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Ethos volunteers for .org pricing handcuffs

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2020, Domain Registries

Ethos Capital has volunteered to have price caps written back into Public Interest Registry’s .org contract, should ICANN approve its $1.1 billion proposed acquisition.

The private equity firm said Friday that it has offered to agree to a new, enforceable Public Interest Commitment that bakes its right to increase prices into the contract under a strict formula that goes like this:

Applicable Maximum Fee = $9.93 x (1.10n)

The $9.93 is the current wholesale price of a annual .org registration. The “n” refers to the number of full years the current .org registry agreement has been in play, starting June 30, 2019.

In other words, it’s a 10%-per-year increase on average, but PIR could skip a year here and there and be eligible for a bigger price increase the following year.

For example, PIR could up the fee by 10% or $0.99 to $10.92 this coming June if it wanted, but if it decided to wait a year (perhaps for public relations reasons) if could increase the price to $12.13 in June 2021, an increase of $2.20 or roughly 22%.

It could wait five years before the first price increase, and up it from $9.93 to $16.53, a 66% increase, in year six.

While price increases are of course unpopular and will remain so, the formula does answer the criticism posed on DI and elsewhere that Ethos’ previous public statements on pricing would allow PIR to front-load its fee hikes, potentially almost doubling the price in year one.

But the caps have a built-in expiry date. They only run for eight years. So by the middle of 2027, when PIR could already be charging $18.73, the registry would be free to raise prices by however much it pleases.

It’s a better deal for registrants than what they’d been facing before, which was a vague commitment to stick to PIR’s old habit of not raising prices by more than 10% a year, but it’s not perfect and it won’t sate those who are opposed to increased fees in principle.

On the upside, a PIC is arguably an even more powerful way to keep PIR in line after the acquisition. Whereas other parts of the contract are only enforceable by ICANN, a Public Interest Commitment could theoretically be enforced via the PIC Dispute Resolution Procedure by any .org registrant with the resources to lawyer up. Losing a PICDRP triggers ICANN Compliance into action, which could mean PIR losing its contract.

The PIC also addresses the concern, which always struck me as a bit of a red herring, that .org could become a more censorial regime under for-profit ownership.

Ethos says it will create a new seven-person .ORG Stewardship Council, made up of field experts in human rights, non-profits and such, which will have the right to advise PIR on proposed changes to PIR policy related to censorship and the use of private user/registrant data.

The Council would be made up initially of five members hand-picked by PIR. Another two, and all subsequent appointments, would be jointly nominated and approved by PIR and the Council. They’d serve terms of three years.

The proposed PIC, the proposed Council charter and Ethos’ announcement can all be found here.

Correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but it’s worth noting that the proposal comes after ICANN had started playing hard-ball with PIR, Ethos and the Internet Society (PIR’s current owner).

In fact, I was just putting the finishing touches to an opinion piece entitled “I’m beginning to think ICANN might block the .org deal” when the Ethos statement dropped.

In that now-spiked piece, I referred to two letters ICANN recently sent to PIR/ISOC and their lawyers, which bluntly asserted ICANN’s right to reject the acquisition for basically any reason, and speculated that the deal may not be a fait accompli after all.

In the first (pdf), Jones Day lawyer Jeffrey LeVee tells his counterpart at PIR’s law firm in no uncertain terms that ICANN is free to reject the change of control on grounds such as the “public interest” and the interests of the “.org community”.

Proskauer lawyer Lauren Boglivi had told ICANN (pdf) that its powers under the .org contract were limited to approve or reject the acquisition based only on technical concerns such as security, stability and reliability. LeVee wrote:

This is wrong. The parties’ contracts authorize ICANN to evaluate the reasonableness of the proposed change of control under the totality of circumstances, including the impact on the public interest and the interest of the .ORG community.

Now, the cynic in me saw nothing but a couple of posturing lawyers trying to rack up billable hours, but part of me wondered why ICANN would go to the trouble of defending its powers to reject the deal if it did not think there was a possibility of actually doing so.

The second letter (pdf) was sent by ICANN’s new chair, Maarten Bottermann, to his ISOC counterpart Gonzalo Camarillo.

The letter demonstrates that the ICANN board of directors is actually taking ownership of this issue, rather than delegating it to ICANN’s executive and legal teams, in large part due to the pressure exerted on it by the ICANN community and governments. Botterman wrote:

It is not often that such a contractual issue raises up to a Board-level concern, but as you might appreciate, PIR’s request is one of the most unique that ICANN has received.

