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ICANN win leaves door open for plural gTLD rethink

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has fought off an appeal by .webs gTLD applicant Vistaprint, in a case that considered the coexistence of singular and plural gTLDs.

While ICANN definitively won the Independent Review Process case, the IRP panel nevertheless invited its board of directors to consider whether Vistaprint should be given a chance to appeal a decision that ruled .webs too similar to .web.

Vistaprint runs a web site building service called Webs.com. It filed two applications for .webs — one “community” flavored, one vanilla — but then found itself on the losing end of a String Confusion Objection filed by rival Web.com, one of the many .web applicants.

It was one of the few instances where a SCO panel decided that a plural string was too confusingly similar to its singular for the two to coexist.

In many other cases, such as .auto(s), .fan(s) and .gift(s), the two strings have been allowed to be delegated.

Not wanting to have to fight for .webs at auction against eight .web applicants — which would likely cost eight figures to win — Vistaprint filed a Request for Reconsideration (which failed), followed by an last-ditch IRP complaint.

But its three-person IRP panel ruled on Friday (pdf) that ICANN did not violate its bylaws by accepting the SCO decision and subsequently rejecting the RfR.

However, the panel handed Vistaprint a silver lining that may eventually give the company what it wants. Even though ICANN won, Vistaprint may not necessarily have lost.

The panel wrote:

the Panel recommends that ICANN’s Board exercise its judgment on the question of whether an additional review mechanism is appropriate to re-evaluate the Third Expert’s determination in the Vistaprint SCO, in view of ICANN’s Bylaws concerning core values and non-discriminatory treatment, and based on the particular circumstances and developments noted in this Declaration, including (i) the Vistaprint SCO determination involving Vistaprint’s .WEBS applications, (ii) the Board’s (and NGPC’s) resolutions on singular and plural gTLDs, and (iii) the Board’s decisions to delegate numerous other singular/plural versions of the same gTLD strings.

In other words, ICANN has been invited to consider whether Vistaprint should be able to appeal, using a similar mechanism perhaps to that which was offered to other applicants that suffered from inconsistent, adverse SCO decisions.

At time when ICANN’s accountability is under international scrutiny, it’s highly likely that the board will give this recommendation some thought.

The IRP declaration does not reflect well on ICANN’s current level of accountability.

As usual, ICANN tried to wriggle out of accountability by attempting to castrate the panel from the outset, arguing again that IRP panels must be “deferential” to the board — that is, assume that its actions were correct by default — and that its declarations are “advisory” rather than “binding”.

And, as usual, the panel disagreed, saying previous IRP cases show this is now “settled” law. It said that it would evaluate the case “objectively and independently”, not deferentially.

But while it said its declaration was binding “in the sense that ICANN’s Board cannot overrule the Panel’s declaration” it agreed with ICANN that it only had the power to “recommend”, rather than order, remedies.

Acknowledging Vistaprint raised important public interest questions, the panel ordered ICANN to pay 40% of IRP costs.

The Vistaprint IRP was one of the things holding up the .web contention set, so Friday’s declaration moves the fabled gTLD one step closer to reality.

If the company gets the ability to appeal its SCO loss, it would add months to the .web runway. If it does not, it will have to remain in the .web contention set, which would head to auction.

Anger as ICANN’s member flops before board

Kevin Murphy, September 4, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors came to blows with its key accountability working group this week, over proposals that would give ICANN the community the right to sue ICANN the organization.

An extraordinary three-hour teleconference between the board and the Cross Community Working Group on Enhancing Accountability (CCWG) Wednesday night came across like some kind of weird, Orwellian, passive-aggressive piece of emotional domestic abuse.

The CCWG, a group of volunteers coming from all parts of the ICANN community, has created a set of proposals for improving ICANN’s accountability to the community as part of its transition process away from US government oversight.

The idea is to create sufficient accountability mechanisms so that if in future the entire ICANN board grows goatee beards and turns Eeevil, the community will still be able to hold them to their bylaws commitments.

The CCWG, following the advice of an independent law firm, decided that the best way to do this was to turn ICANN into a membership organization with a “Sole Member”.

This member would be a legal entity run by community members that would have the right under California law to sue ICANN if it ever failed to live up to its bylaws.

For example, if ICANN refused to implement the decisions of an Independent Review Panel, the member could seek to have the ruling enforced by a court.

This is just one of many proposals made by the CCWG currently open for public comment.

Highly unusually for a public comment period, the ICANN board is going to be a commenter in this case. While its comments have not been published yet, it has taken advice from its lawyers at Jones Day that may give an indication of how it is leaning.

