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.music and .gay possible in 2018 after probe finds no impropriety

Kevin Murphy, January 2, 2018, Domain Policy

Five more new gTLDs could see the light of day in 2018 after a probe into ICANN’s handling of “community” applications found no wrongdoing.

The long-running investigation, carried out by FTI Consulting on ICANN’s behalf, found no evidence to support suspicions that ICANN staff had been secretly and inappropriately pulling the strings of Community Priority Evaluations.

CPEs, carried out by the Economist Intelligence Unit, were a way for new gTLD applicants purporting to represent genuine communities to avoid expensive auctions with rival applicants.

Some applicants that failed to meet the stringent “community” criteria imposed by the CPE process appealed their adverse decisions and an Independent Review Process complaint filed by Dot Registry led to ICANN getting crucified for a lack of transparency.

While the IRP panel found some hints that ICANN staff had been nudging EIU’s arm when it came to drafting the CPE decisions, the FTI investigation has found:

there is no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE Provider with respect to the CPE reports issued by the CPE Provider or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process.

FTI had access to emails between EIU and ICANN, as well as ICANN internal emails, but it did not have access to EIU internal emails, which EIU declined to provide. It did have access to EIU’s internal documents used to draft the reports, however.

Its report states:

Based on FTI’s review of email communications provided by ICANN organization, FTI found no evidence that ICANN organization had any undue influence on the CPE reports or engaged in any impropriety in the CPE process. FTI found that the vast majority of the emails were administrative in nature and did not concern the substance or the content of the CPE results. Of the small number of emails that did discuss substance, none suggested that ICANN acted improperly in the process.

FTI also looked at whether EIU had applied the CPE rules consistently between applications, and found that it did.

It also dug up all the sources of information EIU used (largely Google searches, Wikipedia, and the web pages of relevant community groups) but did not directly cite in its reports.

In short, the FTI reports very probably give ICANN’s board of directors cover to reopen the remaining affected contention sets — .music, .gay, .hotel, .cpa, and .merck — thereby removing a significant barrier to the gTLDs getting auctioned.

If there were to be no further challenges (which, admittedly, seems unlikely), we could see some or all of these strings being sold off and delegated this year.

The probe also covered the CPEs for .llc, .inc and .llp, but these contention sets were resolved with private auctions last September after applicant Dot Registry apparently decided it couldn’t be bothered pursuing the ICANN process any more.

The FTI’s reports can be downloaded from ICANN.

.music and .gay CPE probe could end this month

Kevin Murphy, June 5, 2017, Domain Policy

An ICANN-commissioned investigation into the fairness of its Community Priority Evaluation process for new gTLDs could wind up before the end of June.

In an update Friday, ICANN also finally revealed who is actually conducting the probe, which has been slammed by affected applicants for being secretive.

A tentative timeline sketched out in the update means applicants for gTLDs including .gay and .music could find their applications closer to release from limbo in just a few weeks.

ICANN revealed that FTI Consulting’s Global Risk and Investigations Practice and Technology Practice have been looking into claims ICANN staff meddled in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s supposedly independent CPE reviews for the last several months.

FTI is reviewing how ICANN staff interacted with the EIU during the CPE processes, how the EIU conducted its research and whether the EIU applied the CPE criteria uniformly across different gTLDs.

ICANN said that FTI finished collected material from ICANN in March and hopes to have all the information it has asked the EIU for by the end of this week.

It could deliver its findings to ICANN two weeks after that, ICANN said.

Presumably, there would be little to prevent ICANN publishing these findings very shortly thereafter.

ICANN has been harangued by some of the applicants for .music, .gay, hotel, .cpa, .llc, .inc, .llp and .merck, all of which have been affected by controversial CPE decisions and have been delayed by the investigation, for months.

.gay, .music and others in limbo as ICANN probes itself

Kevin Murphy, May 8, 2017, Domain Policy

Several new gTLD applicants have slammed ICANN for conducting an investigation into its own controversial practices that seems to be as opaque as the practices themselves.

Seven proposed new gTLDs, including the much-anticipated .music and .gay, are currently trapped in ICANN red tape hell as the organization conducts a secretive probe into how its own staff handled Community Priority Evaluations.

