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[Guest Post] Hey ICANN: Reporters are not the enemy

Kevin Murphy, October 17, 2022, Uncategorized

This is a guest post by Emmy award-winning former reporter Brad White, who, from 2009 until 2021, was ICANN’s director of global media affairs and later director of communications for North America

It seems like ICANN utters the phrase “accountability and transparency” about every third sentence. And with good cause, since it is a vital foundation upon which the organization was built. But there are indications that foundation is severely cracked.

Unfortunately, ICANN’s leadership too often seems to adopt the position that its commitment to accountability and transparency only extends to its interaction with its community. The news media and by extension – the public – are generally not prioritized.

Journalists and bloggers (who also inform the public) who reach out to the org with questions or interview requests are too often viewed in hostile terms.

The default position of ICANN executives generally appears to be to not talk with journalists unless they must. My sense is that they should adopt the opposite attitude. Specifically, that ICANN leadership should almost always speak with journalists.

In my experience, at various points in the past, ICANN execs even forbade anyone on the communications team from talking to select journalists or bloggers. I was reminded of Richard Nixon’s famous “enemy’s list.”

The very first ICANN Board Chair, Esther Dyson had a good grasp on transparency with the news media when she said, “What I’m thinking about more and more these days is simply the importance of transparency, and Jefferson’s saying that he’d rather have a free press without a government than a government without a free press.”

I worked 12 years at ICANN, before leaving in January 2021 to work as an independent communications consultant. A large part of my job during my tenure was to interact with the news media. Having spent most of my career as a journalist, I enjoyed that aspect of my work, and felt it a vital component of the org’s oft-stated commitment to “accountability and transparency.” But over the years, I witnessed a shift in the way the organization wanted me to perform that function.

During my early days, when a news reporter would reach out with a question and/or seek an interview, I would research the issue the journalist was asking about and then after consulting the appropriate people, pass along the answers and perhaps set up an interview with the appropriate ICANN subject matter expert. And, that was the end of it.

By the time I left, with increasing frequency, when a reporter contacted ICANN, the request ended up going to at least two or three senior executives, the legal department and sometimes the CEO. Too often, the collective decision was to say nothing, if at all possible. When answers were afforded to the journalist, they were too often non-responsive or they merely “pointed” the reporter to a previously published blog or announcement. There were of course exceptions to this approach, but they were few.

What is perhaps most troubling, is that the organization doesn’t seem to feel an obligation to speak with journalists as part of its core value of transparency and accountability, instead the determining factor as to whether to grant an interview was too often — “are they going to screw us?” It was not “we have an obligation to be open to talk to all, including reporters and bloggers, because we believe in accountability and transparency.”

Some years ago, I was asked to conduct media training for ICANN’s top executives so they would better understand journalists and also learn how to better interact with them. But in the immediate years preceding my departure, the media training program appears to have been terminated. In fact, word often went out that “no one should talk to the media.”

Shortly before I left, I was asked to write a report on “ICANN’s Media Strategy.” After submitting an initial draft, it seemed to have gone into a black hole. I was never questioned about the report. I never received a red-lined draft, excluding or including elements, nor was I asked to write a subsequent draft.

Given the apparent efforts to curtail interactions with journalists and bloggers, it was difficult to not interpret the shelving of the media strategy paper because of one of its major points was — “Reporters are not the enemy.”

My sincere hope is that the new Board leadership and the community will re-commit the organization towards maximum accountability and transparency, and that includes talking to journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who can help in implementing the vital checks, balances and accountability that are the foundation of ICANN’s work. It is critical in helping the world understand ICANN and its mission.

.au passes four million names as 2LDs surge

Kevin Murphy, September 28, 2022, Uncategorized

Australia’s .au domains has surpassed four million registered names for the first time, boosted by second-level regs.

The milestone appears to have been hit in the last 24 hours, with the total count at 4,001,440 right now, according to the registry’s web site.

The ccTLD has added just shy of 300,000 registrations in the last month. On August 28, it had just over 3.7 million domains.