He noted that the controversy over the deal had even made ICANN the target of a “governmental inquiry”, which is either a reference to the California attorney general’s probe or to a letter (pdf) received from the French foreign office, demanding answers about the transaction.

It’s notable from Botterman’s letter that ICANN has started digging into the deep history of PIR’s ownership of .org, much as I did last December, to determine whether the commitments it made to the non-profit community back in 2002 still hold up under a return to for-profit ownership.

Given these turns of events, I was entertaining the possibility that ICANN was readying itself to reject the deal.

But, given Ethos’ newly proposed binding commitments, I think the pendulum has swung back in favor of the acquisition eventually getting the nod.

I reserve the right to change my mind yet again as matters unfold.

Yup. ICANN cancelled Cancun

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has cancelled its public meeting in Cancun, Mexico, due to fears over Covid-19, aka Coronavirus.

Late this evening, the organization said that the ICANN 67 meeting, scheduled for March 7 to March 12, will now take place purely online.

In a statement, the org said:

Each ICANN Public Meeting attracts thousands of attendees from more than 150 countries. With cases in at least 26 of those countries, there is the potential of bringing the virus to Cancún and into the ICANN meeting site. If this were to happen, there could be accidental exposure of the virus to attendees, staff, and others who come in contact with an infected individual.

ICANN had been putting in place measures to mitigate the risk of the disease arriving and spreading.

The decision to cancel the face-to-face meeting was made by the ICANN board of directors today.

It’s going to be the first ICANN meeting to take place fully online. It’s not clear at all that ICANN knows how to do this. ICANN is very good at enabling remote participation, but it’s never run a fully remote week-long meeting with a few thousand participants before.

It seems virtually certain that there will be problems and complaints.

ICANN wants to take your temperature before letting you into ICANN 67

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2020, Domain Policy

Face masks, hand-sanitizer stations, and nurses taking your temperature on the doors… these are some of the measures ICANN plans to deploy at its upcoming public meeting in Cancun next month, in an effort to mitigate the risk of a Covid-19 outbreak.

That’s assuming the meeting goes ahead at all, which is still undecided.

Speaking to community leaders in a teleconference this evening, ICANN staffers outlined the following precautionary measures they expect to put in place:

  • A doctor from International SOS will be on site, alongside the usual two medics.
  • A team of nurses will be deployed at the venue’s two entrances to check attendees’ temperatures (via the forehead, you’ll be pleased to hear) as they enter the building.
  • “Anyone registering a fever will be escorted to the doctor for assessment.”
  • ICANN is “stockpiling” face masks and is already shipping some to the venue. This is complicated by the global supply shortage. Attendees will be encouraged to source their own before leaving home.
  • Hand sanitizer facilities will be dotted around, particularly at large meeting rooms and outside bathrooms.
  • A Mexican familiar with the local public health service will be available.
  • It will be up to the local Mexican authorities to determine how to respond to a confirmed case. It’s not particularly clear what the policy would be on quarantine and the dreaded “cruise ship scenario”. There have been no cases in Mexico yet.

The temperature checks will be daily. One would assume that people leaving the venue for lunch, or a cigarette or something will be checked more frequently.

ICANN has yet to decide whether the meeting is going to go ahead. Its board of directors will meet on Wednesday to make a call, but CEO Göran Marby noted that should the situation with Covid-19 change there’s always the possibility it could be cancelled at a later date.

The meeting could also be cancelled if a large enough number of ICANN support staff refuse to go.

Some companies have already informed ICANN that they won’t be sending employees to the meeting. Marby said that if it looks like only 600 or 700 people are going to show up, the meeting probably won’t go ahead.

Governmental Advisory Committee chair Manal Ismail said on the call that only 30 GAC members have so far indicated that they’re going to attend. That’s about half of the usual level, she said.

If it were to be cancelled, the meeting would go ahead online. All ICANN meetings allow remote participation anyway, but ICANN has been prepping for the possibility that its online tools will need much greater capacity this time.

The audio recording of the call can be found here. Thanks to Rubens Kuhl for the link.

Are you going to go to Cancun, or will you cancel due to Covid? Let me know in the comments.

