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DIDP Request #5: The Ombudsman and ICANN's Misleading Response to Our Request

Posted by Geetha Hariharan at Mar 06, 2015 11:11 AM |
CIS sent ICANN a request under its Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, seeking details of the complaints received and resolved, parties involved and the nature of complaints under the Ombudsman process. CIS' request and ICANN's response are detailed below. ICANN's response is misleading in its insistence on confidentiality of all Ombudsman complaints and resolutions.


CIS Request

26 December 2014

Mr. Steve Crocker, Chairman of the Board

Mr. Fadi Chehade, CEO and President

Mr. Chris LaHatte, Ombudsman, ICANN

Sub: Details regarding complaints submitted to the ICANN Ombudsman

We are very pleased to note that ICANN’s transparency and accountability mechanisms include maintaining a free, fair and impartial ombudsman. It is our understanding that any person with a complaint against the ICANN Board, staff or organization, may do so to the designated ombudsman.[1] We also understand that there are cases that the ICANN ombudsman does not have the authority to address.

In order to properly assess and study the efficiency and effectiveness of the ombudsman system, we request you to provide us with the following information:

(i) A compilation of all the cases that have been decided by ICANN ombudsmen in the history of the organization.

(ii) The details of the parties that are involved in the cases that have been decided by the ombudsmen.

(iii)A description of the proceedings of the case, along with the party that won in each instance.

Further, we hope you could provide us with an answer as to why there have been no ombudsman reports since the year 2010, on the ICANN website.[2] Additionally, we would like to bring to your notice that the link that provides the ombudsman report for the year 2010 does not work.

In order to properly assess the mechanism that ICANN uses for grievance redressal, it would be necessary to examine the details of all the cases that ICANN ombudsmen have presided over in the past. In this regard, kindly provide us with the above information.

We do hope that you will be able to furnish this information to us within the stipulated time period of 30 days. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have any doubts regarding our queries. Thank you so much.

Yours sincerely,
Lakshmi Venkataraman
NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad,
for Centre for Internet & Society


ICANN Response

In its response, ICANN declines our request on grounds of confidentiality. It refers to the ICANN Bylaws on the office of the Ombudsman to argue that all matters brought before the Ombudsman "shall be treated as confidential" and the Ombudsman shall "take all reasonable steps necessary to preserve the privacy of, and to avoid harm to, those parties not involved in the complaint being investigated by the Ombudsman". ICANN states that the Ombudsman publishes Annual Reports, in which he/she provides a "consolidated analysis of the year's complaints and resolutions", including "a description of any trends or common elements of complaints received". In sum, ICANN states that making Ombudsman Requests public would violate ICANN Bylaws, and topple the independence and integrity of the Ombudsman.

These are, perhaps, valid reasons to decline our DIDP request. But it is important to investigate ICANN's reasons. The ICANN Board appoints the Ombudsman for 2 year terms, under Article V of ICANN’s Bylaws. As we note in an earlier post, the Ombudsman’s principal function is to receive and dispose of complaints about unfair treatment by the ICANN Board, Staff or constituency. He/she reports to the ICANN Board alone. He/she also reports on the categories of complaints he receives, and statistics regarding decisions in his Annual Reports; no details are forthcoming for stated reasons of confidentiality and privacy. It is clear, therefore, that the Ombudsman receives and disposes of complaints under a procedure that is inadequately transparent.

ICANN argues, however, that for reasons of confidentiality and integrity of the Ombudsman office, ICANN is unable to disclose details regarding Ombudsman complaints, the complainants/respondents and a description of the proceedings (including the decision/resolution). Indeed, ICANN states its "Bylaws and the Ombudsman Framework obligates the Ombudsman to treat all matters brought before him as confidential and 'to take reasonable steps necessary to preserve the privacy of, and to avoid harm to, those parties not involved in the complaint being investigated by the Ombudsman'.” For this reason, ICANN considers that "Disclosing details about the parties involved and the nature of the cases that have been decided by the Ombudsmen would not only compromise the confidentiality of the Ombudsman process but would also violate the ICANN Bylaws and the Ombudsman Framework."

While the privacy of parties both involved and "not involved in the complaint" can be preserved (by redacting names, email addresses and other personal identification), how valid is ICANN's dogged insistence on confidentiality and non-disclosure? Let's look at Article V of ICANN's Bylaws and the Ombudsman Framework both.

Do ICANN Bylaws bind the Ombudsman to Confidentiality?

Under Article V, Section 1(2) of ICANN's Bylaws, the Ombudsman is appointed by the ICANN Board for a 2 year term (renewable). As noted earlier, the Ombudsman's principal function is to “provide an independent internal evaluation of complaints by members of the ICANN community who believe that the ICANN staff, Board or an ICANN constituent body has treated them unfairly” or inappropriately (Art. V, Section 2). The Ombudsman is not a judge; his conflict resolution tools are "negotiation, facilitation, and 'shuttle diplomacy'.

According to Art. V, Section 3(3), the Ombudsman has access to "all necessary information and records from staff and constituent bodies" to evaluate complaints in an informed manner. While the Ombudsman can access these records, he may not "publish if otherwise confidential". When are these records confidential, then? Section 3(3) supplies the answer. The confidentiality obligations are as "imposed by the complainant or any generally applicable confidentiality policies adopted by ICANN". For instance, the complainant can waive its confidentiality by publishing the text of its complaint and the Ombudsman's response to the same (such as the Internet Commerce Association's complaint regarding the Implementation Review Team under the new gTLD program), or a complaint may be publicly available on a listserv. In any event, there is no blanket confidentiality obligation placed on the Ombudsman under ICANN's Bylaws.