While auDA does not break down third-level versus second-level domains, the spike no doubt was caused by last-minutes claims of 2LDs under the Priority Allocation Process.

About 240,000 of the names registered in the last month were registered before the September 20 cut-off date for .com.au registrants to buy their matching second-level .au names.

Unclaimed names will be released into the available pool at 2100 UTC October 3, next Monday, which could potentially lead to another surge.

Guy asks ICANN to shut down prostitution site

Kevin Murphy, July 26, 2022, Uncategorized

A man is using ICANN’s Request for Reconsideration process to try to take down a domain that appears to be used as a marketplace for sex workers, many of whom appear to be offering prostitution services.

The requester says that the site in question, adultsearch.com (NSFW) is breaking the law in the US, where prostitution is in most places illegal, and that it should be taken down.

He says he contacted the registrar, Namecheap, but did not get a satisfactory response. He says he then contacted ICANN Compliance, but was given the brush off.

He’s now using RfR (pdf) to bring the matter to ICANN’s board of directors.

“Take it down, offline. If it were child pornography, which is illegal, too. Would I have to ask twice…?” he writes.

The site in question is essentially a collection of classified ads posted by people offering in-person sexual services. While many ads talk in coded terms about legal services such as “massage”, alongside sexually explicit photographs, many others are fairly explicit that they’re offering sex.

The site has listings for scores of countries, but the default front-page ads come from the US, broken down by state and city.

The requester says he was moved to file the complaint after meeting a young immigrant woman involved in illegal prostitution from a young age. He provides some details of her situation, though not enough to personally identify her.

Regardless, he asked ICANN to redact that portion of the request before posting it publicly, but ICANN didn’t.

Turkey name change could free up gTLD string

Kevin Murphy, June 2, 2022, Uncategorized

Turkey is changing its name to Türkiye, which could free up its old name to new gTLD applicants in the bird-killing industry.

The Turkish government has reportedly submitted a formal request to the UN for the change, which is intended to bring it more into line with the Turkish name and pronunciation — “Turkey-YAY”, apparently — and to disassociate it with the poultry and its disparaging connotations.

That could mean that one day the old spelling will cease to be a reserved string under ICANN’s new gTLD program rules.

The version of the Applicant Guidebook from 2012 bans applications for strings that match country names on the ISO 3166 list, translations and variants, as well as names by which a country is “commonly known” as evidenced by its use by an intergovernmental or treaty organization.

If everybody plays ball and starts calling the nation Türkiye instead, those provisions may no longer apply and new gTLD consultants may want to put their feelers out to Bernard Matthews.

The old name could remain banned if the ISO decides to keep the name on its “exceptionally reserved” list. As of today, the 3166 standard still lists the old name on its primary list.

The new spelling almost certainly won’t have any effect on the country’s ccTLD, which is .tr.

.tattoo — another UNR gTLD auction winner emerges

Kevin Murphy, May 9, 2022, Uncategorized

It’s looking rather like Top Level Design has been outed as one of the winners of UNR’s April 2021 gTLD auction.

ICANN records have started to show that the company has taken over the contract for .tattoo, which was one of the 23 contracts UNR said it sold off as it attempted to exit the registry business.

Such a deal would make perfect sense — Top Level Design already runs the complementary TLD .ink, which is a slang term for tattoos.

.tattoo is a much smaller zone, with fewer than 3,000 names under management compared to .ink’s over 45,000.

At this point ICANN has not published the contract reassignment, and IANA still has UNR listed as the sponsor, but the point of contact for the Registry Agreement is now Top Level Design’s Andrew Merriam.

Assuming the assignment completes, that means the new owners of 14 of the 23 gTLDs UNR sold off are known.

XYZ.com bought 10 of them, GoDaddy two, and newcomer Dot Hip Hop bought .hiphop.

The handovers have been delayed by ICANN‘s insistence that registries disavow ownership rights to the strings in question, due to UNR bundling rights to blockchain-based alt-root equivalents in its auctions.

Kaufmann selected for ICANN board

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2022, Uncategorized

Christian Kaufmann, a VP at Akamai, has been picked for the ICANN board of directors, the Address Supporting Organization has announced.