Wednesday night’s call was designed to give the board the chance to bring its initial thinking to the CCWG.

Instead, it wound up being almost entirely about the proposed membership model and the board’s statements that while it supported the CCWG’s proposals 100% it also wanted them fundamentally rewritten.

The board wants the idea of a Sole Member model thrown out and replaced with a new arbitration process that would be legally enforceable in California courts.

So, instead of a legal-entity “member” suing ICANN, some as-yet unidentified community entity would take ICANN to arbitration. The decision of the arbitration panel could then be enforced by the courts if ICANN failed to abide by it.

When CCWG members asked who, in the absence of a legal entity, would take ICANN to arbitration and then sue it, the board had no answer. Instead, directors said the CCWG’s legal advisers should talk to Jones Day to hammer out the “technical” details.

Some members claimed that it would be “impossible” to give the community legal standing to sue ICANN without a membership model. Others said that the board’s 11th hour suggested rewrites would make it “impossible” to hit the deadline for a final proposal by the Dublin meeting next month.

At least a third of the 2-hour 47-minute call was wasted as the CCWG struggled to understand the doublespeak the board had brought into the discussion.

Directors continually insisted that they “completely supported” CCWG’s proposals on enforcement “without reservation”, while simultaneously saying the Sole Member model should be thrown out.

Half way through the call, CCWG co-chair Thomas Rickert reflected exasperation among members: “There is obviously difficulty to understand by many on this call how you fully support what we are doing while proposing something which appears like a complete rewrite.”

Shortly thereafter, Chehade responded:

Why don’t we just agree that we are agreeing with you that the community must be able to get enforcement in California courts, that we will ensure that they have the standing to do it without question. And if we are all in agreement that we are in agreement with each other let’s then let the technical people go solve this. If they call come back and tell us that frankly that advice was flawed, then let’s deal with it then in good faith. But that’s what we’re sharing with you.

Directors said that the proposed member model might have unintended consequences, and that the US government may not approve a proposal that overly complicates ICANN’s legal structure.

An hour later, the CCWG was still scratching its head, nerves were beginning to wear, and the tone was getting increasingly testy as the CCWG repeatedly asked the board to explain how it could express support and simultaneously propose an alternative solution.

“There is absolutely no new proposal,” Chehade said, eventually. “We are embracing your proposal and the objectives of the community. Please hear me on this. There is no new proposal.”

He said:

Take your work and break it down: board removal, standing reconsideration, enhancing – getting the IRP back on the track we set, you know, fundamental bylaw, binding arbitration or mechanisms of enforceability. All of the things you have come up with, we are accepting. So when your reaction to our two last hours is that we’re refusing to add any accountability, I don’t know how you come to that frankly…

you yourself in the proposal say that this proposal is not finished, it needs a lot of work. So what we’re saying to you is let’s take this proposal which is not finished and let’s figure out ways to make it real, and real in the next few weeks so we can move forward…

The only area where we are telling you we would like to propose a different mechanism to achieve the same goal is the enforceability.

The whole three hours reminded me of a nightmare-scenario interview where the interviewee has been media-trained up the wazoo and refuses to sway from a set of vaguely scripted talking points.

But which proposal is the right one for ICANN?

Beats me. What does seem quite clear to me is that the board and CCWG are at odds now, despite what ICANN says, and that the expected delivery of a final accountability proposal by Dublin is in serious doubt.

Following the call, ICANN chair Steve Crocker posted a blog post that sought to clarify the board’s position, characterizing it as agreement in principle but disagreement on implementation. He wrote:

We have suggestions on how these [CCWG proposals] could be operationalized. With regards to the mechanisms for community enforceability, where the current proposal still warrants much detail that may not be achievable we have a suggestion on how to deliver on it in a stable way, as increased enforceability must not open up questions of, for example, capture or diminishing of checks and balances.

The Wednesday meeting’s audio, transcript and other notes can all be found here.

African Union slams “dysfunctional” IRP as ICANN tries to fend off cover-up claims

Kevin Murphy, August 5, 2015, Domain Policy

The African Union Commission has criticized ICANN’s “dysfunctional accountability process” that has kept the proposed .africa gTLD in limbo for the last few years.

In a communique yesterday (pdf), the AUC also reiterated that .africa applicant ZA Central Registry has the support of both the AUC and its member states, and that governments used almost every avenue available to them to object to the rival DotConnectAfrica bid.

The letter reads:

The Africa region, African Internet stakeholders, the ZACR and AUC are the unfortunate victims of a dysfunctional accountability process and an independent review panel that did not delve more deeply to understand the new gTLD process, the role of governments in that process, and how the ICANN multistakeholder model functions in general.

