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US puts ICANN contract up for rebid

Kevin Murphy, November 11, 2011, Domain Policy

The US government has put the IANA contract, which currently gives ICANN its powers to create new top-level domains, up for competitive bidding.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued a request for proposals late yesterday, almost a week later than expected.

The Statement Of Work, which defines the IANA contractor’s responsibilities, is over twice at long as the current IANA contract, containing many deliverables and deadlines.

While the contract is open to bidders other than ICANN, ICANN is obviously the likely winner, so it’s fair to read the SOW in that context.

Notably, the section dealing with approving new gTLDs has been changed since the draft language released in June.

NTIA said previously that in order to delegate a new gTLD, ICANN/IANA “shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.”

The new SOW has dropped the “consensus support” requirement and instead states:

The Contractor must provide documentation verifying that ICANN followed its policy framework including specific documentation demonstrating how the process provided the opportunity for input from relevant stakeholders and was supportive of the global public interest.

This could be read as a softening of the language. No longer will ICANN have to prove consensus – which is not a requirement of the Applicant Guidebook – in order to approve a new gTLD.

However, the fact that it will have to document how a new gTLD is “supportive of the global public interest” may give extra weight to Governmental Advisory Committee objections.

If the GAC were to issue advice stating that a new gTLD application was not in “the global public interest”, it may prove tricky for ICANN to provide documentation showing that it is.

The SOW also addresses conflicts of interest, which has become a big issue for ICANN following the departure of chairman and new gTLD proponent Peter Dengate Thrush, and his subsequent employment by new gTLD applicant Minds + Machines, this June.

The SOW says that IANA needs to have a written conflicts of interest policy, adding:

At a minimum, this policy must address what conflicts based on personal relationships or bias, financial conflicts of interest, possible direct or indirect financial gain from the Contractor’s policy decisions and employment and post-employment activities. The conflict of interest policy must include appropriate sanctions in case on non-compliance, including suspension, dismissal and other penalties.

Overall, the SOW is a substantial document, with a lot of detail.

There’s much more NTIA micromanagement than in the current IANA contract. Any hopes ICANN had that the relationship would become much more arms-length have been dashed.

The SOW includes a list of 17 deadlines for ICANN/IANA, mainly various types of compliance reports that must be filed annually. The NTIA clearly intends to keep IANA on a fairly tight leash.

You can download the RFP documents here.

Senator calls for ICANN ethics controls

Kevin Murphy, September 15, 2011, Domain Policy

An influential US senator has called on the US government to impose new ethics rules on ICANN.

In a letter to the US Department of Commerce, which has an oversight relationship with ICANN, Senator Ron Wyden said that new “strict ethics guidelines” should be created.

The letter appears to be in direct response to Peter Dengate Thrush’s move from his role as ICANN’s chairman to a potentially lucrative job with a new top-level domains applicant.

(And, presumably, at the behest of whoever told Wyden about it.)

Dengate Thrush’s last major act at ICANN was to lead the vote to approve its new generic top-level domains program, this June at ICANN’s public Singapore meeting.

Three weeks later, he joined Minds + Machines parent Top Level Domain Holdings, which plans to build its entire business model around applying for new gTLDs.

“As news reports have indicated, a formerly high-ranking official at ICANN has left the organization and was immediately hired by one of the domain name companies regulated by ICANN,” a Wyden press release reads.

Wyden wants new ethical guidelines designed to prevent a “revolving door” built into the IANA contract, which is the one way Commerce can still exert unilateral control over ICANN.

He wrote: “any IANA employees ought to be made subject to the same ethics rules in place as NTIA [National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of Commerce] employees.”

The IANA contract is up for renewal before March next year.

Pretty much anybody with a vested interest in getting more control over of the DNS is currently doing their best to hack the contract by lobbying the NTIA, directly or indirectly.

I wonder who’s behind this particular appeal.

ICANN fights government gTLD power grab

Kevin Murphy, July 22, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has opposed a US move to grant governments veto power over controversial new top-level domain applications.

Cutting to the very heart of Obama administration internet governance policy, ICANN has told the National Telecommunications and Information Administration that its recent proposals would “undermine the very principle of the multi-stakeholder model”.

The stern words came in ICANN’s response to the NTIA’s publication of revisions to the IANA contract, the contract that allows ICANN to retain its powers over the domain name system root.

The NTIA’s Further Notice Of Inquiry contained proposed amendments to the contract, including this:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

This was widely interpreted as a US attempt to avoid a repeat of the .xxx scandal, when ICANN approved the porn gTLD despite the unease voiced by its Governmental Advisory Committee.

As I noted in June, it sounds a lot like code for “if the GAC objects, you must reject”, which runs the risk of granting veto powers to the GAC’s already opaque consensus-making process.

In his response to the FNOI (pdf), ICANN chief Rod Beckstrom says that the NTIA’s proposal would “replace” the “intensive multi-stakeholder deliberation” that created the newly approved Applicant Guidebook.

He also pointed out the logical inconsistency of asking IANA to remain policy-neutral in one part of the proposed contract, and asking it to make serious policy decisions in another:

The IANA functions contract should not be used to rewrite the policy and implementation process adopted through the bottom-up decision-making process. Not only would this undermine the very principle of the multi-stakeholder model, it would be inconsistent with the objective of more clearly distinguishing policy development from operational implementation by the IANA functions operator.

NTIA head Larry Strickling has been pounding the “multistakeholderism” drum loudly of late, most recently in a speech in Washington and in an interview with Kieren McCarthy of .nxt.

In the .nxt interview, Strickling was quite clear that he believes ICANN should give extra authority to governments when it comes to approving controversial strings.

The NTIA concern – shared by other government entities including the European Commission – is that controversial strings could lead to national blocking and potentially internet fragmentation.

While Strickling declined to comment on the specific provisions of the IANA contract, he did tell .nxt:

If the GAC as a consensus view can’t support a string then my view is that the ICANN Board should not approve the string as to do so in effect legitimizes or sanctions that governments should be blocking at the root zone level. And I think that is bad for the Internet.

Where you’re dealing with sensitive strings, where you’ve engaged the sovereignty of nations, I think it is appropriate to tip the hat a little bit more to governments and listen to what they say. On technical issues it wouldn’t be appropriate but on this particular one, you’ve got to listen a little bit more to governments.

He also indicated that the US would not necessarily stand up for its principles if confronted by substantial objections to a string from other governments:

So we would be influenced – I can’t say it would be dispositive – if a large number of countries have a problem with a particular string, even if it was one that might not be objectionable to the United States government.

And that is out of interest of protecting the Internet’s root from widespread blocking at the top-level by lots of governments.

Does this mean that the US could agree to a consensus GAC objection to a .gay gTLD? A .porn? A .freespeech? It certainly sounds like it.