He beat former ICANN director Lito Ibarra in a two-horse ASO election at the end of a six-month selection process, and will replace Akinori Maemura, who did not stand for reelection.

Ibarra was on the board as a Nominating Committee appointee for two of a possible three terms before being replaced by Edmon Chung last October. He clearly enjoyed himself enough to try again as an ASO candidate.

But Kaufman got the votes, and will join the board after its AGM in October this year.

He’s been with content delivery network operator Akamai since 2008 and currently serves as VP of technology. He also has experience on the boards of other industry groups.

He’s European, replacing somebody from Asia-Pacific, which alters the geographic mix of the ICANN board a little.

UDRP suspended in Ukraine

Kevin Murphy, May 3, 2022, Uncategorized

The World Intellectual Property Organization has stopped accepting cybersquatting complaints against .ua domains due to the war in Ukraine.

WIPO has posted a note to its web site stating: “In consultation with the .UA Registry, the Center has determined that it is not in a position to accept new .UA filings under the .UA Policy until further notice.”

Hostmaster, the .ua registry, said: “The decision is due to the fact that Ukrainian registrars and registra[nts] may now be deprived of the opportunity to fully participate in arbitration proceedings.”

The service will resume following the end of martial law in the country, Hostmaster said.

Ukraine uses a variation of UDRP that has the same three basic criteria for a finding of cybersquatting, with the crucial difference that domains must be “registered OR used in bad faith”, rather than “registered AND used in bad faith”.

WIPO has been handling .ua disputes since 2019. About 60 cases have been processed so far.

Hostmaster has also suspended domain deletes until martial law is over, for pretty much the same reasons.

ICANN is blocking 23 gTLD transfers over blockchain fears

ICANN is objecting to the transfer of 23 new gTLDs from UNR to an unknown number of third parties, because it’s scared that the associated non-fungible tokens may break the internet and its own authority over it.

The mystery of how UNR’s auction in April of its entire new gTLD portfolio has so far not resulted in a single ICANN Registry Agreement changing hands appears to have been solved.

It’s because UNR bundled each contract sale with a matching top-level “domain name”, in the form of an NFT, on the Ethereum Name Service, an alt-root based on the Ethereum blockchain, and ICANN is worried about what this means for both the long-term interoperability of the DNS and its own ability to act as the internet’s TLD gatekeeper.

This all emerged in an emergency Request for Reconsideration filed by a company called Dot Hip Hop, which bought .hiphop from UNR earlier in the year.

It turns out .hiphop is the TLD alluded to by Digital Asset Monetary Network, which in October became the first to out itself as a UNR buyer while not naming its gTLD. The purchase was made separately from the April auction, despite .hiphop being “mistakenly” listed as one of the lots.

It also turns out that consultant Jeff Neuman, who’s been a leading figure in the ICANN community since its inception, was behind long-time employer Neustar’s application for .biz, and is a big fan of musical theater, is chief legal officer of and a partner in DHH.

In his reconsideration request, Neuman rages against the fact that it had been over 120 days at time of writing since DHH and UNR had applied to have the .hiphop contract reassigned, but that ICANN is continuing to drag its feet despite DHH long ago passing its due diligence review (which Neuman says cost an excessive $17,000).

DigitalAMN lists DHH as a subsidiary in its recent Securities and Exchange Commission filings. The company is publicly listed but essentially pre-revenue, making its ability to start selling domain names rather quickly rather important.

ICANN has repeatedly delayed approval of the reassignment, provided no visibility into when approval will come, and has repeatedly asked the same questions — largely related to the NFTs — with only slight rewording, Neuman says:

ICANN Org has already communicated to DHH that it has already met all of the criteria required under the Registry Agreement. Yet still, ICANN is withholding consent based on its mere curiosity about the former owner of the .hiphop, TLD (UNR Co), and based on the questions that ICANN keeps re-asking, has presumably conjured up non-issues that: (a) have already been addressed by DHH on multiple occasions over the past 123 days, (b) are beyond the scope of ICANN’s mission, and (c) are philosophical, fictional and frankly do not exist in this matter.

