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Was panel wrong to put .africa on ice or does ICANN have an accountability problem?

Kevin Murphy, May 13, 2014, Domain Policy

Did an Independent Review Process panel get it wrong when it accused ICANN of failing to implement proper accountability mechanisms, or did it actually highlight a more serious problem?

As we reported yesterday, an IRP panel has ordered ICANN to not delegate ZA Central Registry’s .africa gTLD until it’s heard an appeal by failed rival bidder DotConnectAfrica.

IRP is ICANN’s last avenue of appeal for organizations that believe they’ve been wronged by ICANN decisions. Due to the duration of the process and the need for legal representation, it’s extremely expensive.

The IRP panel in the .africa case based its decision largely on the fact that ICANN has failed to create a “standing panel” of would-be IRP panelists, something the panel said would have sped up the process.

A “standing panel” is supposed to be six to nine panelists-in-waiting — all respected jurists — from which three-person IRP panels could be selected when needed in future.

DCA would not have needed to file for an emergency injunction against .africa’s delegation had this standing panel been created, the panel said.

According to the IRP panel, the creation of a standing panel has been “required” by the ICANN bylaws since April 2013, and ICANN has “failed” to follow its own rules by not creating one. It wrote:

the Panel is of the view that this Independent Review Process could have been heard and finally decided without the need for interim relief, but for ICANN’s failure to follow its own Bylaws… which require the creation of a standing panel

But ICANN disagrees, getting in touch with us today to point out that the panel only partially quoted the ICANN bylaws.

This is the bit of the bylaws the panel quoted:

There shall be an omnibus standing panel of between six and nine members with a variety of expertise, including jurisprudence, judicial experience, alternative dispute resolution and knowledge of ICANN’s mission and work from which each specific IRP Panel shall be selected.

There seems to me to be little ambiguity in that paragraph; ICANN “shall” create a standing panel.

But ICANN reminds us that the IRP panel ignored a second bit of this paragraph, which states:

In the event that an omnibus standing panel: (i) is not in place when an IRP Panel must be convened for a given proceeding, the IRP proceeding will be considered by a one- or three-member panel comprised in accordance with the rules of the IRP Provider; or (ii) is in place but does not have the requisite diversity of skill and experience needed for a particular proceeding, the IRP Provider shall identify one or more panelists, as required, from outside the omnibus standing panel to augment the panel members for that proceeding.

Basically, the bit of the bylaws stating that ICANN “shall” create a standing panel is almost immediately negated by a bit that explains what is supposed to happen if ICANN does not create a standing panel.

It’s confusing.

Is ICANN “required” (the panel’s word) to create this standing panel or not? ICANN seems to think not, but the panel thinks otherwise.

I have no opinion because, luckily, I’m not a lawyer.

But I did a bit of digging into the public record to figure out why the bylaws are so confusing on this issue and what I found is slightly worrying if you’re concerned about ICANN accountability.

The bylaws paragraph in question was added in April 2013, but it has its roots in the findings of the first Accountability and Transparency Review Team, which is the key way ICANN’s accountability is reviewed under the 2009 Affirmation of Commitments with the US government.

The ATRT said in 2010 (pdf) that ICANN should “seek input from a committee of independent experts on the restructuring of the three review mechanisms” including the IRP.

ICANN did this, convening a three-person Accountability Structures Expert Panel, made up of widely respected corporate/legal brains Mervyn King, Graham McDonald and Richard Moran

It was this ASEP that came up with the idea for a standing panel, which it said would speed up IRP decisions and reduce costs.

Members of the standing panel would be paid an annual retainer even when not working on an IRP, but it would be cheaper because IRP complainants and ICANN wouldn’t have to repeatedly explain to a new panel of doddery old ex-judges what ICANN is and does.

The ASEP, in its report (pdf) did not specify what should happen if ICANN decided not to implement its recommendation on the standing panel.

I can’t know for sure, but from the public record it seems that the confusing second part of the bylaws amendment was the creation of the ICANN board, possibly based on a single comment from gTLD registries.

The provision about a standing panel was formally added to the bylaws with an April 2013 resolution of ICANN’s board of directors, which followed a December 2012 resolution that approved the change in principle.

The second part of the amendment, the bit about what happens if ICANN does not institute a standing panel, was added at some point between those two resolutions.

The April resolution sheds a little light on the reason for the addition, saying (with my added emphasis):

Whereas, as contemplated within the [December 2012] Board resolution, and as reflected in public comment, further minor revisions are needed to the Bylaws to provide flexibility in the composition of a standing panel for the Independent Review process (IRP).

Resolved (2013.04.11.06), the Bylaws revisions to Article IV, Section 2 (Reconsideration) and Article IV, Section 3 (Independent Review) as approved by the Board and subject to a minor amendment to address public comments regarding the composition of a standing panel for the IRP, shall be effective on 11 April 2013.

