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RANT: Governments raise yet another UN threat to ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 31, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN’s transition away from US government oversight is not even a month old and the same old bullshit power struggles and existential threats appear to be in play as strongly as ever.

Governments, via the chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee, last week yet again threatened that they could withdraw from ICANN and seek refuge within the UN’s International Telecommunications Union if they don’t get what they want from the rest of the community.

It’s the kind of thing the IANA transition was supposed to minimize, but just weeks later it appears that little has really changed in the rarefied world of ICANN politicking.

Thomas Schneider, GAC chair, said this on a conference call between the ICANN board and the Generic Names Supporting Organization on Thursday:

I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that this system does not work. They go to other institutions. If we are not able to defend public interest in this institution we need to go elsewhere, and this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly.

This is a quite explicit threat — if governments don’t like the decisions ICANN makes, they go to the ITU instead.

It’s the same threat that has been made every year or two for pretty much ICANN’s entire history, but it’s also something that the US government removing its formal oversight of ICANN was supposed to help prevent.

So what’s this “public interest” the GAC wants to defend this time around?

It’s protections for the acronyms of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) in gTLDs, which we blogged about a few weeks ago.

IGOs are bodies ranging from the relatively well-known, such as the World Health Organization or World Intellectual Property Organization, to the obscure, such as the European Conference of Ministers of Transport or the International Tropical Timber Organization.

According to governments, the public interest would be served if the string “itto”, for example, is reserved in every new gTLD, in other words. It’s not known if any government has passed laws protecting this and other IGO strings in their own ccTLDs, but I suspect it’s very unlikely any have.

There are about 230 such IGOs, all of which have acronyms new gTLD registries are currently temporarily banned from selling as domains.

The multi-stakeholder GNSO community is on the verge of coming up with some policy recommendations that would unblock these acronyms from sale and grant the IGOs access to the UDRP and URS mechanisms, allowing them to reclaim or suspend domains maliciously exploiting their “brands”.

The responsible GNSO working group has been coming up with these recommendations for over two years.

While the GAC and IGOs were invited to participate in the WG, and may have even attended a couple of meetings, they decided they’d have a better shot at getting what they wanted by talking directly to the ICANN board outside of the usual workflow.

The WG chair, Phil Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, recently described IGO/GAC participation as a “near boycott”.

This reluctance to participate in formal ICANN policy-making led to the creation of the so-called “small group”, a secretive ad hoc committee that has come up with an opposing set of recommendations to tackle the same IGO acronym “problem”.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call the the small group “secretive”. While the GNSO WG’s every member is publicly identified, their every email publicly archived, their every word transcribed and published, ICANN won’t even say who is in the small group.

I asked ICANN for list of its members a couple of weeks ago and this is what I got:

The group is made up of Board representatives from the New gTLD Program Committee (NGPC), primarily, Chris Disspain; the GAC Chair; and representatives from the IGO coalition that first raised the issue with ICANN and some of whom participated in the original PDP on IGO-INGO-Red Cross-IOC protections – these would include the OECD, the UN, UPU, and WIPO.

With the publication two weeks ago of the small group’s recommendations (pdf) — which conflict with the expect GNSO recommendations — the battle lines were drawn for a fight at ICANN 57, which kicks off this week in Hyderabad, India.

Last Thursday, members of the GNSO Council, including WG chair Corwin, met telephonically with GAC chair Schneider, ICANN chair Steve Crocker and board small group lead Disspain to discuss possible ways forward.

What emerged is what Crocker would probably describe as a “knotty” situation. I’d describe it as a “process clusterfuck”, in which almost all the relevant parties appear to believe their hands are tied.

The GNSO Council feels its hands are tied for various reasons.

Council chair James Bladel explained that the GNSO Council doesn’t have the power to even enter substantive talks.

“[The GNSO Council is] not in a position to, or even authorized to, negotiate or compromise PDP recommendations that have been presented to use by a PDP working group and adopted by Council,” he said.

