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Surprise! More new TLDs delay likely

Kevin Murphy, March 3, 2011, 11:22:45 (UTC), Domain Policy

The launch of ICANN’s new top-level domain program looks set to encounter more delays, after international governments said they needed more time for consultation and debate.

Three days of talks between the ICANN board of directors and its Governmental Advisory Committee, which concluded yesterday, resolved many of the GAC’s concerns with new TLDs, but not enough.

Obtaining final closure of these outstanding issues during the San Francisco meeting, March 17, now seems quite unlikely, especially if the GAC gets its way.

The meeting started on an optimistic tone on Monday, degenerated into stalemate on Tuesday, and ran over into an unscheduled third day yesterday, by which point the frustration was audible.

Prior to the meeting, the GAC had provided a “scorecard” that covered 12 areas of new TLD policy where it was still unhappy with ICANN’s positions.

ICANN, in return, had provided matching summary documents that outlined the GAC advice and summarized ICANN’s current thinking on each of the issues.

It became apparent over the first two days of the meeting that the ICANN board was willing to compromise on a number of matters, but that the GAC was unable to do the same, due to its need to consult with ministers and unnamed “advisers”.

One side often seemed to have done more homework than the other, particularly on the issue of trademark protection, where the GAC entered the room as a proxy for the trademark lobby, but without the granular background knowledge needed to answer ICANN’s questions.

Talks disintegrated on Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that GAC members could not proceed before further consultations with their respective capitals, and that ICANN could not fully address their concerns without further clarifications.

Both sides of the aisle retreated into private discussions for the rest of the day, with the ICANN board later emerging with a list of areas it was prepared to accept GAC advice.

These positions had been more fully fleshed out when the meeting reconvened yesterday morning, but hopes of resolving the discussions by San Francisco appeared to be dashed by the GAC.

The ICANN board decided in January that March 17 will host a so-called “bylaws consultation”, during which ICANN tells the GAC where it has decided to disagree and overrule its advice.

But the GAC unexpectedly revealed yesterday that it does not want the March 17 meeting to have that “bylaws” designation.

A clearly frustrated Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN’s chairman, asked repeatedly why, in light of the substantial strides forward in Brussels, the GAC had suddenly decided it needed more time:

what we’ve done is clarify and limit the work, so the work we now need to do in San Francisco is reduced and comes in with greater clarity. I don’t understand how more work and more clarity leads to the conclusion that you come to. So you have to help me with this.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, said the GAC was “surprised” by the bylaws designation.

Actually, if we can go back to the January resolution, a sort of reaction we had at that time was some slight surprise actually that without having seen the GAC scorecard, you were already forecasting that you anticipated not being able to accept the advice contained in the scorecard.

Despite the generally civil tone of the talks, and Dengate Thrush’s opening and closing remarks – in which he said that the meeting was neither “adversarial” nor a “power struggle” – this part of the discussion came across more than most like a pissing contest.

ICANN officially rejecting GAC advice through a bylaws consultation would be unprecedented, and I get the distinct impression that it is something the GAC does not want to happen.

If you’re a government, being overruled by a bunch of DNS policy wonks in California is bad PR.

But if a mutually acceptable compromise is to be made without any advice being rejected, GAC reps need time to take ICANN’s concessions back to their superiors for input, and then to form their own consensus views. Thence the delay arises.

At the end of the meeting, it appeared that talks will be continuing in private in the run-up to the San Francisco meeting, which starts March 13. It also appears that the board and GAC will hold not one but two days of talks during the meeting.

What’s less clear to me is whether ICANN has already agreed that the “bylaws” designation will be removed from the March 17 meeting.

If it does, we’re looking at a few weeks more delays post-SF, while the GAC and board resolve their remaining differences, which could easily impact the planned April 14 publication of the next version of the Applicant Guidebook.

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