The notes to the resolution further explain (again with my emphasis):

The Bylaws as further revised also address a potential area of concern raised by the community during the public comments on this issue, regarding the ability for ICANN to maintain a standing panel for the Independent Review proceedings. If a standing panel cannot be comprised, or cannot remain comprised, the Bylaws now allow for Independent Review proceedings to go forward with individually selected panelists.

The “minor amendment” referred to in the resolution seems to have enabled ICANN to basically ignore the ASEP recommendations, which (remember) stem from the ATRT review, for the last 12 months.

The April 2013 resolution was on the consent agenda for the meeting, so there was no minuted discussion by the board, but it seems pretty clear that “public comments” are responsible for the second part of the bylaws amendment.

But whose public comments?

When the ASEP report was open for comment, only two people responded — the Registries Stakeholder Group and former ICANN director Alejandro Pisanty, apparently commenting in a personal capacity.

On the subject of the proposed standing panel, the RySG said it wasn’t happy:

We also are concerned with the concept of standing panels for the IRP. A key component of the IRP is that the review is “independent.” To keep this independence, we believe that service on an IRP tribunal should be open to all eligible panelists, not just those with previous experience with or knowledge of ICANN. Determining whether an organization has complied with its bylaws or articles of incorporation should not require historic knowledge of the organization itself, and we believe that any jurist generally qualified by the IRP provider should be more than capable of acting as a panelist for an IRP.

It wasn’t the RySG’s main concern, and it wasn’t given much space in its comment.

Pisanty, commenting during the comment-reply period, seemed to disagree with the RySG, saying that the ongoing institutional knowledge of a standing panel could be a boon to the IRP.

When the ASEP report was discussed at a lightly attended early-morning session of the ICANN Toronto meeting in October 2012, the only person to comment on the standing panel was Neustar lawyer Becky Burr, and she liked the idea (transcript).

It’s not what you’d call a groundswell of opposition to the standing panel idea. There were few opinions, those opinions were split, and if anything the balance of commentary favors the notion.

In any event, when ICANN compiled its usual compilation report on the public comments (pdf) its legal staffer said:

After review of the comments, no changes to the ASEP recommendations are recommended, and the report will be forwarded to the Board for consideration and action, along with the proposed Bylaws amendments.

ICANN staff, it seems, didn’t think the RySG’s (lone?) opposition to the standing panel concept was worth messing with the ASEP’s recommendations.

And yet the ICANN board added the text about what happens in the event of a standing panel not existing anyway.

I could be wrong, but it does look a little bit like the ICANN board giving itself a carte blanch to ignore the recommendations of the ASEP, and therefore, indirectly, the ATRT.

ICANN may well have a point about the .africa IRP panel inappropriately ignoring some key sentences in the ICANN bylaws, but I can’t help but wonder how those sentences got there in the first place.

KnujOn scores a win as BizCN gets first breach notice

The Chinese registrar BizCN has received its first breach notice from ICANN’s compliance department, following a sustained campaign by anti-abuse activist KnujOn.

The notice concerns Whois accuracy, specifically for the domain names rapetube.org and onlinepharmacy4.org, and a bunch of other peripheral breaches of the Registrar Accreditation Agreement.

The “porn” site rapetube.org was the subject of a Washington Post article last December, in which KnujOn’s Garth Bruen said he feared the site might contain footage of actual crimes.

Bruen has been chasing BizCN about Whois inaccuracy, and specifically the rapetube.org domain, since 2011.

He said in a September 2013 CircleID post that he’s filed Whois inaccuracy complaints about the domain with ICANN “multiple times”.

His campaign against ICANN Compliance led to an Ombudsman complaint (which was rejected) last year.

Now Compliance appears to be taking the case more seriously. ICANN, according to the breach notice, has been on BizCN’s case about rapetube.org’s Whois since March 24 this year.

At that time, the name was registered to a Vietnamese name with a French address and phone number and a contact email address at privacy-protect.cn.

According to Bruen’s interview with the Post, this email address bounced and nobody answered the phone number. The privacy-protect.cn domain does not appear to currently resolve.

ICANN evidently has some unspecified “information” that shows the email “does not appear to be a valid functioning email address”.

But BizCN told ICANN April 2 that it had verified the registrant’s contact information with the registrant, and provided ICANN with correspondence it said demonstrated that.

ICANN says the correspondence it provided actually predated KnujOn’s latest complaint by six months.

In addition, when BizCN forwarded a scanned copy of the registrant’s ID card, ICANN suspected it to be a fake. The notice says:

Registrar provided copies of correspondence between the reseller and registrant. The response included the same email address that was still invalid according to information available to ICANN, and included a copy of a government identification card to confirm the registrant’s address. According to information available to ICANN, the identification card did not conform to any current or previous form of government identification for that jurisdiction.

Despite repeated follow-up calls, ICANN said it still has not received an adequate response from BizCN, so its accreditation is now in jeopardy.

BizCN has something like 450,000 gTLD names under management and is in the top 50 registrars by volume.