He went on to say that while the GNSO does have the ability to revisit PDPs, to do so would take years and undermine earlier hard-fought consensus and dissuade volunteers from participating in policy making. He said on the call:

By going back and revisiting PDPs we both undermine the work of the community and potentially could create an environment where folks are reluctant to participate in PDPs and just wait until a PDP is concluded and then get engaged at a later stage when they feel that the recommendations are more likely adopted either by the board or reconciled with GAC advice.

He added that contracted parties — registries and registrars — are only obliged to follow consensus policies that have gone through the PDP process.

Crocker and Disspain agreed that the the GAC and the GNSO appear to have their hands tied until the ICANN board makes a decision.

But its hands are also currently tied, because it only has the power to accept or reject GNSO recommendations and/or GAC advice, and it currently has neither before it.

Chair Crocker explained that the board is not able to simply impose any policy it likes — such as the small group recommendations, which have no real legitimacy — it’s limited to either rejecting whatever advice the GAC comes up with, rejecting whatever the GNSO Council approves, or rejecting both.

The GNSO WG hasn’t finished its work, though the GNSO Council is likely to approve it, and the GAC hasn’t considered the small group paper yet, though it is likely to endorse it it.

Crocker suggested that rejecting both might be the best way to get everyone around a table to try to reach consensus.

Indeed, it appears that there is no way, under ICANN’s processes, for these conflicting views to be reconciled formally at this late stage.

WG chair Corwin said that any attempt to start negotiating the issue before the WG has even finished its work should be “rejected out of hand”.

With the GNSO appearing to be putting up complex process barriers to an amicable way forward, GAC chair Schneider repeatedly stated that he was attempting to reach a pragmatic solution to the impasse.

He expressed frustration frequently throughout the call that there does not appear to be a way that the GAC’s wishes can be negotiated into a reality. It’s not even clear who the GAC should be talking to about this, he complained.

He sounds like he’s the sensible one, but remember he’s representing people who stubbornly refused to negotiate in the WG over the last two years.

Finally, he raised the specter of governments running off to the UN/ITU, something that historically has been able to put the willies up those who fully support (and in many cases make their careers out of) the ICANN multistakeholder model.

Here’s a lengthier chunk of what he said, taken from the official meeting transcript:

If it turns out that there’s no way to change something that has come out of the Policy Development Process, because formally this is not possible unless the same people would agree to get together and do the same thing over again, so maybe this is what it takes, that we need to get back or that the same thing needs to be redone with the guidance from the board.

But if then nobody takes responsibility to — in case that everybody agrees that there’s a public interest at stake here that has not been fully, adequately considered, what — so what’s the point of this institution asking governments for advice if there’s no way to actually follow up on that advice in the end?

So I’m asking quite a fundamental question, and I’m just urging you about considering what happens if many governments consider that the system does not work. They go to other institutions. They think we are not able to defend public interest in this institution. We need to go elsewhere. And this is exactly what is happening currently at the ITU Standardization Assembly, where we have discussions about protection of geographic names because — and I’m not saying this is legitimate or not — but because some governments have the feeling that this hasn’t been adequately addressed in the ICANN structure.

I’m really serious about this urge that we all work together to find solutions within ICANN, because the alternative is not necessarily better. And the world is watching what signals we give, and please be aware of that.

The “geographic names” issue that Schneider alludes to here seems to be a proposal (Word .doc) put forward by African countries and under discussion at the ITU’s WTSA 2016 meeting this week.

The proposal calls for governments to get more rights to oppose geographic new gTLD applications more or less arbitrarily.

It emerged not from any failure of ICANN policy — geographic names are already protected at the request of the GAC — but from Africa governments being pissed off that .africa is still on hold because DotConnectAfrica is suing ICANN in a California court and some batty judge granted DCA a restraining order.