ICANN might cancel Spring Break over Covid-19 fears

Kevin Murphy, February 18, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN’s next public meeting, which is due to kick off in Cancun, Mexico less than three weeks from now, is in peril of being canceled due to fears about Covid-19, aka Coronavirus.

CEO Göran Marby is to host a call with community leaders in a few hours to discuss the issue. ICANN has assembled a “crisis management team” to monitor the spread of the disease.

The fear isn’t that attendees could pick up the virus from Mexican locals — there’s not a single confirmed case in Mexico yet — but rather that an already-infected person might show up and transmit the disease to others, who might then take it back home with them.

Or — even worse — ICANN is considering the possibility of “a ‘cruise ship’ scenario in which a suspected or confirmed case is identified during the meeting, necessitating the mass-quarantine of all attendees and locals”.

That’s a reference to the cruise ship currently anchored off Japan, where 3,400 people have been quarantined for the last couple of weeks.

Imagine that. Trapped at an ICANN meeting for weeks. The boredom might kill more people than the virus.

Given that the vast majority of Covid-19 cases so far — over 70,000 — have been in China, ICANN is also worried about Chinese attendees getting racially profiled and hassled by others.

ICANN notes that the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona has been cancelled, and Cisco has cancelled a conference that had been slated to go ahead in Australia around the same time.

Could ICANN follow suit? It wouldn’t be the first time ICANN has changed is meeting plans due to a virus outbreak. Could ICANN 67 be the first remote-only ICANN meeting? It certainly seems like a possibility.

Verisign shits on domainers, again

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that Verisign makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year from .com domain investors, and yet it’s been developing a habit in recent years of shitting on them whenever it serves its purpose.

The company’s submission to ICANN’s just-closed public comment period on the proposed new .com contract, which re-enables Verisign’s ability to increase its prices, is the latest such example.

In the letter, which is unsigned, Verisign accuses the Internet Commerce Association, as well as registrars Namecheap and Dynadot, of conducting a “deceptive” campaign to persuade .com registrants to submit comments opposing the deal.

It notes that ICA represents “speculators” — it never uses the term “investors” — as if this was some kind of closely guarded secret, and describes the practice of domaining in a way that implies that the practice is somehow “illegitimate”, like this:

More than any other group engaged in the ICANN multistakeholder process, these speculators are highly sensitive to even the smallest wholesale price changes because of the enormous portfolios of .com domain names they control.

Speculators sometimes sell these domain name registrations to other speculators, but often they pass these costs along when they sell the domain names to legitimate internet users who wish to use .com domain names to build websites. We believe this resale activity adds little value to the DNS.

It’s not wrong, but good grief! The chutzpah on this company is sometimes jaw-dropping.

It’s like a car manufacturer complaining that its billion-dollar range of off-road SUVs are mostly being used by obese city dwellers for the school run. Just take the billion dollars and stop complaining about your biggest customers!

It’s not the first time Verisign has rolled out this line of attack. Back in 2018, when price caps were being negotiated with the US government, it posted an article on CircleID accusing domainers of “exploit[ing] consumers” and “scalping”.

Verisign’s able to get away with this kind of attitude, of course, because most domainers have an almost erotically slavish devotion to .com. The company could spend all day every day emailing them disgustingly personalized “yo momma” jokes and they wouldn’t stop buying up its product by the millions.

The two sides are trapped in an emotionally abusive relationship but they can’t break up because they’re both making so much goddamn money out of it. They’re like the Clintons of the domain world, in other words.

Anyway, the gist of the company’s comment to ICANN is basically “Ignore the 9,000 other comments you’ve received, the commenters were suckered into writing them by lying registrars”.

Read it here (pdf).

As a matter of disclosure, Verisign cites the DI piece last week about covid-19.com as an example of why domainers suck. That wasn’t the intent of the article, but there you go.

9,000 people tell ICANN they don’t want .com price increases. Here’s what some of them said

Kevin Murphy, February 17, 2020, Domain Registries

The public have spoken: they don’t want Verisign to get the right to raise .com prices again.

ICANN’s public comment period on the amended .com contract closed on Friday, with just shy of 9,000 comments which appear to be overwhelmingly against price-raising powers.

Comments

Almost 2,000 of the comments have the same subject line, “Proposed Amendment 3 to the .COM Registry Agreement”, suggesting they were generated by the Internet Commerce Association’s semi-automated outrage tool.