A few weeks ago, an Independent Review Process panel controversially ruled that ICANN had treated DCA’s application unfairly, in violation of its bylaws, when it accepted Governmental Advisory Committee advice to reject it.

The panel said that ICANN should have at least asked the GAC for the rationale behind its advice, something that the new gTLD program’s rules did not require it to do.

One of the issues at the heart of the subsequent debate is whether ICANN inappropriately helped out ZACR’s bid by drafting an AUC letter of support and then tried to cover its actions up by inappropriately redacting information from the IRP ruling before publication.

On Friday, ICANN published a new version of the ruling that had these references restored, while retaining redactions related to the actions of Kenyan government officials.

We know what the still-redacted text says because Kieren McCarthy, writing for The Register, obtained a clean copy and published it a couple of weeks ago.

ICANN also promised to publish its reasoning if it makes redactions to any documents in future.

In a blog post on Friday, general counsel John Jeffrey said that ICANN helping the AUC draft its letter of support was not a unique case, nor was it inappropriate:

ICANN staff has helped many applicants and their supporters understand how to properly document support. Not only did we make a template support letter publicly available to all as part of the New gTLD Program Applicant Guidebook (see Appendix to Module 2), we have answered questions, received through our customer service channel, as to how interested parties can document support for a given gTLD application. In the case of ZA Central Registry, ICANN appropriately assisted the applicant in documenting support from the AUC.

Our actions surrounding the .AFRICA applications were not unique, since we assist any applicant who requests assistance, or who needs clarification in learning how best to document support or other matters. We have provided assistance to all applicants regarding their applications to the maximum extent possible.

On the claims that ICANN tried to “cover up” this assistance by redacting the IRP’s ruling and previous IRP filings, Jeffrey said that the information was covered by a confidentiality agreement agreed to by itself and DCA and endorsed by the IRP panel.

He said that ICANN was “motivated by our obligation to the community to post the document quickly and the competing, yet mandatory obligation, to respect confidential information while being as transparent as possible.”

He said ICANN attempted to reach out to those affected by the “confidential” parts of the ruling to seek permission to remove the redactions.

But McCarthy also seems to have seen emails exchanged between DCA and ICANN, and he says that ICANN redacted it over DCA’s objections.

McCarthy further says that ICANN only became interested in removing the redactions after he had already published the clean version of the ruling at The Reg — five days after the initial publication by ICANN.

Jeffrey’s post, which refers to “erroneous reporting” in an apparent allusion to McCarthy’s articles, nevertheless fails to address this claim, lending credibility to the cover-up allegations.

The .africa gTLD has been contracted to ZACR, but DCA’s rejected application has been returned to evaluation per the IRP’s ruling, where it is broadly expected to fail for want of governmental support.

Disclosure #1: I recently filed a Documentary Information Disclosure Policy request seeking the release of all the unredacted exhibits in DCA v ICANN. Given ICANN’s wont to usually respond to such requests only at the end of the full 30 days permitted by the policy, I should not expect to see an answer one way or the other until the last week of August.

Disclosure #2: As regular readers may already be aware, due to my long-held and never-disguised view that DCA was mad to apply for .africa without government support, I was once accused of being a part of a “racial conspiracy” against DCA on a blog I believe to be controlled by DCA. Naturally, after I stopped laughing, this libelous allegation pissed me off no end and enhanced my belief that DCA is nuts. Around the same time DCA also, under its own name, filed an “official complaint” (pdf) with ICANN, omitting the race card, alleging that I was part of a conspiracy against it.

Booking.com uses .africa precedent to challenge .hotels ruling

Kevin Murphy, July 21, 2015, Domain Policy

Booking.com has become the first new gTLD applicant to publicly cite the recent .africa Independent Review Process ruling in an attempt to overturn an adverse ICANN decision.

The challenge relates to the decision by ICANN, under the rules of the new gTLD program, to place applications for .hotels and .hoteis into a contention set due to their potential for visual confusion.

The two strings are heading to auction, where the winner will likely have to fork out millions.

In a missive to ICANN (pdf) last week, Booking.com outside attorney Flip Petillion said that the .africa IRP ruling shows that ICANN has to revisit its decision-making over .hotels.

The letter highlights a wider issue — how can ICANN follow community-established rules whilst sticking to its rather less well-defined Bylaws commitment to be “fair”?

Petillion wrote:

ICANN — and the BGC — has maintained the position 1) that the fact the process established by ICANN was followed is sufficient reason to reject that challenge and 2) that the fact that the process allowed neither for Booking.com to be heard nor for a review of the decision by the ICANN Board is of no relevance.

