GNSO mulls lawyering up over auction fund dispute

The GNSO Council has started discussing bringing in the lawyers over ICANN’s recent handling of issues related to its $200+ million auction fund and Grant Program.

The Council today raised the possibility of deploying the never-before-used Community Independent Review Process, which would involve every major community group ganging up on ICANN’s board in a protracted quasi-judicial bunfight.

Ironically, the beef concerns the way ICANN is trying to stop people invoking its accountability mechanisms, including the IRP, to challenge decisions it makes under its Grant Program, which hopes to distribute $10 million to worthy causes this year.

ICANN policy is that nobody should be able to challenge grant decisions, because that would mean funneling the available funds into the pockets of worthless lawyers, rather than worthy causes. But how it proposes to achieve that goal is in dispute.

The original community recommendation was for a bylaws amendment that specified that the Grant Program was out-of-bounds for IRP and Request for Reconsideration claims, and the board initially agreed, before changing its mind and instead plumping for a clause in the program’s terms that prevents grant applicants appealing adverse decisions.

After community pushback, the board said it would also propose a bylaws amendment, but many believe the amendment it came up with goes way too far and risks making it far too easy for ICANN to wriggle out of its accountability obligations in future.

Leading the fight against the board is the GNSO’s Intellectual Property Constituency, which filed a Request for Reconsideration in November, asking ICANN to reverse its decision to “contract around” its accountability promises and scale back its over-broad bylaws amendment.

But the RfR was thrown out, with the Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee ruling that the IPC had failed to say how it had been specifically harmed by the board’s actions, accusing the constituency of merely “speculating” about possible future harms.

GNSO Councillor Susan Payne, today expressed the IPC’s disappointment with BAMC’s decision on the Council’s monthly conference call.

“We think that’s wrong,” she said. “If you purport to change a fundamental bylaw by using a process that cuts out the GNSO and effectively therefore also its constituencies and stakeholder groups then clearly there’s a harm there.”

She also noted the financial expense of challenging the board’s decisions.

“Constituencies or stakeholder groups will have real difficulty in withstanding the ICANN machine,” Payne said. “It’s a really expensive process to to challenge these kind of decisions. We asked if other constituencies and stakeholder groups would be able to join the IPC in bringing that RfR and no one had the finances to do it.”

The IPC has joined ICANN in a Cooperative Engagement Process — a kind of informal discussion that is often a precursor to an IRP filing — but Payne raised the possibility of ICANN’s Empowered Community filing its own IRP.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the EC has the special ability to bring a Community IRP and ICANN has to pay for it. It’s never been used before, and it doesn’t look to me like the complex conditions required to trigger it are close to having been met.

The IPC had broad support in principle from the other Councillors speaking in today’s meeting, but some urged caution due to ICANN’s past behavior when the lawyers are called in.

“Once you get into the IRP process, ICANN buckles down, hands it off to their outside counsel, and you really get a nasty litigation fight,” said Jeff Neuman, a liaison on the Council. “You’re talking about years of litigation, outside counsel, and no progress”.

Fellow council member Thomas Rickert of the ISPs constituency suggested looking for a law firm that would handle the IRP on a no-win-no-fee basis before committing further.

While it seems a Community IRP may be unrealistic for now, the fact that it’s even being discussed shows how seriously the GNSO is taking this apparent power grab by ICANN’s board and lawyers.

The post GNSO mulls lawyering up over auction fund dispute first appeared on Domain Incite.

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