The ENS NFT is a “de minimus” component of the transaction that DHH didn’t even know about until after it had already decided to buy .hiphop, the request states, and ICANN has no authority over the blockchain so the existence of an NFT is not a valid reason to deny the reassignment.

I think I also detect a race card being played here. The RfR spends a bit of time talking about how ICANN’s foot-dragging is making the Org look bad to “traditionally underserved communities where the Hip Hop culture has thrived, globally”.

Apparently referring to DigitalAMN, the RfR states:

In addition to such partner being established at the birthplace of Hip Hop (Bronx New York), by its founder who shares the same birthdate as Hip Hop (August 11th), its mission is to provide financial literacy and economic opportunities for those communities and cultures that are traditionally under-represented, under-funded and under-valued.

DigitalAMN is majority-owned and led by Ajene Watson, who is black. One of company’s stated goals is to connect early stage companies with capital from non-traditional investors (not just the “privileged few”) using non-traditional means.

The RfR goes on to say:

The most dominantly underserved, under-funded and under-valued communities, are also those that embrace and are part of the Hip Hop culture. This Partner has embraced what seemed to be an opportunity to provide domain name registration services to a culture that knows nothing of ICANN, nor the domain name industry. Now, its first impression of the ICANN community is unnecessary delay, a lack of transparency, and bureaucratic indecision—just another gatekeeper to prevent equitable access. In their eyes, they consistently see deadlines that are never met (by ICANN), a lack of information as to why their launch is being held up, and an entity (ICANN) that takes weeks/months to act on anything with no end in sight. In their view, it would appear that ICANN, as an organization, cares nothing about serving the public interest, or about the impact of its actions (or in this case inactions) on the undervalued communities this Partner aims to support.

It should be noted that 22 other unrelated UNR gTLD reassignments are also in limbo, so it’s not like ICANN has a problem in particular with hip-hop music or those who enjoy it.

ICANN, in its response to the RfR, lays all the blame with UNR for, it says, refusing to provide “fulsome and complete” answers to its questions about the NFTs. In a December 10 letter to Neuman, ICANN VP Russ Weinstein wrote:

Significant questions remain, including regarding the role and rights conveyed to the proposed assignees related to the NFTs created on the ENS. For these reasons, ICANN must continue to object to and withhold its consent to all pending Assignments proposed by UNR, including yours.

The RfR was denied by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee on a technicality. DHH had filed an “emergency” request based on ICANN’s staff inaction, but emergency requests only apply to board action or inaction.

Neuman appears to have known this in advance. It appears DHH just wanted to get something in the public record about the state of play with UNR’s gTLDs.

ICANN seems to have two problems with the NFTs, and they’re both big, existential ones.

First, ENS is essentially an alt-root, and when you have competing roots there’s the risk of TLDs colliding — two or more registries claiming authority for the same TLD — breaking the global interoperability of the internet.

Second, but related, the existence of alt-roots threatens ICANN’s authority.

ICANN has no authority over ENS or the NFT names that live on it, so for a registry to run a TLD in the both the authoritative ICANN root and the alt-root of the ENS could cause problems down the road.

While NFTs can be “owned”, gTLDs are not. UNR is merely the party ICANN has contracted with to run .hiphop. While UNR and any subsequent assignees have a presumptive right of renewal, it’s possible for ICANN to terminate the contract and hand stewardship of the gTLD to another registry. It’s not merely a hypothetical scenario.

Should that ever happen with .hiphop, ICANN wouldn’t have the authority to seize the ENS NFT, meaning the old registry could carry on running .hiphop in the ENS while the new registry runs it in the ICANN root, again breaking global DNS interoperability.

You could spin it either way — either ICANN is worried about interoperability, or it’s worried about protecting its own power. These are not mutually exclusive, and are both probably true.

One thing’s the sure, however — in roadblocking these gTLD transfers, ICANN is playing into the hands of critics and blockchain fanboys who argue for decentralized control of naming, with ICANN as their bogeyman.