It’s a lot, but it’s dwarfed by seemingly non-ICA submissions, which will make the opposition to the deal harder to ignore than with last year’s .org deal, where many of the 3,000 comments were written off as “akin to spam”.

.com’s wholesale fee has been frozen at $7.85 per year since 2012, but Verisign managed to persuade the Trump administration in 2018 to allow it to return to the old policy of being able to raise prices by 7% in four out of the contract’s six years.

After a year’s negotiation, ICANN agreed to incorporate that change into its Registry Agreement with Verisign. Some commentators, including the Registrars Stakeholder Group, are now saying that ICANN should put contracts out to comment BEFORE they are negotiated.

The RrSG said of price increases:

The RrSG is concerned that the proposed price increases are without sufficient justification or an analysis of its potentially substantial impact on the DNS. ICANN has not explained how increase domain name prices are in the public interest or how this furthers the security and stability of the DNS. The price increases appear only to benefit one company, which has the right to operate .com in perpetuity (and without a competitive bidding process). This is inconsistent with ICANN’s bottom-up multi-stakeholder model.

It’s also understandably pissed off that Verisign is to get the right to own its own registrar for the first time, which could shake up the retail domain market.

While the proposed contract does not allow the hypothetical Verisign registrar to sell .com domains, the registrars think they’ve spotted a loophole:

nothing in the amendment prevents Verisign from reselling .COM domains via another registrar. In theory, Verisign could resell .COM domain names at or below cost and still profit from the wholesale .COM price

Some registrars submitted separate comments that echoed the RrSG collective view.

GoDaddy commented that there should be an economic study on the potential impact of higher pricing on competition before any increases are allowed to go into effect, adding:

GoDaddy believes that ICANN has agreed to a framework for wholesale price increases in .COM that will negatively impact current and future registrants of .COM domain names, as well as the overall domain name industry, which is disproportionately dependent and impacted by changes in .COM pricing. We are further concerned that there is no effective competition to assist in establishing what is a reasonable price for .COM.

Namecheap, which has also been vocal in fighting .org price increases, noted that .com prices could go up by as much as 70% over the next decade, due to the compound impact of annual 7% rises, adding:

The .com registry is well-established, so due to gained efficiencies, the cost of .com domain names should remain static or go down. It is not clear how much registrars will pass these price increases along to consumers, but it is likely that most of this increase will be paid for by domain name registrants.

Drop-catch specialist TurnCommerce/NameBright called for .com to be put out for competitive bidding:

There is simply no legitimate argument that competition for registry contracts—especially the largest registry contract—is bad for the domain name system or for consumers. Without the prospect of competitive pressure, Verisign has no incentive to be efficient, innovative, and effective. In the time that Verisign has operated the registry, prices have increased, we believe innovation has stalled, while Verisign’s operating costs have apparently declined.

As far as I can tell, the Registries Stakeholder Group, of which Verisign is a member, did not submit a comment. But some other constituencies did.

The Business Constituency generally supports ICANN’s somewhat hands-off approach to price regulation, but it did complain that there should have been a public consultation before the bilateral contract talks began a year ago. It wrote:

The BC has no practical objection to price increases that average just 4.5% per year for businesses who register .COM domains. Some BC members are concerned that Verisign has not provided justification for increasing .COM prices, though we are not aware of any requirement for gTLD operators to provide such justification. And while some BC members would prefer that ICANN seek competitive bids to operate existing registries, the BC has generally supported presumptive renewal performance incentives in registry agreements.

If you’re picking up hints of internal BC dissent in that comment, it’s almost certainly because BC member Zak Muscovitch is also general counsel of the ICA and was one of several contributors to its drafting.

The only other formal GNSO stakeholder group to submit a comment appears to be the Intellectual Property Constituency, but it took no position on pricing.

The At-Large Advisory Committee, which according to its web site “acts on the interests of Internet users”, sent a borderline humorous “Valentine” to the ICANN board that does not mention pricing but does congratulate ICANN on securing a $20 million Verisign bung, which is earmarked for DNS security work.

Here’s a sample of 10 public comments I clicked on randomly:

I’m writing to express disappointment and concern regarding the recent ICANN changes made to their contract with Verisign. These changes potentially create a lot of harm and unnecessary expense to customers for years to come. Please take customers into consideration before going forward with this.

Please don’t increase .com prices. As a small business owner we feel every price increase in our family business. We want to be able to keep the domain name that we have spent years building as our small business home on the web.