As for rapetube.org, it’s still registered with BizCN, but its Whois changed to a Russian company “Privat Line LLP”, at privatlinellp.me, on or about April 17.

That change is not going to help BizCN, however, which is being asked to provide evidence that it took “reasonable steps to investigate and reasonable steps to correct the Whois inaccuracy claims”.

It has until May 29 to sort out the breaches or face termination. Read the breach notice here.

GNSO says dot-brand rules “inconsistent” with policy

Kevin Murphy, May 13, 2014, Domain Policy

The ability of dot-brand gTLDs to limit how many registrars they work with is “inconsistent” with the GNSO’s longstanding policy on new gTLDs, ICANN’s GNSO Council has found.

At the end of March, ICANN approved a set of Registry Agreement opt-outs, such as the ability to avoid sunrise periods and approve just three hand-picked registrars, for dot-brands.

They’re designed to make life easy for single-registrant zones where the gTLD is also a famous, trademarked brand and it would be silly to enforce open access to all accredited registrars.

But the GNSO Council resolved last week that the registrar exception is inconsistent with the GNSO policy that first kicked off the new gTLD program in 2007, which called for non-discriminatory access.

It had been asked specifically by the ICANN board’s New gTLD Program Committee to comment on whether there was a conflict. The Council said:

the language of this recommendation of the final report of the GNSO does not stipulate any exceptions from the requirements to treat registrars in a non-discriminatory fashion and (ii) the GNSO new gTLDs Committee discussed potential exceptions at the time, but did not include them in its recommendations, which is why the lack of an exception cannot be seen as an unintended omission, but a deliberate policy statement

However, the Council also decided that it has no objection to ICANN going ahead with the so-called Specification 13 exceptions, saying it “does not object to the implementation of Specification 13 as a whole”.

No GNSO members bothered to object when Spec 13 was open to public comment.

While it’s certainly a pragmatic, reasonable decision by the GNSO, it does highlight a situation where ICANN seems to have overridden a hard-fought community consensus policy.

That’s likely why its resolution also warns the ICANN board that its decision “may not be taken as a precedent”. Which of course it now is, regardless.

.africa frozen by panel after ICANN screwup

Kevin Murphy, May 12, 2014, Domain Policy

ZA Central Registry’s bid for the .africa new gTLD has been put on ice by an arbitration panel which admonished ICANN for failing to follow its own bylaws.

An Independent Review Panel ruled yesterday that ICANN should not carry on processing .africa until it has ruled on a complaint filed by failed .africa applicant DotConnectAfrica.

If .africa were to be delegated, which could have happened as early as Thursday — ZACR and ICANN have already signed a Registry Agreement — it would render the IRP’s decision moot, the panel found.

This ruling doesn’t mean ICANN has lost the case, just that it’s temporarily enjoined from delegating .africa until the final decision has been made by the IRP panel.

However, the panel had some stern words for ICANN, saying that the matter could have been settled months ago had ICANN only followed its own bylaws.

In the Panel’s unanimous view, it would be unfair and unjust to deny DCA Trust’s request for interim relief when the need for such a relief by DCA Trust arises out of ICANN’s failure to follow its own bylaws.

ICANN’s board of directors passed a resolution in April 2013 calling for the creation of a “standing committee” of nine potential IRP panelists, from which each three-person IRP panel could be drawn.

But, over a year later, it has not created this committee, the current IRP panel said. This led to the delay that forced DCA to request the emergency injunction.

ICANN’s basically been told by one of its own accountability mechanisms that that accountability mechanism is inadequate, at a time when its accountability mechanisms are under the world’s spotlight.

Just last week, the organization launched an accountability review that it said it “interdependent and interrelated” to the process of transitioning IANA away from US government stewardship.

Yeah, it’s embarrassing for ICANN. Doubly so because it’s been beaten by a company so incompetent it accidentally applied for the wrong gTLD.

For ZACR, the panel reckons the delay in getting .africa delegated will likely last “a few months”.

Congress may block funding for IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2014, Domain Policy

A US House of Representatives committee has voted to de-fund the IANA transition process.

On Thursday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, which includes the $36.7 million budget for the NTIA’s running costs.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is the part of the Department of Commerce responsible for oversight of the IANA functions, which it plans to relinquish.

The committee noted its “concern” at this prospect, and said that no money would be made available to fund this process. Notes to the appropriations bill (pdf) include the following text:

The Committee is concerned by NTIA’s announcement of its intent to transition certain Internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. Any such transition represents a significant public policy change and should be preceded by an open and transparent process. In order for this issue to be considered more fully by the Congress, the recommendation for NTIA does not include any funds to carry out a transition of these functions. The Committee expects that NTIA will maintain the existing no-cost contract with ICANN throughout fiscal year 2015.

Other bills currently up for discussion in Congress would delay the IANA transition pending further review by the Government Accountability Office.

The appropriations bill has passed a committee vote, but it still has other legislative stages to pass through before it becomes law.