Moreover, the Ombudsman also publishes Annual Reports, in which he/she provides a "consolidated analysis of the year's complaints and resolutions", including "a description of any trends or common elements of complaints received". That is, the Ombudsman's Annual Report showcases a graph comparing the increase in the number of complaints, categories of complaints (i.e., whether the complaints fall within or outside of the Ombudsman's jurisdiction), and a brief description of the Ombudsman's scope of resolution and response. The Annual Reports indicate that the mandate of the Ombudsman's office is extremely narrow. In 2014, for instance, 75 out of 467 complaints were within Mr. LaHatte's jurisdiction (page 5), but he notes that his ability to intervene is limited to "failures in procedure". As an input to the ATRT2 Report noted, the Office of the Ombudsman “appears so restrained and contained” (page 53). As the ATRT2 noted, "ICANN needs to reconsider the Ombudsman’s charter and the Office’s role as a symbol of good governance to be further incorporated in transparency processes"; the Office's transparency leaves much to be desired.

But I digress.

The Ombudsman is authorised to make reports on any complaint and its resolution (or lack thereof) to the ICANN Board, and unless the Ombudsman says so in his sole discretion, his reports are to be posted on the website (Art. V, Section 4(4)). The Ombudsman can also report on individual requests, such as Mr. LaHatte's response to a complaint regarding a DIDP denial (cached). Some reports are actually available on the Ombudsman page; the last published report dates back to 2012, though in 2013 and 2014, the Ombudsman dealt with more complaints within his jurisdiction than in 2012 or prior. So ICANN's argument that disclosing the information we ask for in our DIDP Request would violate ICANN Bylaws and the confidentiality of the Ombudsman is misleading.

Does the Ombudsman Framework Prohibit Public Reporting?

So if ICANN Bylaws do not ipso facto bind the Ombudsman's complaint and conflict resolution process to confidentiality, does the Ombudsman Framework do so?

The Ombudsman does indeed have confidentiality obligations under the Ombudsman Framework (page 4). All matters brought before the Ombudsman shall be treated as confidential, and the identities of parties not involved in the complaint are required to be protected. The Ombudsman may reveal the identity of the complainant to the ICANN Board or Staff only to further the resolution of a complaint (which seems fairly obvious); this obligation is extended to ICANN Board and Staff as well.

As the Framework makes crystal clear, the identity of complainants are to be kept confidential. Nothing whatsoever binds the Ombudsman from revealing the stakeholder group or affiliation of the complainants - and these are possibly of more importance. What stakeholders most often receive unfair or inappropriate treatment from ICANN Board, Staff or constituent bodies? Does business suffer more, or do non-commercial users, or indeed, governments? It is good to know what countries the complaints come from (page 4-5), but given ICANN's insistence on its multi-stakeholder model as a gold standard, it is important to know what stakeholders suffer the most in the ICANN system.

In fact, in the first page, the Ombudsman Framework says this: "The Ombudsman may post complaints and resolutions to a dedicated portion of the ICANN website ( (i) in order to promote an understanding of the issues in the ICANN community; (ii) to raise awareness of administrative fairness; and (iii) to allow the community to see the results of similar previous cases. These postings will be done in a generic manner to protect the confidentiality and privilege of communicating with the Office of Ombudsman." But the ICANN website does not, in fact, host records of any Ombudsman complaints or resolutions; it links you only to the Annual Reports and Publications.

As I've written before, the Annual Reports provide no details regarding the nature of each complaint, their origins or resolution, and are useful if the only information we need is bare statistics of the number of complaints received. That is useful, but it's not enough. Given that the Ombudsman Framework does allow complaint/resolution reporting, it is baffling that ICANN's response to our DIDP request chooses to emphasise only the confidentiality obligations, while conveniently leaving out the parts enabling and encouring reporting.

Should ICANN Report the Ombudsman Complaints?

Of course it should. The Ombudsman is aimed at filling an integral gap in the ICANN system - he/she listens to complaints about treatment by the ICANN Board, Staff or constituent bodies. As the discussions surrounding the appeal procedures in the CWG-Names show, and as the ATRT2 recommendations on Reconsideration and Independent Review show, conflict resolution mechanisms are crucial in any environment, not least a multi-stakeholder one. And in an organisation that leaves much desired by way of accountability and transparency, not reporting on complaints against the Board, staff or constituencies seems a tad irresponsible.

If there are privacy concerns regarding the identities of complainants, their personal identifying information can be redacted. Actually, in the complaint form, adding a waiver-of-confidentiality tick-box would solve the problem, allowing the complainant to choose whether to keep his/her complaint unreportable. But the details of the respondents ought to be reported; as the entity responsible and accountable, ICANN should disclose whom complaints have been made against.

ICANN's response to our DIDP request may be found here. A short summary of our request and ICANN's response may be found in this table (Request S. no. 5).


[1] See What the Ombudsman can do for you, 2012-02-25-en.

[2] See Annual Reports & Publications, 02-25-en.