It’s not really relevant to the IGO issue, nor especially relevant to the issue of governments failing to influence ICANN policy.

The key takeaway from Schneider’s remarks for me is that, despite assurances that the IANA transition was a way to bring more governments into the ICANN fold rather than seeking solace at the UN, that change of heart is yet to manifest itself.

The “I’m taking my ball and going home” threat seems to be alive and well for now.

If you made it this far but want more, the transcript of the call is here (pdf) and the audio is here (mp3). Good luck.

The IANA transition in a nutshell

Kevin Murphy, February 27, 2015, Domain Policy

The US plan to remove itself from its unique DNS oversight role is about creating a coalition of nations to thwart attempts by Russia and other “authoritarian” countries to increase government control of the internet.

That’s according to Larry Strickling, assistant secretary at the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration, who delivered a beautifully succinct explanation to confused senators at a hearing in Washington DC this week.

Despite unnecessary diversions into issues such as net neutrality and copyright protection — which I’m sure was not at all due to senators trying to score points with their corporate paymasters — the Commerce Committee hearing was surprising well-informed and not nearly as angry as it could have been.

Senators, mostly Republicans, reiterated their concerns that for the US to give up its role in the IANA functions contract could invite a takeover of ICANN by unfriendly nations such as China and Russia, thereby harming internet freedom.

At one point, Strickling was asked by a senator: “If there’s not a problem, what are we trying to fix here?”

His answer was one the best explanations of the political back-story of the transition that I’ve heard, so I’m going to quote it in full here.

There has been a problem, sir. At the end of 2012 when the world’s governments got together in Dubai for the ITU WCIT — World Conference on International Telecommunications — you had around 80 countries who voted to say the ITU needs to be more involved in internet governance. These were largely countries in the developing world siding with the more authoritarian regimes.

Part of the impetus for this was the continued irritation that many governments have, that has been exploited by authoritarian countries, that the United States with its special role with ICANN is in a position to control the internet in these developing counties and to turn it off in these countries and to otherwise interfere with the ability of countries to manage their own affairs with respect to the internet.

After this [IANA transition] announcement was made the next two large international meetings at which governments came together you saw a major change in position among the developing countries. We didn’t see any change in position from the authoritarian countries — and you’re not, they’re not going to change their views on this. But the key to succeeding in this on the global stage is to bring the rest of the world along with us, and that’s what we saw at the NETmundial conference in Brazil last April where the only countries who spoke out against the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance were Russia and Cuba.

We then flash forward to the ITU plenipotentiary conference in Busan last November and again you had Russia with the same proposals it’s been making for 10 years: that these functions ought to be transferred to the ITU and managed by governments. And that was beaten back by a coalition of developed and developing countries. So we’ve seen immediate results, or significant results, by the basis of our having been able to take this issue off the table for these countries, to get them to look at what’s really best for them without this overhang of a US role that was unique among governments and which was a source of irritation to governments and was being exploited to our detriment by foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is that the role we play with respect of the IANA functions is a clerical role. It’s truly stewardship. As I said before, we don’t provide any oversight of the policy judgments that ICANN and the multi-stakeholder community make. We participate as a government in the Governmental Advisory Committee, and we will continue to do that in future and will be vigorous advocates for a free and open internet.

The special role we play with respect of the IANA functions is totally administrative and clerical, yet it has been exploited by other governments — authoritarian governments — to our detriment. We’ve taken that off to the table by announcing this transition and as we complete it we will continue to see the benefits of that through the continued adoption and support for this model by the developing world.

His views were echoed by ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade more than once during the hearing, talking about how the transition process is designed to bring on board the “middle countries”, rather than already-allied nations or the fringe, minority authoritarian countries.

He cited Brazil as the key example of a government once in favor of more ITU control of the internet that is now, largely due to Chehade’s outreach and its key role in the NETmundial conference, firmly in the multi-stakeholder model camp.

