ICANN has made some significant concessions to government demands in the newly published revision of its new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook.
After lengthy consultations with its Governmental Advisory Committee over the last few months, ICANN has updated the rulebook to address the vast majority of GAC concerns.
We’ve gone from the “proposed final Applicant Guidebook” published in November to the “April 2011 Discussion Draft” that appeared on the ICANN web site in the wee hours of this morning.
On first perusal, it appears that ICANN has walked the fine lines between GAC advice, hard-fought community consensus and common sense more or less successfully.
While the new Guidebook gives plenty of ground to the GAC, making it a more integral part of the new TLDs approval process, it avoids adopting some of its more problematic requests.
In this post, I’ll look at the powers ICANN has given to governments to object to TLDs.
Early Warning System
While ICANN has sensibly not given individual governments the right to veto TLDs they are not happy with, they do get substantially more input into the approval process than in previous drafts.
The major update to the Guidebook is a new Early Warning system that will allow governments to pre-object to TLDs they don’t like.
An Early Warning, which can only be filed by the GAC chair, is “an indication that the application is seen as potentially problematic by one or more governments.”
Applicants in receipt of such a warning will have 21 days to decide whether to drop out of the process, receiving a $148,000 refund, 80% of their $185,000 application fee.
But they won’t have to. The warning is just a heads-up that the GAC or some of its members may formally object at a later stage. A warning does not represent a GAC consensus position.
The Early Warning process will run for 60 days, at the same time as the public comment period that begins the day the applications are published.
Advice of Doom
Any applicants that decide to ignore such a warning face the possibility of receiving a formal GAC objection, which could come at any point in the first seven months after the applications are published.
This is now being called “GAC Advice on New gTLDs”. It could be quite a powerful tool:
GAC Advice on New gTLDs that includes a consensus statement from the GAC that an application should not proceed as submitted, and that includes a thorough explanation of the public policy basis for such advice, will create a strong presumption for the Board that the application should not be approved.
This is pretty close to a GAC veto, but it crucially requires GAC consensus. The Guidebook explains:
GAC Advice on New gTLDs should identify objecting countries, the public policy basis for the objection, and the process by which consensus was reached.
Even if the GAC reaches consensus, the ICANN board will be able to overrule its objections in accordance with its bylaws, in much the same way it just did with .xxx (in practice, I suspect .xxx may ultimately prove a fairly unique exception to the rule).
The Guidebook indicates that any wishy-washy, non-consensus, politician-speak advice given by the GAC will not be considered grounds for rejecting an application. The objection must be specific, grounded, and it must have support.
Importantly, ICANN has not conceded to the GAC’s request to allow applicants to amend their applications to remedy the GAC’s concerns.
As I noted earlier in the week, this could have led to companies gaming the system, and ICANN has ruled out amendments for precisely that reason.
Individual governments will of course be allowed to object to any application using any of the other procedures that the Guidebook allows, such as the Community Objection.
ICANN’s problem is that these processes carry third-party fees, and governments don’t think they should have to pay these fees (for some reason that’s never been adequately explained).
Addressing this concern, the new Guidebook says that ICANN will cover each national government to the tune of $50,000 to fund a single objection.
That’s a total of potentially well over $1 million, funded from ICANN’s reserves. ICANN expects that governments will coordinate their objections to limit its costs.
Overall, it appears that ICANN has addressed pretty much everything the GAC wanted in terms of objections procedures. With a couple of reasonable exceptions, the GAC has received what it asked for.
Members may not be completely happy with ICANN’s decrees on what form GAC advice must take in order to have a useful impact, but in general it seems that this could well now be a closed issue.
In my next post, I’ll look at how intellectual property protection changes in the new Guidebook.