I’m here to tell you to stop this proposed price increase. You are being greedy. 40% price hikes with no caps in sight are ridiculous, stop it. I’m tired of getting ripped off by big secretive corporations and sleazy government agencies, and now this includes YOU!. We aren’t going to just put up with it, I, and a lot of others are here to fight! We demand to know
what you are doing with the money you propose to reap from us, aside from lining your pockets! Proveme wrong, give the internet community the clarity it deserves, and now demands!

This is a disgrace and not right.

I disagree with the changes that this amendment (3) will make to the domain registry system. I believe that this increase of fees will stifle innovation and takes the web further towards privatization and big money.

I know that I would not have taken as many opportunities or risks if prices were significantly higher and domains were a larger cost of business.

I urge you to reconsider these changes and reject this amendment.

I am writing in opposition to the proposed Verisign deal with respect to .com domains. I believe the current arrangement should be kept and strict price controls from ICANN should be preserved for .com domains. Verisign has no business exerting control or influence over ICANN, and the deal as proposed will be bad for consumers and anyone who holds a .com domain.

Please do not proceed with the proposed changes.

Please stop trying to fuck up the internet. It has been excessively adapted to suit capitalism. I think many more than just me have had enough. Stop being a shady ass business.

I do not agree with the extraordinary increase in prices for .com domains that appears to be a direct response to a bribe paid by Verisign company to the board of ICANN.

We live in perilous times, where democracy is threatened in every side by the resurgence of corruption, cronyism, and the far right.

You appear to be allowing the backbone of the internet become corrupted by greed, which would horrify the founding fathers of this essential technology.

Show some integrity and don’t give in to the basest of your natures.

I am a registrant of more .com domain names. I am against the proposed price increase to .COM domains. Verisign is merely your manager of the .COM Registry – it has no business dictating the price. ICANN is supposed to govern the domain name system in the public interest.

Thanks first for your hard work.

Please keep prices as they are and avoid this change that could have dire consequences for the entire internet as other less democratic countries will start soon offering alternative domains to .com. Furthermore, any increase will cause difficulties for us who are part of the third world.

If you’ve got more time on your hands than I have, you can peruse all 9,000 comments at your leisure over here. If you find anything good, please do drop a link in the comments.

Some poor bastard at ICANN now has the job of going through and summarizing all of them into ICANN’s official comment report, which has a March 6 deadline.

ICA will help you support .com price increases (but doesn’t want you to)

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The Internet Commerce Association has released a new version of its semi-automated commenting tool, making it a bit easier for domainers and others to complain to ICANN about the proposed .com price increases.

Surprisingly, the tool will also help you file a comment in support of Verisign’s 7%-a-year price-raising powers, though obviously ICA would prefer you do not.

The tool is based on the one ICA launched last year when Public Interest Registry was due to get its .org price caps lifted by ICANN, but ICA general counsel Zak Muscovitch says that it’s been refined following feedback.

It allows users to identify what kind of registrant they are (domainer, end user, or just concerned netizen) and select from several options to create pre-written comments that reflect their own views. They can also enter their own free text before hitting submit.

One of the options is “I support the proposed price increase which allows for a 31% price increase through 2024”, but I can’t imagine anyone apart from Verisign staff and shareholders checking that particular box.

The .org version of the tool caused a bit of a stir last year after ICANN’s Ombudsman compared submissions made through it to “spam”. He caught some flak for that.

Muscovitch tells DI that it’s not just domainers using the service. Some registrars are directly contacting their customers to encourage them to submit comments, he said, so the views of “the public at large” are being reflected.

At the time of publication about 350 comments have been submitted, more than half of which appear to have originated via the ICA tool.

The public comment period closes February 14.

If you don’t fancy using the ICA tool, submitting a comment directly to ICANN doesn’t appear to be particularly difficult. You simply go here, click the “Submit Comment” button, and ICANN will open up your mail client’s compose window with the appropriate address pre-populated.

Perhaps predictably, I remain skeptical that this kind of thing will have any impact on ICANN’s decision to approve a contract it spent a year negotiating.

But it can’t hurt, right? After all, the reason Verisign only gets to raise prices in four out of six years is because so many people complained about the much more expansive proposed powers back in 2006, and ICANN is still reeling from the outrage over .org…

Ethos’ .org pricing promise may be misleading

Kevin Murphy, February 10, 2020, Domain Registries

The more Ethos Capital protests that its plans for .org pricing are not as bad as its critics think, the less I believe it.