The entire archived hearing can be viewed here.

ITU says numeric .tel domains “may be confusing”

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2013, Domain Registries

The International Telecommunication Union has warned ICANN that numeric .tel domain names, due to be released by Telnic tomorrow, “may confuse customers or cause undue conflicts”.

In a letter to ICANN, Malcolm Johnson, director of the ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, said that there’s a risk that numbers-only .tel name could be confused with the E.164 numbering plan.

Johnson asked ICANN to explain how these numbers will be allocated and used:

ITU must express its concern about TELNIC’s recent announcement launching an “all numeric .tel domains” service from 15 October 2013. This raises a number of policy, legal, and practical implications on the potential usage of all-digit strings, not only under .TEL domain, but also under any future telephony-related new gTLDs

We are seeking this clarification as the digit strings appear similar to telephone numbers and could be used in a manner similar to telephone numbers, which may confuse customers or cause undue conflicts arising from their use.

E.164 is the standard for phone numbers worldwide. The ITU has been angsty about the potential for clashes ever since .tel was first proposed back in 2000.

Indeed, Telnic promised when it applied in 2003 not to allow numbers in .tel, precisely in order to calm these fears.

But when it asked for this self-imposed ban to be lifted in 2010, the ITU didn’t have anything to say (at least, it did not respond to ICANN’s public comment period).

Read Johnson’s letter here (pdf).

ITU chief offers hand of friendship to ICANN

Kevin Murphy, December 3, 2012, Domain Policy

Are ICANN and the International Telecommunications Union going to start playing nicely?

That’s the message coming out of the ITU’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai this morning, when ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure said the two organizations are “complementary”.

Addressing his “good friend”, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade, during the WCIT opening ceremony, Toure said:

I have invited Fadi to recognize here the impact of ICANN on the development of Internet, and I’ve said this, this morning in our heads of delegations meeting that I believe we should be reaching out and them accepting here means that they are on the same road.

I think if you help us, we can walk the talk and I believe I can count on you and the words that I received when I heard of the acceptance of Fadi Chehade’ to this meeting was a testimony of everyone here, believing that it’s time to start working together to be complementary and to work together. And I believe we have started the first step of that.

Chehade himself addressed delegates during the opening ceremony too, speaking partly in Arabic, his first language.

WCIT was widely feared by certain countries — notably the US — due to concerns that some governments would try to assert authority over ICANN’s internet governance functions.

That fear seems to have been calmed in recent weeks, but the substantive policy work at WCIT, which runs until December 13, will be the real test of the ITU’s relationship with ICANN.

Unsnubbed? ICANN brass get tickets to ITU curtain-raiser

Kevin Murphy, November 28, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN’s chairman and CEO have been invited to the World Conference on International Telecommunications next week, as “special guests” of the International Telecommunications Union.

It’s a token gesture of friendship at best, with the invitation only good for the opening ceremony, rather than any substantive policy discussions.

But it’s a contrast to the ITU’s treatment of former ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom, who was snubbed when he asked for observer status for an ITU Plenipotentiary in 2010.

This year’s invitation is not, however, a reversal of that policy. ICANN’s not technically going to be an observer this time either.

WCIT, which begins on Monday in Dubai, will see the ITU’s member governments convene to redraft their governing International Telecommunications Regulations.

There’s been a bit of a commotion in the US over the last several months over the potential for a power grab by the ITU. Some governments would sooner the ITU handled ICANN’s functions.

But the conventional wisdom at the moment — supported by ITU chief Hamadoun Toure’s strenuous denials — is that ICANN is probably safe.

ITU conferences are notoriously opaque. You can’t even download policy proposals unless you’re a member, and getting an invitation to attend in person has some political value.

That’s why anyone interested in knowing what’s likely to go down at WCIT could do worse than check out .nxt, where Kieren McCarthy earned huge kudos this week by publishing over 200 previously secret documents.