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It’s ICANN versus the blockchain in Kuala Lumpur

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2022, Domain Policy

Internet fragmentation and the rise of blockchain-based naming systems were firmly on the agenda at ICANN 75 in Kuala Lumpur today, with two sessions exploring the topic and ICANN’s CTO at one point delivering a brutal gotcha to a lead blockchain developer.

Luc van Kampen, head of developer relations at Ethereum Name Service, joined a panel entitled Emerging Identifier Technologies, to talk up the benefits of ENS.

He did a pretty good job, I thought, delivering one of the clearest and most concise explanations of ENS I’ve heard to date.

He used as an example ICANN’s various handles across various social media platforms — which are generally different depending on the platform, because ICANN was late to the party registering its name — to demonstrate the value of having a single ENS name, associated with a cryptographic key, that can be used to securely identify a user across the internet.

Passive aggressive? Maybe. But it got his point across.

“We at ENS envisage a world where everyone can use their domain as a universal identifier,” he said. Currently, 600,000 users have registered 2.4 million .eth domains, and over 1,000 web sites support it, he said.

He described how ENS allows decentralized web sites, is managed by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO) and funded by the $5 annual fee for each .eth name that is sold.

Van Kampen had ready responses to questions about how it would be feasible for ENS to apply to ICANN to run .eth in the consensus root in the next new gTLD application round, suggesting that it’s something ENS is thinking about in detail.

While not confirming that ENS will apply, he described how a gateway or bridge between the Ethereum blockchain and the ICANN root would be required to allow ENS to meet contractual requirements such as zone file escrow.

What did not come up is the fact the the string “eth” is likely to be reserved as the three-character code for Ethiopia. If the next round has the same terms as the 2012 round, .eth will not even enter full evaluation.

But the real gotcha came when ICANN CTO John Crain, after acknowledging the technology is “really cool”, came to ask a question.

“What kind of safeguards and norms are you putting in place regarding misbehavior and harm with these names?” Crain asked.

Van Kampen replied: “Under the current implementation of the Ethereum Name Service and the extensions that implement us and the integrations we have, domains are unable to be revoked under any circumstances.”

“So if I understand correctly, under the current solution, if I’m a criminal and I register a name in your space, I’m pretty secure today,” Crain asked. “I’m not going to lose my name?”

Van Kampen replied: “Under the current system, everything under the Ethereum Name Service and everything registered via us with the .eth TLD are completely censorship resistant.”

Herein lies one of the biggest barriers to mainstream adoption of blockchain-based alt-roots. Who’s going to want to be associated with a system that permits malware, phishing, dangerous fake pharma and child sexual abuse material? Who wants to be known as the maker of the “kiddy porn browser”?

If I were Crain I’d be feeling pretty smug after that exchange.

That’s not to say that ICANN put in a wholly reassuring performance today.

Technologist Alain Durand preceded van Kampen with a presentation pointing out the substantial problems with name collisions that could be caused by blockchain-based alt-roots, not only between the alt-root and the ICANN root, but also between different alt-roots.

It’s a position he outlined in a paper earlier this year, but this time it was supplemented with slides outlining a hypothetical conversation between two internet users slowly coming to the realization that different namespaces are not compatible, and that the ex-boyfriend of “Sally” has registered a name that collides with current boyfriend “John”.

It’s meant to be cute, but some of the terminology used made me cringe, particularly when one of the slides was tweeted out of context by ICANN’s official Twitter account.

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but it strikes me as poor optics for ICANN, an organization lest we forget specifically created to introduce competition to the domain name market, to say stuff like “Market, you are a monster!”.

I’m also wondering whether “icannTLD” is terminology that plays into the alt-root narrative that ICANN is the Evil Overlord of internet naming. It does not, after all, actually run any TLDs (except .int).

The language used to discuss alt-roots came under focus earlier in the day in a session titled Internet Fragmentation, the DNS, and ICANN, which touched on blockchain alt-roots while not being wholly focused on it.

Ram Mohan, chief strategy officer of Identity Digital and member of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee, while warning against ICANN taking a reflexively us-versus-them stance on new naming systems, wondered whether phrases such as “domain name” and “TLD” are “terms of art” that should be only used to refer to names that use the consensus ICANN-overseen DNS.

We ought to have a conversation about “What is a TLD”? Is a TLD something that is in the IANA root? Is a domain name an identifier that is a part of that root system? i think we ought to have that conversation because the place where I worry about is you have other technologies in other areas that come and appropriate the syntax, the nomenclature, the context that all of us have worked very hard to build credibility in… What happens if that terminology gets taken over, diluted, and there are failures in that system? … The end user doesn’t really care whether [a domain] is part of the DNS or not part of the DNS, they just say “My domain name stopped working”, when it may not actually be a quote-unquote “domain name”.

Food for thought.

