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ICANN prez calls out own board over conflicts of interest

Departing chief accused of risking the net

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The board of directors of internet overseer ICANN is said to be fuming after its ethics were called into question by the organisation's outgoing president and CEO.

Rod Beckstrom, who is set to the leave the domain name policy group in July, took to the stage at ICANN's public meeting here in San Jose, Costa Rica on Monday to criticise what he called the "tangle of conflicting agendas" on the board.

“ICANN must be able to act for the public good while placing commercial and financial interests in the appropriate context,” he said. “How can it do this if all top leadership is from the very domain name industry it is supposed to coordinate independently?

“There is value in having community members with domain name industry experience but it is equally valuable to avoid even the perception of a conflict of interest,” he said.

The address came a few weeks after an ICANN board meeting at which seven of its 16 directors, including the chair and vice-chair, acknowledged conflicts of interest relating to ICANN's new generic top-level domains initiative, which promises to create hundreds of new domain suffixes.

Chair Steve Crocker runs the consulting firm Shinkuro, which has a silent investment from domain name registry provider Afilias. Vice-chair Bruce Tonkin, meanwhile, is a senior executive with Melbourne IT, an Australian company that expects to help over 100 clients apply for new gTLDs.

All seven conflicted directors excused themselves from voting on or discussing new gTLDs, in adherence to new ethics rules approved by ICANN in December.

Beckstrom first raised conflicts of interest as a problem facing ICANN at its meeting in Singapore last June, just a few days before the organisation approved the new gTLD programme.

The programme enables any company to apply to run their own right-of-the-dot domain name – either generic terms such as .web or .blog, geographic names such as .london, or branded extensions such as .canon and .hitachi.

The then-chair of ICANN, Kiwi trademark lawyer Peter Dengate Thrush, left the organisation shortly after the Singapore meeting to take on the well-paid executive chairman position at Top Level Domain Holdings, a start-up with big plans to apply for dozens of new gTLDs.

The move caused outrage among ICANN's opponents, though TLDH and Dengate Thrush say that they only started talking after he had already left the chair.

Despite the new ethics policy, Beckstrom said this week that it is “time to further tighten up the rules” in response to “the growing chorus of criticism about ICANN’s ethics environment”.

He singled out ICANN's secretive Nominating Committee, which is responsible for selecting eight of the 16 directors (the other eight are elected by stakeholder groups), for special criticism.

The NomCom needs to be reformed to only select "fully independent and unconflicted" directors, Beckstrom said. NomCom itself should be made up of unconflicted outsiders, he added.

Beckstrom's remarks were not received well by the board, according to sources. They also provoked a barrage of criticism from attendees at the San Jose meeting.

During a session between the ICANN board and its Generic Names Supporting Organisation Council on Tuesday, councillors wondered aloud whether his speech was wise.

"Our fear and our concern is that without that industry expertise you have a board that is going to significantly effect our operations and significantly effect the security and stability of the internet," said GNSO Council vice-chair Jeff Neuman, of the registry company Neustar. "If you do not have industry expertise on the board you're putting that at great risk."

Beckstrom responded that he merely wanted "balance" on the board.

Former ICANN executive Maria Farrell, who left the organisation shortly after Beckstrom took over and currently sits on the NomCom, said there was a "germ of truth" in his remarks but said they played into the hands of governments hostile to ICANN.

"Beckstrom’s speech was not only inaccurate and mean-spirited, but a transparent attempt to wring personal, tactical advantage at the strategic expense of the organisation he still purports to lead," she wrote on her blog.

Nations such as Russia and China favour a government-dominated system of internet governance under the auspices of the International Telecommunications Union, rather than ICANN's public-private "multi-stakeholder" model.

Last August, Beckstrom announced his intention to leave ICANN at the end of its three-year initial term. It is widely believed that the decision was forced by the board, unimpressed by his first two years on the job.

ICANN is currently interviewing his potential successors in Costa Rica. The shortlist is believed to have been whittled down to a handful of names including Lesley Cowley, CEO of .uk registry Nominet. ®

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