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DNS Women barred from ICANN funding?

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2024, Domain Policy

A networking group set up to support women in the domain name industry, especially in the developing world, may be banned from applying for ICANN funding under rules published earlier this week.

Concerns have been raised that DNS Women may be excluded from the $10 million in non-profit Grant Program funding ICANN is making available this year because its CEO participated in the program’s community rule-making process.

ICANN’s rules, written by Org staff based on the recommendations of the Cross-Community Working Group on New gTLD Auction Proceeds (CCWG-AP), ban anyone from applying for grants — set at between $50,000 and $500,000 — if they have potential conflicts of interest.

Participation in the CCWG-AP is listed as one such conflict:

No person that participated as a member (including temporary member appointments) of the Cross-Community Working Group on New gTLD Auction Proceeds (CCWG-AP) is eligible to apply for or be included within funded proposal activities as principals, advisors, or in other roles. Grants may not be awarded to businesses and organizations owned in whole or in part by the CCWG-AP members or their family members. Grant funding may not be used to pay compensation to CCWG-AP members or their family members.

DNS Women is currently led by Vanda Scartezini, who was a member of CCWG-AP representing the At-Large Advisory Committee. She’s written to ICANN to express surprise to find herself suddenly unable to apply for funding. ICANN has responded with a pointer to the CCWG-AP’s recommendations, where the language closely mirrors that found in the new application rules as implemented.

But if Scartezini has shot herself in the foot, she may not be alone. According to the CCWG-AP’s final report, there may have been almost enough foot-shooting to create a Paralympic football team.

Of the 22 people who participated as full members of the group — and would be therefore barred from financially benefiting from grants — 10 people answered “yes” or “maybe” when asked to disclose whether they or their employer expected to apply for funding (almost all, including Scartezini, were “maybes”).

The $10 million tranche available this year comes from a $217 million fund ICANN raised auctioning off contested gTLDs following the 2012 application round.

$10 million of ICANN cash up for grabs

Kevin Murphy, January 9, 2024, Domain Policy

ICANN has officially launched its Grant Program, making $10 million available to not-for-profit projects this year.

The Org expects to start accepting applications for between $50,000 and $500,000 between March 25 and May 24 and start handing out the cash early next year.

It’s the first phase of a program that currently sees ICANN sitting on a distributable cash pile of $217 million that it raised by auctioning off contested new gTLD registry contracts under the 2012 gTLD application round.

The money is only available to registered charities that in some way support ICANN’s mission in terms of developing internet interoperability or capacity building.

Organizations worldwide will be able to apply, but it seems unlikely anyone from a country currently subject to US government sanctions will be successful. Conflicted organizations — such as those led by somebody involved with the program — are also barred.

Applications for grants will be assessed by ICANN staff, a yet-to-be-named Independent Application Assessment Panel comprising “a diverse collective of subject matter experts”, and ultimately the ICANN board of directors.

More information and the application form can be found here.

ICANN accused of power grab over $271 million auction fund

Kevin Murphy, November 28, 2023, Domain Policy

ICANN has acted outside of its powers by ignoring community policy recommendations and leaving its $271 million gTLD auction windfall open to being frittered away on lawyers, according to community members.

The Intellectual Property Constituency of the GNSO has filed a formal Request for Reconsideration over a board resolution passed at ICANN 78 last month in Hamburg, and other constituencies may add their names to it shortly.

The row concerns the huge cash pile ICANN was left sitting on following the auction of 17 new gTLD contracts between 2014 and 2016, which raised $240 million (as of July, around $271 million after investment returns and ICANN helping itself to a portion to fund its operations reserve).

It was decided that the money should be used to fund a grant program for worthy causes, with organizations able to apply for up to $500,000 during discrete rounds, the first of which is due to open next year with a $10 million pot. Around $220 million is believed to be earmarked for the grant program over its lifetime.

But the Cross Community Working Group for Auction Proceeds (CCWG-AP) that came up with the rules of the program was concerned that unsuccessful applicants, or others chagrined by ICANN’s grant allocations, might challenge decisions using ICANN’s accountability mechanisms.

This would cause money earmarked for worthy causes to be spaffed away on lawyers, which the CCWG-AP wanted to avoid, so it recommended that ICANN modify its fundamental bylaws to exclude the grant program from mechanisms such as the Independent Review Process, which usually incurs high six-figure or seven-figure legal fees.

ICANN seemed to accept this recommendation — formally approving it in June last year — until ICANN 78, when the board approved a surprise U-turn on this so-called Recommendation 7.

The board said it was changing its mind because it had found “alternative ways” to achieve the same objective, “including ways that do not require modification to ICANN’s core Bylaws on accountability”. The resolution stated:

As a result, the Board is updating its action on Recommendation 7 to reflect that ICANN org should implement this Recommendation 7 directly through the use of applicant terms and conditions rather than through a change to ICANN’s Fundamental Bylaws.

This left some community members — and at least one ICANN director — scratching their heads. Sure, you might be able to ban grant applicants from using the IRP in the program’s terms and conditions, but that wouldn’t stop third parties such as an applicant’s competitors from filing an IRP and causing legal spaffery.

The board was well aware of these concerns when it passed the resolution last month. Directors pointed out in Hamburg that ICANN is still pursuing the bylaws amendment route, but has removed it as a dependency for the first grant round going ahead.

This left some community members nonplussed — it wasn’t clear whether ICANN planned to go ahead with the program ignoring community recommendations, or not. The reassuring words of directors didn’t seem to tally with the language of the resolution.

So the IPC took the initiative and unironically invoked an accountability mechanism — the RfR — to get ICANN to change its mind again. I gather the request was filed as a precaution within the 30-day filing window due to the lack of clarity on ICANN’s direction.

The RfR states:

the impetus behind the Bylaws change was to prevent anyone from challenging grant decisions, including challenges from parties not in contractual privity with ICANN. The Board’s hasty solution would only prevent contracting grant applicants from challenging decisions; it would not in any way affect challenges by anyone else – including anyone who wished to challenge the award of a grant. The grant program could be tied in knots by disgruntled parties, competitive organizations or anyone else who wished to delay or prevent ICANN from carrying out any decision to grant funds. This is exactly what the CCWG-AP sought to prevent

The IPC says that by bypassing the bylaws amendment process, which involves community consent, the ICANN board is basically giving itself the unilateral right to turn off its bylaws-mandated accountability mechanisms when it sees fit. A power grab.

It wants the Hamburg resolution reversed.

Discussing the RfR a few days before it was filed, other members of the GNSO Council suggested that their constituencies might sign on as fellow complainants if and when it is amended.

RfRs are handled by ICANN’s Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, which does not currently have a publicly scheduled upcoming meeting.