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Threatening faxes, dot-xxx and an angry Vint Cerf

Category : ICANN, Internet, Internet governance, Journalism · by May 14th, 2011

One of the more bizarre situations I have found myself in while covering domain name system overseer ICANN, both outside and inside the organization, was at the Vancouver meeting in December 2005.

It was a particularly difficult meeting. For one, ICANN was under intense scrutiny because it was about to sign an extension to the dot-com contract and literally no one outside Verisign and the ICANN Board liked it. But secondly, it had come to light that the US government, under pressure from right-wing Christian groups, had pushed the Board very hard to *not* approve the dot-xxx contract.

The Board was planning to approve dot-xxx on the last day of the meeting, but had a sudden change of mind and put it off until the next Board meeting. There was all manner of behind-the-scenes shenanigans as the very worst of ICANN came out and it made important decisions in secret, and then spent huge amounts of time and effort trying to make it look like it hadn’t. No one bought it and there was a lot of anger.

Rumours

In the middle of all this, I heard a rumour that the ICANN Board had been receiving threatening emails and faxes over dot-xxx, so I started digging into it. Whereupon I discovered that someone had been faxing the venue hotel with threats. And soon after managed to get hold of a copy of a fax sent from one Grahame Darcy in Florida which specifically focussed on Board member Mike Palage (who, for some reason Mr Darcy thought was called Michael Palach).

Mike Palage had been a consultant for the dot-xxx application in the first round of gTLD expansion, when it failed. He had also been instrumental in bringing on board Stuart Lawley who then carried over the dot-xxx application to the second round and who, incredibly, finally managed to get it approved five years later in March 2011.

Stuart Lawley was there in Vancouver and just to add to whole thing, had just received a large pile of FOIA requests from the US government over the dot-xxx application and was sifting through them.

Among the most damaging revelations were emails that showed: ICANN CEO Paul Twomey colluding with GAC chair Sharil Tarmizi to encourage the GAC to say ‘No’ to dot-xxx; meetings at the White House between right-wing Christian groups and member of the Bush Administration over dot-xxx; pressure from the White House to the Department of Commerce; pressure from the Department of Commerce to the ICANN Board; and what appeared to be members of the Bush Administration providing personal contact details to the Christian groups of the ICANN Board members.

I wrote up most of a story outlining how the ICANN Board was not only under pressure from the US government but was also received threats from US Christian nuts, and how those nuts may have been given their contact details by Bush Administration officials. And then I asked ICANN for comment before I published.

Odd meeting

Whereupon, shortly after in the press room at the Westin in Vancouver, I was confronted by ICANN chairman Vint Cerf, General Counsel John Jeffrey and Board member Mike Palage who sat down and started trying to pressure me not to publish the story.

In fact, for reasons I never fully understood, Mike gave me what were, frankly, juicy details that would bring the story to life. He told me that not only had he and the others received the fax that I had but that a man had hand-delivered a copy of it to his wife and child at his home address in Florida and, to be honest, he was a bit freaked out by it.

I wished I had recorded the meeting because my recollection of it is faded and I have no doubt the others would remember it differently. But here is what I remember:

I basically outlined the story I had half-written, whereupon Cerf’s and Jeffrey’s faces grew darker and darker. I then asked if they had any comment or if there was any element of it that they felt wasn’t true.

I got a pretty angry response questioning my motives and my professionalism and was told it wasn’t a story. Whereupon, I said whether it was a story or not was pretty much up to me, and if it wasn’t a story how come they were all in the room? Vint calmed down and then asked me to consider whether publishing the story would only give publicity to people who were making threats.

I recall I said I would consider it, at which point he turned to John Jeffrey and said angrily: “I told you it would be a waste of time talking to him.” I decided, perhaps unwisely, that this was the best time to ask if he was aware that the Bush Administration officials had been providing his contact details to right-wing Christian groups. Vint reacted by flicking his Google card at me across the table and exclaiming that his contact details were all over the Internet.

And with that I said I would consider their plea not to publish the story, and they walked out in a grumpy mood.

