Brands may be hearing a lot of back and forth about how ICANN handled the competing applications for .AFRICA. While it may not have any material impact on brands’ current gTLD applications, the issue does increase the work needed in advance of a second new gTLD application round and the work being done to develop ICANN accountability mechanisms.
To give some context…
DotConnectAfrica (DCA) and the ZA Central Registry (ZACR) put in competing applications for the protected geographic string, .AFRICA.
In June 2013, DCA’s bid for the .AFRICA gTLD was thrown out before its Initial Evaluation had been completed as a result of opposition from the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC). In response, DCA filed a Request for Reconsideration that was ultimately denied by the Board Governance Committee, a sub-group of the ICANN Board of Directors.
In October 2013, as a last avenue to challenge ICANN’s decision, DCA filed an Independent Review Panel (IRP) complaint. Amended in January 2014, the complaint claimed that GAC advice opposing the application was deliberately vague and that ICANN had broken its own Bylaws by failing to exercise a policy of neutrality, objectivity, and fairness in dismissing DCA’s repeated appeals.
Despite the fact that the IRP was still ongoing, ICANN awarded .AFRICA to ZACR in May 2014 by executing a Registry Agreement. ZACR was only days from delegating the gTLD when the IRP process concluded. The IRP panel ruled that the GAC’s April 2013 advice lacked “transparent justification” for DCA’s bid to be rejected, and that DCA’s application should not have been thrown out – effectively halting ZACR’s delegation of the string.
As a result of that decision, DotConnectAfrica’s application will return to the evaluation process and the delegation of .AFRICA to the ZA Central Registry is now uncertain.
What does this mean right now?
From a business perspective
ICANN’s treatment of DCA’s .AFRICA application is another example of inconsistencies in the ICANN process that have cropped up during this first new gTLD round.
For example, ICANN has contradicted itself with how it has treated applications for singular and plural versions of the same term: In some cases, such as .CAR/.CARS and .COM/.CAM, the string similarity review panel placed singular and plural versions of the same word in a contention set, while in other cases, different panelists opted to allow singular and plural versions of the same term to coexist as separate gTLDs.
Members of the ICANN community are expecting that these kinds of inconsistencies will get ironed out before a second round of gTLD applications. As such, additional wrinkles like the turmoil over the .AFRICA applications will create that much more work before round two can open.
From an Internet governance perspective
The .AFRICA matter has turned the heat up on an issue that continually simmers in Internet policy community – the role of governments in Internet governance.
The IRP’s report presents the GAC as a body that provides unclear advice to ICANN in hopes of avoiding substantive discussions, and the ICANN Board as giving too much deference to the GAC. This means that, once again, the question of GAC’s role in ICANN policy will need to be discussed and will likely impact work on ICANN’s accountability mechanisms, which must be resolved in ICANN’s work to transition the IANA contract away from U.S. oversight.
The ICANN community and the ICANN Board has its work cut out for them – time will tell if it’s enough that any second round or transition timelines may begin to feel the pinch.