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Why ICANN dropped registrar ownership rules

Kevin Murphy, February 13, 2011, 20:21:58 (UTC), Domain Registries

ICANN has quietly published a list of 10 reasons explaining why it decided to start allowing domain name registrars and registries to buy each other.

Last November, ICANN’s board of directors voted to drop so-called “vertical integration” rules that previously prevented registries owning more than a small percentage of registrars.

Now, under the forthcoming new top-level domains program, the likes of eNom and Go Daddy will be able to apply to become gTLD registries, and registries like VeriSign and Neustar will be able to apply to run their own registrar businesses.

The decision was unexpected, appeared to be a U-turn, and ICANN’s explanation was not articulated sufficiently to sate critics such as the US Department of Commerce.

So now ICANN has published a “Draft Rationale” (pdf), a 17-page document that outlines some of the thinking that went into the decision.

In a nutshell, ICANN dropped the VI rules to increase competition, to avoid antitrust lawsuits, and because the harms that could arise due to cross-ownership are best addressed by other means.

Here are the rationale’s 10 major bullet points in full:

  • None of the proposals submitted by the GNSO reflect a consensus opinion; as a result, the Board supported a model based on its own factual investigation, expert analysis, and concerns expressed by stakeholders and the community.
  • ICANN’s position and mission must be focused on creating more competition as opposed to having rules that restrict competition and innovation.
  • Rules permitting cross-ownership foster greater diversity in business models and enhance opportunities offered by new TLDs.
  • Rules prohibiting cross-ownership require more enforcement and can easily be circumvented.
  • Rules permitting cross-ownership enhance efficiencies and almost certainly will result in benefits to consumers in the form of lower prices and enhanced services.
  • Preventing cross-ownership would create more exposure to ICANN of lawsuits, including antitrust lawsuits, which are costly to defend even if ICANN believes (as it does) that it has no proper exposure in such litigation.
  • The new Code of Conduct, which is to be part of the base agreement for all new gTLDs, includes adequate protections designed to address behavior the Board wants to discourage, including abuses of data and market power. Data protection is best accomplished by data protection tools, including audits, contractual penalties such as contract termination, punitive damages, and costs of enforcement, as well as strong enforcement of rules. By contrast, market construction rules can be circumvented and cause other harms.
  • Case-by-case re-negotiation of existing contracts to reflect the new crossownership rules will permit ICANN to address the risk of abuse of market power contractually.
  • In the event ICANN has competition concerns, ICANN will have the ability to refer those concerns to relevant antitrust authorities.
  • ICANN can amend contracts to address harms that may arise as a direct or indirect result of the new cross-ownership rules.

The document still needs to be approved by the ICANN board of directors before it can be considered official.

It appeared without fanfare on the ICANN web site a little over a week ago.

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