ICANN’s credibility questioned after the rush to sign .africa contract before IRP determination

The recent ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore saw Akram Atallah, president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division (GDD) and Lucky Masilela, CEO of ZA Central Registry (ZACR) participate in a symbolic signing ceremony that allows the new gTLD “.Africa” to proceed to delegation.

The Announcement by ICANN continues that “This marks the first Registry Agreement signed between ICANN and an African gTLD registry operator.” Indeed everyone expected that DotConnectAfrica (DCA) would have been part of this event. The history of the .africa gTLD started with DotConnectAfrica, who was applauded by ICANN itself initially and traveled the epic route of initiating the domain at ICANN, introducing it and campaigning for its awareness in Africa and the world at large. This was materialized under a united Yes2dotAfrica theme, after obtaining the initial African Union and UNECA endorsement for its application to ICANN.

The announcement has roused mixed feelings within the Internet fraternity, naturally one would have expected excitement, but it comes short of an anticlimax, it is open by and large that dotAfrica process has been dogged with mainstream controversy.

The apprehension on the entire process puts the domain in uncharted territory majorly because the whole process has lacked good will and the transparency that a continental project would attract. This can be explained in the slow manner in which governments have taken up the building of the reserved names list in the past year since ZACR tried to push for it. The South Africa’s ZA Central Registry had initially set a deadline for the first week of February for African governments to submit their lists of important names of sovereign interest and national significance to be merged in the ‘Reserved Names List’ (RNL) process, but was reportedly unsuccessful.

It was reported that only 17 African countries have engaged in the process so far, whereas Africa has over 50 Nations. It appears these 17 countries are reportedly the same ones that presented the GAC early warning against DCA’s application. These 17 countries barely make 30% of Africa’s representation, and if this 30% could be postulated to be the decision makers, then Africa is in serious trouble because the “.africa” registry which will serve the whole continent has not been given a majority nod by countries.

ICANN’s decision to award a registry contract amidst an ongoing International Independent Panel Process (IRP) goes against the premises of fair competition and justice. DCA, it appears, has had to go through a process that was set to jeopardize its application from the onset.

It is said that the entire controversy started with ICANN itself advising the African Union to use Governmental Committee objections to ensure the outcome of the gTLD to their favor, when it found that DCA opposed the African Union’s request from ICANN to reserve the .africa, owing to the violation of ICANN’s own rules, during the ICANN International meeting in Dakar.

Acceptance of this advise was evidenced when DCA received a highly controversial GAC objection, which the ICANN New GTLD committee and the appeal to the ICANN Board Governance Committee indeed accepted and sustained their own advise, denying any reconsideration request of DCA’s appeal. ICANN then continued to process Uniforum’s application instead of tolling it until DCA’s concerns had been satisfactorily addressed.

Accountability and transparency remains to be the biggest bone of contention in the way Africa Union and ICANN managed the process. One cannot help to tie in the two together in terms of how DCA was bullied till the end by both institutions without any regards for their own policies and procedures in place. DCA is likely a victim of premeditated attempt for it not to participate as an applicant in the process at all, as African Union had blocked all paths to allow it to sustain its endorsement, including the reported sabotage to its endorsements by calling institutions that have endorsed DCA. ICANN also blocked DCA’s application from proceeding to deny a fair Geographic Panel evaluation rendering its application unable to proceed however, according to its own guidebook, geographic name applicants are afforded a 90 day period, after submission of application to obtain endorsement.

For those applicants that were not approved by ICANN, the ICANN rules stipulate that applicants can either withdraw or go to an IRP, where a close scrutiny of these rules appear to shield ICANN, and put it in an elevated unquestionable position. ICANN’s supplementary rules IRP rules No. 12. on Emergency Measures of Protection also do not provide for an applicant to apply for emergency procedure to stop ICANN from processing an application, should the applicant disagree with the decision of the ICANN board.

Such situations put ICANN in a powerful position that applicants may likely face unfair treatment despite the millions of dollars put in an application. Even so, in following up the DCA’s site on the IRP proceedings and that of ICANN’s, not all documents of the proceedings have been posted on the ICANN site. DCA appears to have given ICANN several warnings not to proceed with ZACR contract signing before the signing of the announcement on March 24th 2014.

African Governments also have not become well acquainted with ICANN procedures making it difficult for them to question procedures, it has only been left to few who have been attending ICANN meetings to dictate to the frequently changed ICT government officials what they feel is right for their own interests, and in the “.africa” case, left for those individuals who have already been discredited due to having vested interest in the outcome of the “.africa” gTLD.

Given the way ICANN have controversially managed the DotAfrica process thus far, it’s unlikely there will be a significant number of applicants should there be another new gTLD application round. In the interim, ICANN could save its own credibility by properly investigating the controversial endorsements, the Africa Union RFP process for DotAfrica and also setup a mechanism to investigate GAC’s decisions and rationales.

With all these misgivings towards ICANN, DCA should be a in a strong position to come out favorable in IRP process over ICANN.

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