The now broad-ranging investigation seems have been going on for over six months but does not appear to have a set deadline for completion.

Applicants affected by the delays don’t know who is conducting the probe, and say they have not been contacted by anyone for their input.

At issue is the CPE process, designed to give genuine “community” gTLD applicants a way to avoid a costly auction in the event that their choice of string was contested.

The results of the roughly 25 CPE decisions, all conducted by the independent Economist Intelligence Unit, were sometimes divergent from each other or just baffling.

Many of the losers complained via ICANN’s in-house Requests for Reconsideration and then Independent Review Process mechanisms.

One such IRP complaint — related to Dot Registry’s .inc, .llc, .llp applications — led to two of the three-person IRP panel deciding last July that ICANN had serious questions to answer about how the CPE process was carried out.

While no evidence was found that ICANN had coached the EIU on scoring, it did emerge that ICANN staff had supplied margin notes to the supposedly independent EIU that had subsequently been incorporated into its final decision.

The IRP panel majority wrote that the EIU “did not act on its own in performing the CPEs” and “ICANN staff was intimately involved in the process”.

A month or so later, the ICANN board of directors passed a resolution calling for the CEO to “undertake an independent review of the process by which ICANN staff interacted with the CPE provider”.

Another month later, in October, the Board Governance Committee broadened the scope of the investigation and asked the EIU to supply it with documents it used to reach its decisions in multiple controversial CPE cases.

A couple of weeks ago, BGC chair Chris Disspain explained all this (pdf) to the applicants for .music, .gay, hotel, .cpa, .llc, .inc, .llp and .merck, all of which are affected by the delay caused by the investigation.

He said that the investigation would be completed “as soon as practicable”.

But in response, Dot Registry and lawyers for fellow failed CPE applicant DotMusic have fired off more letters of complaint to ICANN.

(UPDATE: Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles got in touch to say his letter was actually sent before Disspain’s, despite the dates on the letters as published by ICANN suggesting the opposite).

Both applicants note that they have no idea who the independent party investigating the CPEs is. That’s because ICANN hasn’t identified them publicly or privately, and the evaluator has not contacted the applicants for their side of the story.

DotMusic’s lawyer wrote (pdf):

DotMusic’s rights are thus being decided by a process about which it: (1) possesses minimal information; (2) carried out by an individual or organization whose identity ICANN is shielding; (3) whose mandate is secret; (4) whose methods are unknown; and (5) whose report may never be made public by ICANN’s Board.

He added, pointedly:

The exclusion of directly affected parties from participation eerily reproduces the shortcomings of the EIU evaluations that are under scrutiny in the first place.

Dot Registry CEO Shaul Jolles, in his letter (pdf), quoted Disspain saying at a public forum in Copenhagen this March that a blog post addressing the concerns had been drafted and would be published “shortly”, but wasn’t.

He suggested the investigation is “smoke and mirrors” and, along with DotMusic, demanded more information about the investigator’s identity and methods.

It does strike me as a looking a bit like history repeating itself: ICANN comes under fire for non-transparently influencing a supposedly independent review and addresses those criticisms by launching another non-transparent supposedly independent review.

No matter what I feel about the merits of the “community” claims of some of these applicants, it has been over five years now since they submitted their applications and the courtesy of transparency — if closure itself its not yet possible — doesn’t seem like a great deal to ask.

Squabbling drug peddlers drag .pharmacy into brand bunfight

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2016, Domain Policy

The .pharmacy new gTLD has been dragged into the ongoing trademark dispute between two pharmaceuticals giants called Merck.

Germany-based Merck KGaA has accused the .pharmacy registry of operating an unfair and “secretive” process to resolve competing sunrise period applications.

The domain merck.pharmacy was awarded to US rival Merck & Co, which was spun off from the German original a hundred years ago, after both Mercks applied for the domain during .pharmacy’s January-March 2015 sunrise.

Now Merck KGaA has become what I believe might be the first company to reveal an attempt to invoke ICANN’s Public Interest Commitments Dispute Resolution Procedure to get the decision reversed.

The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a US entity, operates .pharmacy as a tightly controlled gTLD with pre-registration credential validation.

