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Crunch day for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2010, 13:59:02 (UTC), Domain Registries

The ICANN board has kicked off a two-day retreat during which it will attempt to finalize the rules for applying for new top-level domains.

The big question for many is this: are more delays or the cards, or will ICANN finally put a firm timeline on the first new TLD application round?

One constituency that seems bent on more delays is the intellectual property community.

Dozens of organizations, including Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner, Adobe and Coca-Cola, told ICANN in late July that the current IP protections in version 4 of the Draft Applicant Guidebook are not good enough.

The proposed Uniform Rapid Suspension process has become bloated and burdensome and the Trademark Clearinghouse does not go far enough to proactively protect trademarks, they say.

Just this week, it emerged that the International Trademark Association has called for further studies into the potential economic harms of new TLDs, which could easily add a couple of quarters of delay.

But there are good reasons to believe ICANN is done with being pushed around by IP interests.

As I reported earlier this week, chairman Peter Dengate Thrush has recently publicly stated that the current state of intellectual property protection in the DAG is a compromise position reflecting the views of all stakeholders and that IP lawyers “have had their chance”.

It’s not just IP interests that will be affected by the ICANN board’s discussions this weekend. The board’s decisions on “vertical integration” will make or break business models.

The VI issue, which governs whether registrars can apply for new TLDs and whether registrars can act as registrars, is perhaps the most difficult problem in the DAG. The working group tasked with sorting it out failed to reach consensus after six months of debate.

The DAGv4 currently says, as an explicit placeholder, that there can be no more than 2% cross-ownership of a registry by a registrar and vice versa.

This would mean that registrars that want to get into the TLD game, such as Demand Media’s eNom, would not be allowed to apply.

It may also cause problems for publicly listed registries such as VeriSign and Neustar, or registries that already have registrar shareholders, such as Afilias.

The proposals on the table include raising the ownership cap to 15% to eliminating it altogether.

A move by ICANN to restrict ownership will certainly attract allegations of anti-competitive behavior by those companies excluded, while a move too far in the opposite direction could lead to accusations that the rules do not go far enough to protect registrants.

There are no correct answers to this problem. ICANN needs to find a balance that does the least harm.

Also up for debate will be the rules on how governments and others can object to new TLD applications on “morality and public order” grounds.

Following the report of a working group, which I blogged about here, it seems likely that the term “morality and public order” will be replaced entirely, probably by “Objections Based on General Principles of International Law”.

If the board adopts the recommendations of this “Rec6” working group, there will be no special provision in the Guidebook for governments to make objections based on their own national laws.

There’s also the suggestion that ICANN’s board should have to vote with a two-thirds super-majority in order to deny a TLD application based on Rec6 objections.

It’s another almost impossible problem. Some say the Rec6 recommendations as they currently stand are unlikely to appease members of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In summary, ICANN’s board has just two days to define the competitive parameters of a market that could be worth billions, figure out how to politely tell some of the world’s largest IP rights holders to back off, and write the rule-book on international governmental influence in the new TLD process.

I predict a small boom in sales of coffee and pizza in the Trondheim region.

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