Since November, the would-be buyer of Public Interest Registry has being publicly committing to maintain what it calls PIR’s “historic practices” related to pricing.

PIR, under its last ICANN contract, was allowed to raise prices by up to 10% per year, but it did not always exercise that right. In fact, the wholesale price of .org has been fixed at $9.93 since August 2016.

Ethos has described its price increase plans in a very specific, consistent way. In November it said:

Our plan is to live within the spirit of historic practice when it comes to pricing, which means, potentially, annual price increases of up to 10 percent on average — which today would equate to approximately $1 per year.

Last month, chief purpose officer Nora Abusitta-Ouri wrote:

We committed to limiting any potential increase in the price of a .ORG domain registration to no more than 10% per year on average

Last week, she wrote:

Ethos has committed to limiting any potential increase in the price of a .ORG domain registration to no more than 10% per year on average

Over the weekend, she added:

we are not saying that we will raise prices 10% every year — our commitment is that any price increase would not exceed 10% per year on average, if at all.

Clearly, the talking point has been copy-pasted a few times, and it always includes the words “10% per year on average”.

On average.

What does that mean? What are we averaging out here? It can’t be across the .org customer base, as registries aren’t allowed to vary pricing by registrant, so we must be talking about time. PIR has a 10-year contract with ICANN, so we must be talking about prices going up no more than 10% per year “on average” over the next decade.

If PIR, under Ethos’ stewardship, decides to raise prices by exactly 10% every year starting in 2020, the wholesale cost of a .org domain will be $25.76 by 2029, a 159% increase on today’s rate.

Assuming for the sake of this thought experiment that .org stays flat at 10 million registrations (it’s actually a little more today, but it’s declining), Ethos would be looking at a $258 million-a-year business by 2029, up from today’s $99 million.

Over the course of the 10-year contract, .org would be worth a cumulative $1.74 billion in reg revenue, up from the $993 million it would see without price increases.

But Ethos is only promising that price increases will be no more than 10% per year on average, remember, and it’s even hinted that there could be some years with no increases at all.

I noted in November that this commitment could see Ethos raise prices in excess of 10% early on, then freeze them so the increase averages back down to 10% over time.

It would of course make the most sense to front-load the price increases, to maximize the return.

At one extreme, Ethos could raise the price to $25.76 a year immediately, then lock the price down until 2029. That would make .org a $258 million-a-year business overnight, and making the cumulative 10-year revenue around the $2.58 billion mark.

Or, it could raise prices by 20% in alternate years, adding up to $1.77 billion in total top-line and a price to registrants of $24.71 by 2028.

There’s an infinity of variations on these strategies, and Ethos’ modeling is certainly more complex than the envelope upon which I just jotted these simplified figures down, but it’s pretty clear that while the company may well stick to the letter of its promises, it gets its best returns if it raises prices hard and early.

The more I read “on average” repeated in Ethos’ literature, the more convinced I become that this is exactly what it has in mind.

Hacking claims resurface as .hotel losers force ICANN to lawyer up again

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2020, Domain Policy

The fight over .hotel has been escalated, with four unsuccessful applicants for the gTLD whacking ICANN with a second Independent Review Process appeal.

The complaint resurrects old claims that a former lead on the successful application, now belonging to Afilias, stole trade secrets from competing applicants via a glitched ICANN web site.

It also revives allegations that ICANN improperly colluded with the consultant hired to carry out reviews of “community” applications and then whitewashed an “independent” investigation into the same.

The four companies filing the complaint are new gTLD portfolio applicants MMX (Minds + Machines), Radix, Fegistry, and Domain Venture Partners (what we used to call Famous Four).

The IRP was filed November 18 and published by ICANN December 16, but I did not spot it until more recently. Sorry.

There’s a lot of back-story to the complaint, and it’s been a few years since I got into any depth on this topic, so I’m going to get into a loooong, repetitive, soporific, borderline unreadable recap here.

This post could quite easily be subtitled “How ICANN takes a decade to decide a gTLD’s fate”.

There were seven applicants for .hotel back in 2012, but only one of them purported to represent the “hotel community”. That applicant, HOTEL Top Level Domain, was mostly owned by Afilias.

