Analysis Staff at domain-name overseer ICANN repeatedly rejected independent expert advice to ensure the .africa top-level domain was won by their preferred applicant – and then tried to hide their influence by censoring the results of an independent inquiry into the affair.
That is the latest revelation from our investigation into redacted documents produced by an independent review panel that looked into why ICANN had rejected one of the two bids for .africa.
The panel found that ICANN has broken its own bylaws by failing to act "neutrally and objectively, with integrity and fairness" when it rejected DotConnectAfrica's application and snubbed its repeated appeals.
Although the review panel is restricted to discovering only whether the ICANN board had acted in a way inconsistent with its bylaws or articles of incorporation, its final report included repeated references to staff behavior that demonstrated a similar failure to act neutrally or fairly, and even highlighted repeated staff interventions that consistently favored one of the two candidates.
When the panel's final report was published, however, it was redacted to remove all references to staff influencing the process. Those redactions were made unilaterally by ICANN's lawyers against the wishes of DotConnectAfrica, the prevailing party in the dispute.
ICANN staff did not inform their board of the decision to censor the report, and then, in response to our story revealing the redacted information, suggested that the redactions were agreed to by DotConnectAfrica. They were not.
ICANN's lawyers also appeared to suggest that the domain overlord had started a review process to remove the redactions as soon as it received the final report. In fact, such a process was only started after our story was published.
Some quick history
There were two applications for the rights to own the .africa top-level domain name. The first came from DotConnectAfrica (DCA), which originally received support from the African Union Commission (AUC). Subsequently, however, the AUC decided it wanted to run its own process to find a company to run .africa.
DCA refused to participate in that process, and applied through ICANN for the rights to the dot-word itself. As a result, it ended up in conflict with the company that the AUC eventually chose: South Africa's ZACR.
Under ICANN's rules, any application for .africa was required to gain the support of "at least 60 per cent of the respective national governments in the region."
However, due to confusing and contradictory wording in ICANN's Applicant Guidebook and a set of criteria that was not adhered to by national governments in their letters of support, the "expert, independent third-party evaluators" that ICANN contracted to assess the bids, InterConnect, reported that neither bid would pass evaluation.
In response, InterConnect made a series of recommendations on how to resolve the issue. Emails between InterConnect and ICANN reveal that those recommendations were repeatedly rejected following meetings of ICANN's executive team. The only consistent factor in each rejection was that it would either favor the bid put forward by the AUC's ZACR or disadvantage the rival application from DotConnectAfrica.
InterConnect recommended that the AUC be accepted as a relevant public authority in order to limit the need to go back to over 30 governments and ask them to submit revised letters of support.
There were two impacts of that approach. First, since DotConnectAfrica had submitted its original AUC endorsement with its bid (and governmental organizations were explicitly allowed to support more than one bid), it would mean both bids would be approved. And second, accepting the AUC as a relevant public authority would also mean that DotConnectAfrica's letter of support from the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) would also be accepted.