ICANN rushes mystery directors onto board in apparent bylaws breach

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN is hurrying two new directors onto its board despite that fact that hardly anybody, apparently including the people who this week gave them the nod, seemed to know who they are.

The Org also seems to have technically breached its bylaws with the timing of the move, which also sees chair Maarten Botterman appointed for another three-year term.

Earlier this week the Empowered Community Administration, which has broad powers to hire and fire directors, submitted ICANN-drafted letters formally approving this year’s Nominating Committee picks — Botterman, Christopher Chapman and Sajidur Rahman.

But I’m told that the ECA, like the rest of us, were not given any information by ICANN about the two newcomers beyond their names and the geographic regions they hail from. They were basically waved onto the board blind, it seems.

Photographs subsequently published on the NomCom web site confirm the two directors’ identities. They’re the former head of the Australian Communications and Media Authority Chris Chapman, and Indonesian venture capitalist Sajid Rahman of MyAsiaVC.

Judging by the ICANN bylaws, approval by the ECA — which comprises one person from each of the ASO, the ccNSO, the GNSO, the ALAC and the GAC — is pretty much just a rubber-stamp. All the due diligence is done by NomCom and the Org.

But the appointments appear to amount to a technical bylaws breach on timing grounds, coming about a month late. The bylaws state:

At least two months before the commencement of each annual meeting, the Nominating Committee shall give the EC Administration (with a copy to the Decisional Participants and Secretary) written notice of its nomination of Directors for seats with terms beginning at the conclusion of the annual meeting, and the EC Administration shall promptly provide the Secretary (with a copy to the Decisional Participants) with written notice of the designation of those Directors.

This year’s AGM will be held in Kuala Lumpur from September 17, with the new directors taking their seats at its conclusion on September 22. So NomCom seems to have missed its “at least two months before” deadline by a month. ECA approval came August 15.

This year’s AGM is a little earlier than usual, which may help explain the problem. They’re usually held in October or November, and there hasn’t been one held in September since 2001.

NomCom also missed the two-month window in 2020, by an even bigger margin, for entirely understandable pandemic-related reasons. It announced its selections just a couple of weeks before the AGM.

ICANN backtracks on legal waiver for ICANN 75

Kevin Murphy, July 13, 2022, Domain Policy

ICANN has softened the language in the legal waiver it requires all of its public meeting attendees to agree to.

The waiver for ICANN 75, due to take place in Kuala Lumpur in September, no longer requires you to absolve ICANN from blame if you get sick due to the Org’s own gross negligence.

For last month’s ICANN 74 in The Hague, the waiver stated:

I knowingly and freely assume all risks related to illness and infectious diseases, including but not limited to COVID-19, even if arising from the negligence or fault of ICANN.

The Kuala Lumpur waiver states:

I knowingly and freely assume all risks related to illness and infectious diseases, including but not limited to COVID-19.

So if an infected ICANN staffer spits in the coffee, this time you could probably sue.

The 74 waiver caused a fair few complaints when it first emerged. It was accused of being “excessive” by the CEOs of Blacknight and the Namibian ccTLD registry in a Request for Reconsideration that was eventually dismissed by the ICANN board of directors.

It also caused the At-Large Advisory Committee to issue a withering takedown accusing ICANN of insensitivity and intimidation, which ICANN’s chair brushed off (pdf) a couple weeks ago.

There are other language changes in the new waiver, but none seem to be as significant as ICANN making itself legally bullet-proof.

Kuala Lumpur will have substantially the same Covid-19 precautions as The Hague, which includes mandatory mask-wearing indoors, testing, and social distancing, ICANN has confirmed.

ICANN to consider cancelling ICANN 68 tomorrow

Kevin Murphy, April 7, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is to consider whether to cancel its in-person ICANN 68 gathering at a meeting of its board of directors tomorrow.

The agenda for its meeting tomorrow has one line item: “Impact of COVID-19 on ICANN68”.

The four-day Policy Forum is currently scheduled to take place from June 22 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I think the chances of this event going ahead in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic are zero point zero.

March’s ICANN 67 meeting was replaced with a series of virtual Zoom rooms on February 19, when cases of Covid-19 had been reported in just 26 countries and it was still widely thought of as a Chinese problem.

According to today’s data from the European Centre For Disease Prevention and Control, coronavirus cases have been reported in 204 countries and territories. That’s pretty much all of them.

Even if some currently hard-hit countries in North America and Europe are over the hump by June, you can guarantee that somewhere in the world there’ll be a horrific Biblical epidemic going on. I can’t see ICANN taking the risk of opening its doors to the world at a time like that.

Frankly, I think ICANN 69, the annual general meeting slated for Hamburg in October, has a big question mark hanging over it as well.

Germany may have been handling its crisis relatively well compared to other nations, but ICANN has participants from 150 countries and it may well have to make its call based not on the strongest national response but the weakest.