ICANN is devolving into a trade association hiding under a thinning veneer of multistakeholderism and the domain industry is becoming a cartel.
Those are two of the conclusions reached by consultant Michael Palage, who’s been involved with ICANN since pretty much the start, in an epic Request for Reconsideration in which he asks the Org to unsign Verisign’s recently renewed .net registry contract.
ICANN’s equally intriguing response — denying, of course, Palage’s request — also raises worrying questions about how much power ICANN’s lawyers have over its board of directors.
The RfR paints a picture of a relationship where Verisign receives special privileges — such as exemptions from certain fees and obligations — in exchange for paying higher fees — contributing $55 million of ICANN’s budget — some of which is accounted for quite opaquely.
Palage claims the domain industry of being “on the precipice of becoming a cartel” due to recent consolidation, and says that is being enabled by ICANN’s failure to conduct an economic study of the market.
Verisign’s .net and .com contracts are the only registry agreements that do not oblige the registry to participate in economic studies, Palage says, reducing ICANN’s ability, per its bylaws, “to promote and sustain a competitive environment in the DNS market.”
The failure of ICANN to have the contractual authority to undertake a full economic study to ensure a “competitive environment in the DNS market” undermines one of its core values. This failure is resulting in a growing consolidation within the industry which is on the precipice of becoming a cartel. ne needs to look no further than four US-based companies, Verisign, PIR, GoDaddy, and Identity Digital which currently control almost the entirety of the gTLD registry market based on domain names under management. This unchecked consolidation within the industry directly and materially impacts the ability of individual consultants to make a livelihood unless working for one of the dominant market players.
While Palage says he and other registrants are being harmed by increasing .net prices, and that an economic study would help lower them, he also asks ICANN to get Verisign to migrate to the Base Registry Agreement, which would enable Verisign to raise prices at will, without the current 10%-a-year cap.
He’s also concerned that ICANN’s volunteer community is shrinking as the domain industry becomes an increasingly dominant percentage of public meeting attendance.
Figures published by ICANN show that, at the last count, 39% of attendees were from the domain industry. ICANN stopped breaking down attendee allegiance in 2020 during the pandemic and did not resume publication of this data afterwards.
“ICANN has started down the slippery slope of becoming a trade association,” Palage writes.
While his RfR was going through the process of being considered by ICANN and its Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee, Palage separately wrote to ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey to express concerns that ICANN policy-making might be risking falling foul of antitrust law.
It seems a recent meeting of the working group discussing updates to ICANN’s Transfers Policy debated whether to cap the amount registries are allowed to charge registrars for bulk transfers. Dollar amounts were discussed.
Palage suggested ICANN might want to develop a formal antitrust policy statement that could be referred to whenever ICANN policy-makers meet, in much the same way as its Expected Standards of Behavior are deployed.
If the RfR as published by ICANN lacks some coherence, it may be because ICANN’s lawyers have redacted huge chunks of text as “privileged and confidential”. That’s something that hardly ever happens in RfRs.
It seems Palage knows some things about the .net contract and Verisign’s relationship with ICANN from his term on the ICANN board, which ran from April 2003 to April 2006, a time when Verisign and ICANN were basically at war.
Because the information Palage is privy to is still considered privileged by ICANN, it was redacted not only from the published version of the RfR but also it seems from the version supplied to the BAMC for consideration.
ICANN cited this part of its bylaws to justify the redactions:
The Board Accountability Mechanisms Committee shall act on a Reconsideration Request on the basis of the public written record, including information submitted by the Requestor, by the ICANN Staff, and by any third party.
Reading between the lines, it seems most of the redactions likely refer to the Verisign v ICANN lawsuit of 2004-2005.
Fellow greybeards will recall that Verisign sued ICANN for blocking its Site Finder service, which put a wildcard in the .com zone and essentially parked and monetized all unregistered domains while destabilizing software that relied on NXDOMAIN replies.
The October 2005 settlement (pdf) forced Verisign to acknowledge ICANN as king of the internet. In exchange, it got to keep .com forever. The deal gave Verisign financial security and ICANN legitimacy and was probably the most important of ICANN’s foundational documents before the IANA transition.
So what did the board of 2005 know that’s apparently too sensitive for the board of 2023? Dunno. I asked Palage if he’d be willing to share and he politely declined.
In any event, his RfR (pdf), which among other things asked for ICANN to reopen .net contract negotiations, was dismissed summarily (pdf) by BAMC last week on the grounds that he had not sufficiently shown how he was injured by ICANN’s actions.
The post Palage’s epic rant as he asks ICANN to cancel Verisign’s .net contract first appeared on Domain Incite.