Sunday, 3 April 2005
ICANN reveals ".travel" sponsor is a front for IATA
As I've been reporting for several years , key staff of the Internet's governing body, ICANN, cut a secret deal at least as early as 2001 with the international airline cartel IATA to create and hand over to IATA's control a new Internet top level domain (TLD), ".travel".
The process of delivering on that back-room commitment has been prolonged and complicated, in part because IATA itself was so obviously incapable of representing the interests of the diversity of people and organizations who use the Internet for travel-related purposes.
After ICANN was successfully pressured (mainly by travel agencies rather than consumer advocates or travellers) to pass over IATA's application in the first round of new TLD's, ICANN rewrote the specifications for the next round of applications to favor an application submitted by a series of front entities nominally independent of IATA, but in fact created to serve its interests, and run by some of the same people as had overseen IATA's own unsuccessful application.
When ICANN opened a public forum for comment on the new ".travel" application, I submitted my objections . I also included in my comments an explicit request, as an interested stakeholder and as the journalist who has been most closely covering the issue, for notice of any meetings held by ICANN or by "independent evaluators" chosen by ICANN to evaluate the ".travel" applications.
ICANN's bylaws require that "ICANN and its constituent bodies shall operate to the maximum extent feasible in an open and transparent manner." Obviously, the first essential step toward compliance with that mandate would be to provide notice, on request, of meetings, so that interested parties could determine what means might be available (such as Webcasting, auditing of telephone conference calls, or personal attendance at face-to-face meetings) to provide the "maximum extent feasible" of openness for those meetings.
But despite my explicit request I have never received any notice of any meetings by any ICANN body to consider the ".travel" applications, and no such notice has ever been posted, so far as I can tell, on the ICANN Web site.
On 3 March 2005, minutes of an ICANN Board of Directors "meeting" on 18 October 2004 were posted on the ICANN Web site.
This was not actually a valid meeting within the meaning of ICANN's bylaws, since it was conducted secretly by telephone, and it clearly would have been possible to permit observers to monitor the conference call at their own expense -- such a service costs no more than US$0.10 per minute -- or to Webcast it, but neither of these feasible mechanisms for a greater extent of openness and transparency was provided.
The minutes reveal that -- without notice even to myself or others who had specifically requested such notice, and who were thus prevented from making any attempt to determine what mechanisms for openness might have been feasible -- ICANN had actually (secretly) selected and appointed "independent evaluators" (identities still secret). These evaluators held (secret) meetings and prepared a (secret) report to ICANN. ICANN's Board of Directors and the applicants (it's not clear if this means Tralliance, the Travel Partnership Corporation, and/or IATA) received this report, but the public and interested stakeholders did not. The applicants submitted a (secret) response to the report, which was also provided to ICANN's Board but not to other stakeholders or the public.
During the 18 October 2004 (closed) ICANN Board of Directors conference call, the Board "approved" a resolution (not posted for public comment 21 days in advance, and without notice in the agenda 7 days in advance that it would be considered, both of which are required by ICANN's bylaws) authorizing negotiation of an agreement with the ".travel" sponsorship applicant(s).
All this was only revealed with the posting of the minutes on 3 March 2005. By that time the (secret) negotiations were probably already well under way, if not complete, since on 24 March 2005 a notice was posted on ICANN's Web site that "ICANN has completed negotiations with the applicants for the .JOBS and .TRAVEL sponsored top-level domains. The .JOBS and .TRAVEL sponsored TLD registry agreements have been posted on the ICANN website and submitted to the ICANN Board for approval."
Only portions of the "proposed" (by whom it was or is being proposed is not clear) agreement were actually posted: one of the posted portions incorporates by reference as its "Appendix A" an agreement dated 24 February 2004 between the applicant to ICANN (Tralliance Corp.) and the Travel Partnership Corporation (TTPC), which describes itself as the "sponsor" of ".travel". That "Appendix A" agreement between TTPC and Tralliance wasn't posted until yesterday, 2 April 2005, and only in response to my repeated requests.
There are particular questions about who is really behind the application, and who will really control ".travel", because of the revelation on 17 November 2004, just after the initial (secret) October 2004 ICANN Board vote to authorize (secret) negotiations with Tralliance, that on 25 February 2003 Tralliance Corp. had (secretly) concluded an agreement for its sale to TheGlobe.com/Voiceglo, contingent on ICANN approval of its application for ".travel".
[Addendum, 4 April 2004: It's pretty clear on even casual inspection that TTPC is a front for someone else. It's clearly not a viable organization on its own. A "whois" query reveals that the TTPC.org domain name is registered and owned by Tralliance Corp. The office addresses on the Tralliance and TTPC Web sites are the same. And the TTPC 2004 corporate financial statement shows that TTPC was, as of 31 December 2004, insolvent: it had assets of US$2233, accounts payable of $1858, and an outstanding loan of $1050, for a total negative net worth of $675. Total revenue for 2004 was $2899. TTPC hasn't explained how it pays its staff, or how it would finance the start-up costs of establishing ".travel" policies; the financial projections were in the part of its application to ICANN that has thus far been kept secret. If (a big if) enough ".travel" domains are registered, that would give TTPC an ongoing revenue channel ($1 per domain per year), but I presume that TTPC would be entirely dependent on the largesse of Tralliance or other stakeholders for its start-up costs, particularly during the crucial initial period when it would be determining the initial policies for ".travel" -- making it a financial captive subject to being forced to shut down for lack of money if it started setting policies that didn't serve the interests of its financial benefactors.]
In addition to the lateness of its disclosure, the TTPC-Tralliance agreement raises many more question than it answers.
