win for FFM.

That does not mean that SportAccord will not prevail in its objection for a second time, even with a different presiding expert, however.

One fact in its favor is that it now has three years’ worth of evidence of how Famous Four conducts its business — selling domains at super-cheap prices, some say at the expense of the cleanliness of its namespaces — with which to attempt to show the likelihood of harm.

What seems certain is that the .sport gTLD is not going to see the light of day any time soon.

Read the ruling as a PDF here.

Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ draws fire, creates confusion in ICANN community

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2017, Domain Policy

At least two senior-level ICANN community members, including a new member of its board of directors, have been affected by US President Donald Trump’s controversial travel restrictions, imposed this weekend on the citizens of seven Muslim-majority nations.

The so-called “Muslim ban” has also attracted criticism from other members of the community.

Kaveh Ranjbar, Amsterdam-based chief information officer for RIPE/NCC and an ICANN director, said that he is unable to attend this week’s board retreat in Los Angeles because he holds an Iranian passport.

“I have checked this with ICANN’s general counsel and they have tried an external counsel with expertise in immigration,” Ranjbar told DI. “Their advice was that I might be able to travel but they were not sure. As you know the situation is really fluid and things change real fast.”

“After checking with the airline and looking at similar cases, I decided not to even try, because I did not want to risk deportation or being detained in the US,” he said.

Ranjbar was born in Iran but holds dual Dutch-Iranian citizenship.

He said he will participate remotely in the board retreat, likely until with 3am each day.

“However, the work of ICANN board is no different than any other board, it is mostly free exchange of ideas and discussing and challenging positions, outside of the formal setting of the meetings, that’s how you get a feel on your other colleagues positions and will be informed enough about their positions which will enable you to support or oppose with proper grounds and arguments,” he said. “I will miss that critical part.”

Non-Commercial Users Constituency chair Farzaneh Badiei is also affected. She’s Iranian, but recently relocated to the US on an academic visa.

She told NCUC members that she’s effectively stuck there, unable to attend an intersessional meeting in Iceland or ICANN’s March meeting in Denmark, for fear of not being allowed to return.

“I have been advised to take precautionary measures in light of the current draft executive order that might not allow current visa holders re-entry to the United States,” she said.

ICANN is still evaluating the situation.

“We are still trying to fully understand the potential impact of the President’s Executive Order on our community, Board and staff travelers. We want to ensure ICANN’s continued accessibility and openness,” a spokesperson said on Sunday.

ICANN does have Iranian-born staffers, but I’m not aware that any have reported travel problems as a result of the Trump move.

The travel ban has drawn fire from other related organizations.

Internet Society CEO Kathy Brown wrote that she was “deeply troubled” by the ban, adding:

Not only will the purported bans place an unwarranted burden on people in our organization, it is an anathema to the Internet Society whose values rest firmly on a commitment to an open, globally connected community dedicated to the open, global Internet. We are encouraged by the countries who have rejected the U.S. action this weekend and by the human rights organizations that have stood in solidarity with countless refugees and travelers who were so abruptly halted in entering the U.S.

The chairs of the IETF, IAOC and IAB indicated in a joint statement that they may reconsider holding future meetings in the US:

the recent action by the United States government to bar entry by individuals from specific nations raises concerns for us—not only because upcoming IETF meetings are currently scheduled to take place in the U.S., but also because the action raises uncertainty about the ability of U.S.-based IETF participants to travel to and return from IETF meetings held outside the United States….

Our next meeting is planned for Chicago, and we believe it is too late to change that venue. We recognize, however, that we may have to review our other planned meeting locations when the situation becomes clearer. We are already reviewing what to do as far as location for the next open North American meeting slot.

Meanwhile, the Internet Governance Project’s Milton Mueller blogged:

This has significant implications for Internet governance. Coordination and policy making for a global medium based on cooperation and voluntary standards requires open transnational institutions. Participation in those institutions requires the ability to freely travel. The United States can no longer be considered the leader, either politically or ideologically, of an open global Internet if its own society is mired in protective barriers… What a stroke of good fortune that the prior administration succeeded in freeing ICANN from the U.S. government in its waning months.

The travel ban is said to be “temporary”, lasting just 90 days, but some fear it may evolve into a permanent fixture of US policy.

GNSO faces off with governments over IGO cybersquatting

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2017, Domain Policy

A defiant ICANN working group looking at cybersquatting rules for intergovernmental organizations is sticking to its guns in an ongoing face-off with the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In a report published for public comment this week, the GNSO working group recommended that IGOs should be given the right to use the UDRP and URS rights protection mechanisms, despite not being trademark owners.

But the recommendations conflict with the advice of the GAC, which wants ICANN to create entirely new mechanisms to deal with IGO rights.

I explored a lot of the back story of this argument in two posts a few months ago, which I will not rehash here.