When it launched for trademark owners in last year, it was vague about how contentions between owners of matching trademarks would be handled, according to Merck KGaA.

Merck KGaA claims that NABP awarded merck.pharmacy to Merck & Co and initially refused to disclose how it had arrived at its decision other than to say the German firm “met fewer criteria” than its rival.

After some back-and-forth between their lawyers, Merck KGaA was still not happy with NABP’s response to the dispute, so it decided to start filing compliance reports ICANN.

A year on, it tried to invoke the PICDRP.

Public Interest Commitments are addenda to ICANN Registry Agreements that bind the registries to certain behaviors, such as fighting malware and working with industry-specific regulatory bodies.

The PICDRP, heard by ICANN or an independent standing panel, is a way for third parties to challenge registries’ compliance with their contracts when they believe PICs have been violated.

No PICDRP disputes have actually made it before a panel to date, to my knowledge. Indeed, this is the first time I’ve heard of anyone even attempting to file one, though ICANN Compliance reports indicate about 20 were filed last year.

Merck KGaA claims that by not disclosing how it decided Merck & Co should win merck.pharmacy, NABP is in breach of the PIC that states:

Registry Operator will operate the TLD in a transparent manner consistent with general principles of openness and non-discrimination by establishing, publishing and adhering to clear registration policies.

It suspects that NABP was biased towards Merck & Co because the US firm is a $100,000+ contributor to its coffers.

NABP has denied any wrongdoing, saying it applied “objective criteria” to decide which Merck most deserved the name.

This June, over a year after the domain was awarded, Merck KGaA filed its PICDRP complaint with ICANN. Two weeks ago, ICANN responded saying the complaint had been rejected, saying:

The detailed review criteria used to resolve the contention for the registration of the domain name was part of an operational procedure that the registry operator applied to both applicants’ websites and was consistent with .pharmacy’s community restrictions in Specification 12 of the RA. As the internal operational procedure does not conflict with ICANN’s agreements and policies, it is deemed outside of ICANN’s scope of enforcement.

The decision seems to have been made by ICANN staff. No independent panel was appointed. The PICDRP grants ICANN “sole discretion” as to whether a panel is needed.

The only reason the dispute has come to light is that Merck KGaA has decided to challenge ICANN’s decision with a Request for Reconsideration. The RfR and 600-odd pages of exhibits are published here.

It’s the second concurrent RfR Merck has on the go with ICANN. The Mercks are also simultaneously fighting for the right to run .merck as a dot-brand gTLD.

Both applications for .merck went through the Community Priority Evaluation process, but both failed.

The next stage in resolving the contention said would have been an auction, but Merck KGaA has filed for Reconsideration on its CPE panel’s determination.

Centuries-old companies both fail community gTLD test

Kevin Murphy, August 11, 2016, Domain Policy

Two companies called Merck have separately failed ICANN Community Priority Evaluations, meaning the new gTLD .merck could be the first dot-brand to head to ICANN auction.

Merck KGaA applied for .merck for the Merck Group, a German chemicals company founded — staggeringly — in 1668, the same year Newton built the world’s first reflecting telescope.

Merck Registry Holdings Inc applied for the same string on behalf of Merck & Co, which was originally the US subsidiary of the German outfit. The US firm was seized by the US government and subsequently became independent during World War I.

Despite the substantial pedigrees of these multi-billion dollar businesses, neither were able to muster up the required 14/16 points to be considered a “Community” under ICANN CPE standards.

The German firm scored 11 points, the American 9.

The main failing in both evaluations, which were conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, was the existence of the other.

Both applicants defined their communities as their own companies and lost points because “.merck” did not uniquely identify all legitimate users of the string.

Both panels marked the applications down for “over-reaching substantially beyond the community” by not including the rival company in its community definition.

The US company also lost a couple of points for failing to come up with a list of registration restrictions.

As neither company has passed CPE, the next step of the ICANN process would have them attempt to resolve the contention set privately. Failing that, they would go to an ICANN last-resort auction.

Another possibility, an increasingly favored choice among CPE losers, would be an interminable series of ICANN process appeals and lawsuits.