In particular, it describes the TTPC as "successor to the International Air Transportation ("IATA") to submit an application to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ("ICANN") to sponsor ".travel" as a new Internet sTLD." Even more significantly, it says that:
IATA as per the memorandum entered into with Tralliance on October 22, 2002, has agreed to relinquish the prosecution of its pending application before ICANN for ".travel" to Tralliance, and thereby transferred to Tralliance the sole responsibility, among others, for (i) overseeing sponsorship of the TLD.
That 22 October 2002 "memorandum" between Tralliance and IATA still has not been made public by ICANN, TTPC, or any of the parties to the agreement. So far as had been known until now, IATA's application remained pending (not having been approved by ICANN, but neither having been rejected nor withdrawn) in parallel with the Tralliance/TPPC application.
Most importantly of all, what exactly was "transferred" by IATA to Tralliance pursuant to this (still secret) memorandum of understanding?
ICANN had never officially or publicly granted IATA any rights or responsibility with respect to ".travel". The only responsibility IATA could possibly have transferred to Tralliance would have been the responsibility to act as IATA's proxy for continued pursuit of ICANN approval of ".travel", and/or IATA's "rights" under ICANN's secret promises. The only reason I can imagine for this is as a not-very-subtle signal to ICANN that IATA would consider approval by ICANN of the Tralliance/TPPC ".travel" sponsorship application as fulfilling ICANN's secret back-room promise to IATA.
If I have to guess about what is going on, and what has happened in these various meetings and negotiations between ICANN and the ".travel' applicants, that is solely ICANN's fault for having failed to give notice of these meetings or open them to observers to "the maximum extent feasible".
ICANN began its latest meeting yesterday in Mar del Plata, Argentina -- the same day the Tralliance-TTPC agreement was released, revealing the existence of the still-secret IATA-Tralliance memorandum of understanding. The ICANN Board of Directors is scheduled to meet on Friday, 8 April 2005. None of the proposed ".travel' agreement was posted on the ICANN Web site until 24 March 2005, less than 21 days before the Board meeting. And no agenda at all has been posted for the board meeting as of today, less than seven days before it is scheduled.
By defining the current new sTLD application and approval process as part of an ongoing "proof of concept", ICANN has defined it explicitly as part of the process of developing a permanent TLD policy, and has thus made clear that it is subject to the requirement of ICANN's bylaws that proposed policy decisions be posted for 21 days of public comment before Board actions. And notice of all proposed Board actions must be given in a Board meeting agenda at least seven days in advance, unless ICANN can show that it was not yet known that the topic would be considered, or that it would not have been "practicable" to post the agenda that far in advance.
I still strongly suspect that ICANN nonetheless intends to give its putative "approval" on Friday in Mar del Plata to the Tralliance/TTPC/TheGlobe.com/Voiceglo/IATA application for ".travel", as the fulfillment of a years-old secret promise to IATA, and as the culmination of a years-long secret process of systematic, flagrant, and complete disregard, at every step of the way, for "the maximum extent feasible of openness and transparency" required by its own bylaws and by its contractual commitments to the USA Department of Commerce to formulate policy through a bottom-up consensus development process.
Any such "approval" would be legally null and void, subject to potential legal challenge (if any of those aggrieved, mainly the travelling public, could afford to mount such a challenge) and invalidation, and should properly be disregarded by the USA Dept. of Commerce (to whom ICANN can only make recommendations for the addition of new TLD's) and used by the DOC as the basis for revocation of its Memorandum of Understanding with ICANN for material breach of contract by ICANN.
If the ".travel" applications aren't rejected outright for fraud, they should be sent back for proper bottom-up consideration by travellers and other stakeholders, so that Tralliance, TTPC, TheGlobe.com/Voiceglo, and IATA, and the relationships and agreements between all of them (as well as the full record of the first round of improperly secret meetings, documents, and negotiations by ICANN), can be subjected to public comment and scrutiny, to see if any consensus emerges as to whether any of them should be delegated authority over ".travel".
But given the momentum of IATA & Co.'s ".travel" juggernaut, I'm not holding my breath for any of that to happen.
[Addendum, 3 April 2005: Almost immediately after I posted this article and raised similar questions by e-mail to ICANN's staff counsel (and corporate secretary and secretary to the Board of Directors, although that's not easy to figure out form the ICANN Web site), an agenda was posted in the Board meeting minutes section of the ICANN Web site, indicating that the ICANN Board of Directors does in fact intend to consider the proposed ".travel" sponsorship agreement at its meeting this Friday, 8 April 2005. Interestingly, no agenda at all, and no link to the agenda on the "minutes" page (where people would naturally look for past minutes, not agendas for future meetings) has been posted on the page for the agenda of the Mar del Plata meeting . I imagine ICANN staff will fix that once they read this addendum to my article, but it's too late: ICANN's bylaws require that the agenda be posted at least 7 days in advance, unless it was not known that a topic would be discussed or it was not practicable to post the agenda sooner, neither of which have been shown to be the case with this agenda or agenda item. And proposed ICANN policies, such as this, must be posted for a 21-day public comment period. Even the obscure posting under "minutes" wasn't made until less than 7 days before the meeting, and none of the piecemeal postings of parts of the proposed agremeent were made until 24 March 2005, less than 21 days before the meeting.]
[Further addendum, 4 April 2005: I've heard from Mar del Plata that members of ICANN's staff and Board of Directors are considering how to respond to my requests. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, if you are new to the ".travel" scandal, see the sections of my Web site and of my blog for the background (and the continuation) of this story, and many more links.]Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 3 April 2005, 12:15 (12:15 PM)