Dengate Thrush's Post-ICANN Gig Prompts Call for Ethics Review

WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a Sept. 14 letter sent to acting U.S. Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) Assistant Secretary Lawrence E. Strickling, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) urged the agencies “to put in place guidelines that ensure any future IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) has clear ethics rules and conflict of interest requirements in place.”

The call by Wyden for Commerce and NTIA to tighten up ethics requirements comes as the government has extended until March 2012 the current IANA contract with ICANN, which was scheduled to expire Sept. 30. A process is currently underway to determine whether the contract with ICANN should be continued as is or whether IANA’s functions should be divvyed up between different subcontractors as a way to ensure that future decisions are made fairly and transparently.

The request to include ethics guidelines in any future agreement is in large part the result of actions by ICANN’s former chairman, Peter Dengate Thrush, who took a high-level position in the domain industry immediately after departing ICANN, and immediately after overseeing the approval by ICANN of the rollout of new gTLDs and the approval of the .XXX sTLD. The company he now works for, Top level Domain Holdings subsidiary Minds + Machines, helps companies launch new TLDs and stands to benefit handsomely from actions directly attributable to Dengate Thrush.

While the Minds + Machines bio for Dengate Thrush trumpets his accomplishments at ICANN, stating, in part, “Prior to joining Minds + Machines, Peter was the was Chairman of the Board of Directors of ICANN, and in that role managed the process that resulted in the historic decision to launch the new gTLD program in June 2011,” as far as Senator Wyden is concerned, those very same actions were serious enough to warrant his request for NTIA to put new ethics guidelines in place to prevent a similar abuse of authority in the future.

Top Level Domain Holdings CEO Antony Van Couvering was no less effusive about Dengate Thrush's role at ICANN or in his new role following his recruitment within a month of leaving ICANN this June.

"Peter will be an outstanding asset to TLDH. Peter and I have worked together as ICANN participants since its inception, and I am very pleased to welcome him as our executive chairman," said Van Couvering. "Peter championed successfully the approval of the new gTLD programme at the highest levels and with Peter on board I have every confidence we will achieve the same success at TLDH. I can't think of a better addition to our team—Peter is a superstar in our field, and we are delighted to have him at the helm."

Though Dengate Thrush was not actually named in the Wyden letter, he is referred to more directly in a press release posted to the senator’s website, which admts that while the ethical guidelines required of NTIA officials are not currently required of IANA employees, they need to be added in the future.

“Over the last decade, the selling of internet domain names has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry and is poised to grow significantly as an expansion of potential domain name suffixes (ex: .com and .org) is implemented,” the press release reads. “However, ICANN—the non-profit that regulates these sales—is not a government agency and is not subject to the same ethics rules as other federal agencies. As news reports have indicated, a formerly high-ranking official at ICANN has left the organization and was immediately hired by one of the domain name companies regulated by ICANN. Wyden has raised concerns about the revolving door between the organization and the industry and called for strict ethics guidelines highlighting transparency at any future domain name regulator be worked into the upcoming contract negotiation.” (Italics added).

In case that reference is also too vague, Bloomberg put a name to the “formerly high-ranking official,” stating in a article, “Four days after ICANN's vote, Peter Dengate Thrush, the organization's chairman, finished his term and within a month joined a London company called Top Level Domain Holdings Ltd., which intends to acquire Web suffixes created by the new plan and offer Internet registry services.”

The article also mentions another ICANN employee who enjoyed a similar post-employment move. “Dengate Thrush's move and that of another former ICANN employee who joined the Financial Services Roundtable, a Washington-based lobbying group whose members include Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., have drawn criticism from government watchdogs.”

A week after receiving Wyden’s letter, Secretary Strickling replied with a letter of his own, stating, “Let me assure that I share your views that any party or organization contracted to serve as the IANA functions operator must have a clear and enforced ethics and conflict of interest policy. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is actively exploring how best to meet this requirement in the next IANA contract.”

The Senator Wyden letter can be accessed here.

The Secretary Strickling letter in reply can be accessed here.

Photo: Peter Dengate Thrush