HTLD had managed to get letters of support from a large number of hotel chains and trade groups, to create a semblance of a community that could help it win a Community Priority Evaluation, enabling it to skip to the finish line and avoid a potentially costly auction against its rival applicants.

CPEs were carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, an independent ICANN contractor.

Surprisingly to some (including yours truly), back in 2014 it actually managed to win its CPE, scoring 15 out of the 16 available points, surpassing the 14-point winning threshold and consigning its competing bidders’ applications to the scrap heap.

There would be no auction, and no redistribution of wealth between applicants that customarily follows a new gTLD auction.

Naturally, the remaining applicants were not happy about this, and started to fight back.

The first port of call was a Request for Reconsideration, which all six losers filed jointly in June 2014. It accused the EIU of failing to follow proper procedure when it evaluated the HTLD community application.

That RfR was rejected by ICANN, so a request for information under ICANN’s Documentary Information Disclosure Policy followed. The losing applicants reckoned the EIU evaluator had screwed up, perhaps due to poor training, and they wanted to see all the communications between ICANN and the EIU panel.

The DIDP was also rejected by ICANN on commercial confidentiality grounds, so the group of six filed another RfR, asking for the DIDP to be reconsidered.

Guess what? That got rejected too.

So the applicants then filed an IRP case, known as Despegar v ICANN, in March 2015. Despegar is one of the .hotel applicants, and the only one that directly plays in the hotel reservation space already.

The IRP claimed that ICANN shirked its duties by failing to properly oversee and verify the work of the EIU, failing to ensure the CPE criteria were being consistently applied between contention sets, and failing in its transparency obligations by failing to hand over information related to the CPE process.

While this IRP was in its very early stages, it emerged that one of HTLD’s principals and owners, Dirk Krischenowski, had accessed confidential information about the other applicants via an ICANN web site.

ICANN had misconfigured its applicant portal in such a way that any user could very access any attachment on any application belonging to any applicant. This meant sensitive corporate information, such as worst-case-scenario financial planning, was easily viewable via a simple search for over a year.

Krischenowski appears to have been the only person to have noticed this glitch and used it in earnest. ICANN told applicants in May 2015 that he had carried out 60 searches and accessed 200 records using the glitch.

Krischenowski has always denied any wrongdoing and told DI in 2016 that he had always “relied on the proper functioning of ICANN’s technical infrastructure while working with ICANN’s CSC portal.”

The applicants filed another DIDP, but no additional information about the data glitch was forthcoming.

When the first IRP concluded, in February 2016, ICANN prevailed, but the three-person IRP panel expressed concern that neither the EIU nor ICANN had any process in place to ensure that community evaluations carried out by different evaluators were consistently applying the CPE rules.

The IRP panel also expressed concern about the “very serious issues” raised by the ICANN portal glitch and Krischenowski’s data access.

But the loss of the IRP did not stop the six losing applicants from ploughing on. Their lawyer wrote to ICANN in March 2016 to denounce Krischenowski’s actions as “criminal acts” amounting to “HTLD stealing trade secrets of competing applicants”, and as such HTLD’s application for .hotel should be thrown out.

Again, to the best of my knowledge, Krischenowski has never been charged with, let alone convicted of, any criminal act.

Afilias wrote to ICANN not many weeks later, April 2016, to say that it had bought out Krischenowski’s 48.8% stake in HTLD and that he was no longer involved in the company or its .hotel application.

And ICANN’s board of directors decided in August 2016 that Krischenowski may well have accessed documents he was not supposed to, but that it would have happened after the .hotel CPE had been concluded, so there was no real advantage to HTLD.

A second, parallel battle against ICANN by an unrelated new gTLD applicant had been unfolding over the same period.

A company called Dot Registry had failed in its CPE efforts for the strings .llc, .llp and .inc, and in 2014 had filed its own IRP against ICANN, claiming that the EIU had “bungled” the community evaluations, applying “inconsistent” scoring criteria and “harassing” its supporters.

In July 2016, almost two years later, the IRP panel in that case ruled that Dot Registry had prevailed, and launched a withering attack on the transparency and fairness of the ICANN process.

The panel found that, far from being independent, the EIU had actually incorporated notes from ICANN staff into its CPE evaluations during drafting.

It was as a result of this IRP decision, and the ICANN board’s decision that Krischenowski’s actions could not have benefited HTLD, that the losing .hotel applicants filed yet another RfR.

This one lasted two and a half years before being resolved, because in the meantime ICANN launched a review of the CPE process.

