ICANN RPM PDP Phase 1 Comment Period is another sham, part 3

ICANN actively mistreats stakeholders who don’t understand English when it comes to policy development. While ICANN pretends to consider the global public interest, that cannot happen when non-English fluent participants are treated unfairly as second-class citizens. This is evident in the Phase 1 Initial Report of the Review of All Rights Protection Mechanisms in All gTLDs Policy Development Process which is now open for public comment, as I’ve been writing about it for the past week (see my prior blog posts here and here).

If you scroll down to Section III: Relevant Resources for the comment period, you will find a 147 page PDF in English for the initial report. However, if you click on the links to the Arabic, Spanish, French, Russian, and Chinese documents, all they get are short executive summaries of less than 6 pages, which contain no real details that would permit readers to make substantive comments to the working group. This illustrates the sham that ICANN has become, when non-English fluent stakeholders are not given full translations of the proposals that will affect them. Thus, they are unable to actively participate. ICANN is happy to take fees from domain name registrants and stakeholders from all around the world, but then deprives them of a real voice in policymaking. This is unacceptable. ICANN has an annual budget exceeding $100 million per year. It cannot purport to legitimately reflect the views of a global community when that global community is uninformed.

This fundamental failure by ICANN and its staff reinforces my call for an extension to the deadline for comments. The 147 page initial report must be fully translated into the other 5 UN languages, and publicized through outreach to affected stakeholders so that they can have meaningful input.

We can see that ICANN repeatedly fails to hear from non-English stakeholders, because of lack of translation of documents. Consider the 9,000+ comments which mostly opposed the dot-com contract. How many of those were non-English? Very few, judging by the subject lines of the comments. Indeed, ICANN staff didn’t even bother to translate any of that issue’s documents into non-English versions, as only English documents exist on their page for that comment period. Yet we know that many dot-com domains are registered all around the world. The public deserves better than this.

In my prior blog post I listed the most active participants in the RPM PDP working group. Where are all the Chinese or Indian stakeholders? Or Arabic participants? Or Africans? The working group is dominated by North American and European participants. This is a group that is unrepresentative of the global community, and language barriers are a major cause of this imbalance. This leads to bad policy-making, because valuable input isn’t received at all from many groups, whereas some perspectives are over-represented. The blame for this falls squarely upon ICANN staff and the working group co-chairs, as the Working Group Guidelines clearly state (in Section 2.2.1) that:

In all cases where the Chair believes that one set of interests or expertise is missing from a group, special efforts must be made to bring that interest or expertise into the group via invitation or other method and the situation must be documented in the final report, including a discussion of the efforts made to redress the balance. Additionally, the Chair should ensure that particular outreach efforts are made when community reviews are done of the group’s output, to include reviews from the interests or expertise that were not adequately represented.

There have been no outreach efforts to hear from non-English stakeholders, who can’t understand the issues since the documents aren’t in their language. If ICANN only published documents in Russian, there’d be a huge outcry that full translations should be provided in English. Yet, when documents are only published in English, where is the outrage?

Indeed, ICANN has the technical capability to run its meetings in multiple languages with real-time audio translation. I’ve participated in At-Large calls in the past (before I left the At-Large due to their role in the .org fiasco) where both English and Spanish could be accommodated. Why isn’t that standard in normal working groups, to get the broadest possible participation from stakeholders? While it would cost a little bit more, there are opportunities to save money elsewhere, given many ICANN staff simply “show up” on calls but don’t do anything productive. Given international outsourcing, it should be feasible to do real-time translation in multiple languages, or even hire full time staff to do that in less expensive regions of the world.

Another obstacle to participation in working groups is the time that the calls are held. When I was a member of the RPM PDP working group (before I was unfairly banished), most calls were usually at around noon or 1 pm Eastern time. For prospective participants in the Asia-Pacific region, though, that would translate into meetings in the middle of the night! Thus, to accommodate their needs, one working group call per month used to happen at around 10 pm or 11 pm Eastern time, to be easier on our APAC friends. However, if one examines the times of the meetings that have taken place in 2019 and 2020 (after I was banished), they inexplicably stopped doing this! [I was the one that would often remind them “Isn’t this the week for the APAC-friendly call?” but now no one else appears to care that further obstacles to participation have been quietly implemented, eliminating that accommodation for members in other time zones]

Why does all this matter, you might ask? Surely North Americans and Europeans know what’s best for the global community? Obviously that’s an offensive idea, but that appears to be what ICANN believes!

Consider the policy blunders that occur when you don’t hear from the global community. Many people are unfamiliar with the URS (a faster version of the UDRP which can lead to suspension of domain names), and aren’t aware that their rules require that the Complaint be in English! Thus, a domain name registrant who doesn’t understand English is at a hopeless disadvantage in the process. The URS was designed for new gTLDs, and Chinese registrants have registered more new gTLDs than anyone else. Indeed, if there was to be a “default” language, it should be Chinese! Many popular registrars are also from China. To correct this unfairness, Zak Muscovitch and I proposed that the language rules be changed, via Individual URS Proposal #34, to mirror those of the UDRP.  This policy blunder put Chinese registrants at a severe disadvantage, and we showed in our “evidence” supporting our proposal that Chinese registrants responded to complaints at much lower rates than those from the USA, which could be explained by the language disadvantage. One would think that such a proposal to fix the broken policy would be “obvious”, and should be a working group recommendation, rather than a proposal from 2 individual members (well, past member in my case, since I am banished!). But, that’s not the case. The TM lobby who pushed for the URS actually wants to keep every advantage they have. Sending complaints that domain owners can’t even read? Those kinds of dirty tricks and lack of due process for registrants are advantages that the TM lobby (who’ve captured this working group) actually seek to perpetuate! If you actually read the initial report which is open for comments, only a subset (pp. 68-69) of the full proposal document appears, and none of the damning evidence of the damage of the existing policy is present, to inform the community making public comments.

I do not pretend to know all the concerns of other stakeholders, particularly from other regions, even though I saw and was sensitive to the above issue. It’s imperative that there be broad outreach, and ICANN isn’t doing enough, particularly when these involve mandatory policies that affect all domain name registrants around the world.

Furthermore, ICANN uses Google Forms and Google Docs for comments, which are actually inaccessible from some countries! I asked a friend in China to attempt to view the public comments already submitted so far, but it was completely blocked, as are many other Google services. One of the best ways to understand issues before submitting comments is to read what others have already submitted, yet those in China are unable to do so. The need to revert to more standard commenting systems (free form email comments, like those for the recent dot-com and dot-org proposals) is evident, given the current system isn’t universally accessible.

In conclusion, the above problems reinforce why the current comment period is a sham, and must be fixed if ICANN is to represent the global public interest.