Decision and message

So my final decision was not to publish the story. And I had a look for it this morning to see if it had survived the three laptops since then – it hadn’t. What I do have though is the original fax sent to the Westin from Grahame Darcy, so I’ve transcribed it and posted it below.

Why didn’t I run with the story?

Because, frankly, I *didn’t* want to give the people who were sending threatening emails and faxes any publicity. Especially when they were turning up at people’s homes and intimidating someone’s wife and child.

Was the story in the public interest? Not really. And this wasn’t a really big story. ICANN is, and remains, a little niche world and I was used to dealing with topics that had far wider and more important impact on the world.

The atmosphere was also so oppressive already that I thought it would only serve to make it unbearable – and all for the sake of a story. And of course the truth was that I had a rack of about another five stories ready to go, all of which would cause me far less hassle, take less time and so earn me more money (I had flown from the UK and had a hefty pile of expenses I needed to cover before I even made a profit).

What is interesting on re-reading the fax five years later is that it doesn’t seem that threatening. It is clearly a bit mental, but could easily be from one of the many, shall we say ‘passionate’ members of the Internet community. In the atmosphere at the time though, combined with the fact that I had found out that Grahame Darcy was one of the right-wing Christians that was hounding ICANN, rather than just an over zealous member of the community, I decided against it.

I’m still in two minds as to whether it was the right decision.

Anyway, now that dot-xxx actually exists in the root I figured it was a good time to put this little piece of history out there. Below is the fax. It was sent from a Kinko’s in Florida. I did track down the exact address but I don’t recall it now.


To: Michael Palach

Cc: Vint Cerf, Paul Twomey, Suzan Crawford, Mouhamet Diop, Hualin Qian, Thomas Niles, John Jeffrey, Diane Shrouder

Subject: Michael Palach, taking his baggage to Vancouver

I have become increasingly aware of a growing concern in the community regarding your alleged involvement with .XXX. I believe there have been questions in the past about your on-going relationship with AFlLIAS but your alleged jnvolvement with .XXX brings your credibility into the permanent spotlight this time.

As a Board member of ICANN do you think the “Consulting” to .XXX and its associated companies or even advising its directors and major stake holders is appropriate behavior for an ICANN Board member?

Could it be that these associations could bring the Board into disrepute?

You appear to come across as a family man with strong family values, so why the association with the .XXX movement?

By appearing to have a foot in both camps, your motivations are questionable.
Part of ICANN’s charter is to promote fairness and transparency; this does not appear to be your mantra.

Now you have left the warmth of Florida and traveled to your winter meeting in Vancouver I suggest you ponder these questions and respond. The community eagerly awaits a full explanation.

Could I be forgiven for assuming that you’re traveling on an .XXX ticket to Vancouver and not that of ICANN?

Regards

Grahame Darcy

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(3) comments

Michael Palage
4 years ago ·

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. This actually gives me the motivation to complete an article that I started but never finished. However, since you yourself have done work with ICM I hope you understand that my exclusive on this article when I finish it will go to Kevin Murphy.

kierenmccarthy
4 years ago ·

@Mike: :-) Sure. What’s the article about?

Maria Farrell
4 years ago ·

Hi Kieren,

Great piece – it gives a real flavour of the horrendous and deeply unpleasant pressure Board & staff were under at the time (Notwithstanding the substance of the .XXX & .COM decisions & how they were handled – I agree with your general take on both, though I also think the decision was on each was a choice between a rock and a hard place.).

I remember we had security guards inside the office in MDR because of very specific threats made. Then in Vancouver, the CFIT campaign reached its public height, with flyers appearing under hotel room doors each morning. (Though they’ve finally kissed and made up:
http://goldsteinreport.com/article.php?article=14604) All in all, it was a pretty wretched time with Verisign and the USG posing an existential threat to the organisation and Christian loonies threatening to blow us up. I’m not surprised Vint & John weren’t at their best!

Thanks for a great piece that captures it all and hopefully educates some newcomers about the back story, depth of passion and just, IMHO, far greater stakes that have already been faced down.

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