It hired a company called FTI Consulting to dig through EIU and ICANN documentation, including thousands of emails that passed between the two, to see if there was any evidence of impropriety. It covered .hotel, .music, .gay and other gTLD contention sets, all of which were put on hold while FTI did its work.

FTI eventually concluded, at the end of 2017, that there was “no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process”, which affected applicants promptly dismissed as a “whitewash”.

They began lobbying for more information, unsuccessfully, and hit ICANN with yet another RfR in April 2018. Guess what? That one was rejected too.

The .hotel applicants then entered into a Cooperative Engagement Process — basically pre-IRP talks — from October 2018 to November 2019, before this latest IRP was filed.

It’s tempting to characterize it as a bit of a fishing expedition, albeit not a baseless one — any allegations of ICANN’s wrongdoing pertaining the .hotel CPE are dwarfed by the applicants’ outraged claims that ICANN appears to be covering up both its interactions with the EIU and its probe of the Krischenowski incident, partly out of embarrassment.

The claimants want ICANN to be forced to hand over documentation refused them on previous occasions, relating to: “ICANN subversion of the .HOTEL CPE and first IRP (Despegar), ICANN subversion of FTI’s CPE Process Review, ICANN subversion of investigation into HTLD theft of trade secrets, and ICANN allowing a domain registry conglomerate to takeover the ‘community-based’ applicant HTLD.”

“The falsely ‘independent’ CPE processes were in fact subverted by ICANN in violation of Bylaws, HTLD stole trade secrets from at least one competing applicant, and Afilias is not a representative of the purported community,” the IRP states.

“HTLD’s application should be denied, or at least its purported Community Priority relinquished, as a consequence not only for HTLD’s spying on its competitors’ secret information, but also because HTLD is no longer the same company that applied for the .HOTEL TLD. It is now just a registry conglomerate with no ties to the purported, contrived ‘Community’ that it claims entitled to serve,” it goes on.

ICANN is yet to file its response to the complaint.

Whether the IRP will be successful is anyone’s guess, but what’s beyond doubt is that if it runs its course it’s going to add at least a year, probably closer to two, to the delay that .hotel has been languishing under since the applications were filed in 2012.

Potentially lengthening the duration of the case is the claimants’ demand that ICANN “appoint and train” a “Standing Panel” of at least seven IRP panelists from which each three-person IRP panel would be selected.

The standing panel is something that’s been talked about in ICANN’s bylaws for at least six or seven years, but ICANN has never quite got around to creating it.

ICANN pinged the community for comments on how it should go about creating this panel last year, but doesn’t seemed to have provided a progress report for the last nine months.

The .hotel applicants do not appear to be in any hurry to get this issue resolved. The goal is clearly to force the contention set to auction, which presumably could happen at Afilias’ unilateral whim. Time-to-market is only a relevant consideration for the winner.

With .hotel, and Afilias’ lawsuit attempting to block the .web sale to Verisign, the last round of new gTLD program, it seems, is going to take at least a decade from beginning to end.

ICANN refuses to release more info on .org deal

Kevin Murphy, February 7, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has denied a request from one of its overseers to release more information about the acquisition of .org manager Public Interest Registry.

General counsel John Jeffrey has written to the Address Supporting Organization to say that its request for records is over-broad and exceeds the ASO’s authority.

The ASO had asked for:

any ICANN records which pertain to or provide relevant insight to the process by which ICANN will consider (and potentially approve) the assignment of the .org Registry Agreement, including the process by which input from the affected community will be obtained prior to ICANN’s consideration and potential approval of the assignment.

The ASO is one of the five Decisional Participants that make up the Empowered Community — the body that has technically overseen ICANN since formal ties with the US government were severed a few years ago.

If these terms are unfamiliar, I did a deep-dive on its request a month ago.

One of its powers is to make an Inspection Request, demanding ICANN hand over documentation, but Jeffrey states that such requests are limited to ICANN’s financials and the minutes of its board of directors’ meetings.

There’s no information related to the .org acquisition in its books or minutes, so there’s nothing to hand over, Jeffrey says. Anything else the ASO wants, it’s not allowed to have under the bylaws, the letter (pdf) says.

Despite the ASO’s role in the Empowered Community, it appears that its powers to request information are in many ways inferior to the standard Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, which is open to all.

Jeffrey invited the ASO to narrow its request and re-file it.