In the interim, IRP panels have confirmed that this process-focussed position is unsustainable. The ICANN Board has an overriding responsibility for making fair, reasoned and non-discriminatory decisions under conditions of full transparency.

He cites the .africa IRP decision to support this assertion.

Booking.com is the applicant for .hotels, while a different company, Travel Reservations (formerly Despegar Online), has applied for .hoteis, the Portuguese translation.

While both applicants are happy for the two gTLDs to co-exist on the internet, ICANN’s third-party String Similarity Review panel, part of the new gTLD evaluation process, ruled that they cannot.

They’re just too similar — in standard browser sans-serif fonts they can be indistinguishable — and would likely lead to user confusion, the panel decided in February 2013.

Booking.com challenged this decision with a Request for Reconsideration, which was dismissed.

It then filed an IRP, but that concluded this March with the panel awarding a grudging win to ICANN, which it orders should split the costs of the case.

In April, the ICANN board adopted the IRP panel’s findings, saying that the two applicants should remain in the contention set.

Booking.com, along with Travel Reservations, filed a second RfR, challenging the board’s decision, but this was rejected by ICANN’s Board Governance Committee in June.

The ICANN board has not yet formally adopted the BGC’s recommendations — I expect it to consider them at its next scheduled meeting, July 28 — hence Booking.com’s last-ditch attempt to get ICANN to change its mind.

Petillion wrote:

Simply following the processes and procedures developed by ICANN cannot alone be sufficient grounds for declining to review a decision. If the requirements of fairness, reasoned decision making, non-discrimination and transparency have not been met in the implementation of the process and procedures, the ICANN Board must, when invited to, conduct a meaningful review.

In the .africa case, the IRP panel ruled that ICANN should have asked the Governmental Advisory Committee for its rationale for objecting to DotConnectAfrica’s .africa bid, even though there’s nothing in the new gTLD rules or ICANN Bylaws specifically requiring it to do so.

However, in the Booking.com case, the IRP panel raised serious questions about whether the String Similarity Review rules were consistent with the Bylaws, but said that the time to challenge such rules had “long since passed”.

In both cases, ICANN followed the rules. Where the two panels’ declarations diverge is on whether you can win an IRP challenging the implementation of those rules — for DotConnectAfrica the answer was yes, for Booking.com the answer was no.

In a new gTLD program that has produced long lists of inconsistencies; IRP panel decisions appear to be but the latest example.

The question now is how the ICANN board will deal with the BGC recommendation to reject Booking.com’s latest RfR.

If it summarily approves the BGC’s resolution, without doing some extra due diligence, will it be breaking its Bylaws?

DCA’s .africa bid officially unrejected by ICANN

Kevin Murphy, July 16, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has un-rejected DotConnectAfrica’s application for the new gTLD .africa.

The board held an emergency meeting this morning to consider last Friday’s Independent Review Process decision, which said ICANN’s handling of DCA’s bid was not consistent with its bylaws.

Speaking at the Internet Governance Forum USA in Washington DC in the last half hour, ICANN chair Steve Crocker revealed the following:

We passed a resolution acknowledging the panel’s report — decision — accepting it and taking action. The primary action is to put the the DotConnectAfrica Trust application back in to the evaluation process. And there are other aspects of the panel’s decision that we will have to deal with later. This does not represent a final decision about anything. It just moves that process forward. There will be posting of the resolution and press release probably as we are sitting here.

If you want to catch it yourself, rewind the live stream here to roughly 59 minutes.

This story will be updated just as soon as the press release and resolution are published.

UPDATE:

The resolution has been published.

In it, the board agrees to continue to delay the delegation of .africa to ZA Central Registry, which is the contracted party for the gTLD, to pay the IRP costs as ordered by the panel, and to return DCA’s application to the evaluation process.

It also addresses the fact that the Governmental Advisory Committee has given formal advice that the DCA bid should not be approved.

The ICANN board says that because it has not decided to approve or delegate .africa to DCA, it’s technically not going against GAC advice at this time.

It will also ask GAC to respond to the IRP panel’s criticism of it for providing advice against DCA without transparent justification. The resolution says:

the Board will ask the GAC if it wishes to refine that advice and/or provide the Board with further information regarding that advice and/or otherwise address the concerns raised in the Declaration.

It was essentially the GAC’s lack of explanation, and ICANN’s lack of curiosity about that lack of explanation, that cost ICANN the case and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees.

How the GAC responds will be interesting. There’s now a solid case to be made that it’s going to have to start putting its rationales in its advice, rather like the ICANN board does with its resolutions.