The latest development is the publication of the proposed initial report of the GNSO IGO-INGO Access to Curative Rights Protection Mechanisms Initial Report (pdf) for comment.

The WG was tasked with deciding whether changes should be made to UDRP and URS to help protect the names and acronyms of IGOs and INGOs (international non-governmental organizations).

For INGOs, including the special cases of the International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross/Red Crescent, it decided no changes and no new mechanisms are required, concluding:

Many INGOs already have, and do, enforce their trademark rights. There is no perceivable barrier to other INGOs obtaining trademark rights in their names and/or acronyms and subsequently utilizing those rights as the basis for standing in the existing dispute resolution procedures (DRPs) created and offered by ICANN as a faster and lower cost alternative to litigation. For UDRP and URS purposes they have the same standing as any other private party.

The case with IGOs is different, because using UDRP and URS requires complainants to agree that the panel’s decisions can be challenge in court, and IGOs by their nature have a special legal status that allows them to claim jurisdictional immunity.

The WG recommends that these groups should be allowed access to UDRP and URS if they have protection under Article 6ter of the Paris Convention, a longstanding international intellectual property treaty.

This rule would actually extend UDRP and URS to hundreds more IGO names and acronyms than the GAC has requested protection for, which is just a few hundred. WIPO’s 6ter database by contrast currently lists 925 names and 399 abbreviations.

To deal with the jurisdictional immunity problem, the WG report recommends that IGOs should be allowed to file cybersquatting complaints via a third-party “assignee, agent or licensee”.

It further recommends that if an IGO manages to persuade a court it has special jurisdictional immunity, having been sued by a UDRP-losing registrant, that the UDRP decision be either disregarded or sent back to the arbitration for another decision.

The recommendations with regard IGOs are in conflict with the recommendations (pdf) of the so-called “small group” — a collection of governments, IGOs, INGOs and ICANN directors that worked quietly and controversially in parallel with the WG to come up with alternative solutions.

The small group wants ICANN to create separate but “functionally equivalent” copies of the UDRP and URS to deal with cybersquatting on IGO name and acronyms.

These copied processes would be free for IGOs to use and, to account for the immunity issue, would not be founded in trademark law.

The WG recommendations are now open for public comment and are expected to be the subject of some debate at the March ICANN meeting in Copenhagen.

ICANN joins anti-phishing group board

Kevin Murphy, January 27, 2017, Domain Policy

ICANN’s VP of security has joined the board of directors of the Anti-Phishing Working Group.

Dave Piscitello is one of three new APWG board members, arriving as the group expands its board from two people to five.

APWG said the expansion “is recognition of the growing complexity and scale of Internet crime today and the challenges in responding to this global threat.”

In a press release, it noted that targeted phishing attacks are said to be the root cause of the data thefts that may or may not have influenced the US presidential election last year.

The other two new directors are Brad Wardman of PayPal and Pat Cain of The Cooper Cain Group, a security consulting firm (a different bloke to the similarly named Pat Kane of Verisign).

APWG is an independent, public-private coalition that collects and publishes data about phishing attack trends and advice for how to defend against them.

Part of this work entails tracking how many domain names are involved in phishing, and in which TLDs.

The APWG board also includes chair David Jevans of Proofpoint and secretary-general Peter Cassidy.

Trump nominee open to retaking ICANN oversight role

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2017, Domain Policy

The incoming head of the US Department of Commerce has indicated that it is unlikely he’ll try to reestablish the US government’s unique oversight of ICANN, at least in the short term.

But at his confirmation hearing in Congress yesterday, Trump nominee for secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said he’d be open to ideas about how the US could increase its power over ICANN.

He was responding to a question from Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who made halting the IANA transition one of his key concerns last year.

Cruz, framing the question in such a way as to suggest ICANN is now in the hands of an intergovernmental consortium (which it is not) asked Ross whether he was committed to preventing censorious regimes using ICANN to hinder Americans’ freedom of speech.

Ross replied:

As such a big market and really as the inventors of the Internet, I’m a little surprised that we seem to be essentially voiceless in the governance of that activity. That strikes me as an intellectually incorrect solution. But I’m not aware of what it is that we actually can do right now to deal with that. If it exists, if some realistic alternative comes up, I’d be very interested.

His response also mischaracterizes the power balance post-transition.

The US is not “essentially voiceless”. Rather, it has the same voice as every other government as a member of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

Its role is arguably still a lot more powerful than other nations, given that ICANN is now bylaws-bound to remain headquartered in California and under US jurisdiction.

As head of Commerce, Ross will have authority over the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the agency most directly responsible for dealing with ICANN and domain name issues in general.

NTIA itself will to the best of my knowledge still be headed by assistant secretary Larry Strickling, who handled the IANA transition from the US government side. (UPDATE: this may not be correct)

Ross, 79, is a billionaire investor who made most of his estimated $2.5 billion fortune restructuring bankrupt companies in the coal and steel industries.