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US resurrects the controversial new TLDs veto

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2011, 13:03:50 (UTC), Domain Policy

The US government intends to give itself greater oversight powers over ICANN’s new top-level domains program, according to a partial draft of the next IANA contract.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has proposed what amounts to a Governmental Advisory Committee veto over controversial new TLDs.

The agency last night published a Further Notice Of Inquiry (pdf), which includes a proposed Statement Of Work that would form part of ICANN’s next IANA contract.

The IANA contract, which is up for renewal September 30, gives ICANN many of its key powers over the domain name system’s root database.

The new documents seem to fulfill NTIA assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling’s promise to use the IANA contract “as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency” at ICANN.

If the new draft provisions are finalized, ICANN would be contractually obliged to hold new gTLD applicants to a higher standard than currently envisaged by the Applicant Guidebook.

The FNOI notes that the US believes (my emphasis):

there is a need to address how all stakeholders, including governments collectively, can operate within the paradigm of a multi-stakeholder environment and be satisfied that their interests are being adequately addressed

The Statement Of Work, under the heading “Responsibility and Respect for Stakeholders” includes new text that addresses this perceived need:

For delegation requests for new generic TLDS (gTLDs), the Contractor [ICANN] shall include documentation to demonstrate how the proposed string has received consensus support from relevant stakeholders and is supported by the global public interest.

The current Applicant Guidebook does not require “consensus support from relevant stakeholders” before a new gTLD is approved.

It gives applicants the opportunity to show support from self-defined communities, and it gives communities the right to object to any application, but it does not require consensus.

Earlier this year, the GAC asked ICANN to beef up the Guidebook to make community support or non-objection a proactive requirement for applicants, but ICANN declined to make the change.

The .xxx Factor

The NTIA’s proposed “respect rule” alludes to the approval of .xxx, which the US and other governments believe was both not in the global public interest and unsupported by the porn industry.

Had the rule been applicable in March, ICANN could very well have found itself in breach of the IANA contract, and the NTIA could have been within its rights to block the TLD.

One way to look at this is as a US government safeguard against ICANN’s board of directors overruling GAC objections to new TLDs in future.

The Guidebook currently gives the GAC the right to object to any application for any reason, such as if it believed a proposed string was not supported by a community it purported to represent.

But the Guidebook, reflecting ICANN’s bylaws, also gives ICANN the ability to disagree with GAC advice (including its new TLD objections) and essentially overrule it.

Under the NTIA’s proposed IANA contract language, if ICANN were to overrule a GAC objection to a controversial application, the NTIA would be able to claim that the gTLD was approved without stakeholder consensus, in violation of the IANA contract.

The new gTLD program would have, in essence, a backdoor GAC veto.

While these changes are being made unilaterally by the US, they are certain to be supported by the European Commission and probably other members of the GAC.

Commissioner Neelie Kroes urged Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to block or delay .xxx back in April, and subsequently met with Strickling to discuss their mutual opposition to the TLD.

Kroes and Strickling seem to agree agree that ICANN should not have signed the .xxx registry contract over the (weak, non-consensus) objection of the GAC.

The FNOI will shortly open for 45 days of public comment, so we’re not likely to know precisely how this is going to play out in the new IANA contract until August.

ICANN is now in the tricky position of trying to figure out how to incorporate this mess into the Guidebook, which it has indicated it plans to approve just over a week from now.

Singapore is going to be very interesting indeed.

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Comments (15)

  1. andrew says:

    Nice find, Kevin. Strangely, I bet .xxx is in favor of this. It would eliminate competition from .sex, .porn, etc.

  2. birmingham says:

    Why would Singapore be interesting?

    If GAC can get their chance for veto on new gTLD applications one way or another, they will not block the approval of the guidebook. Hence, application book will approved and updates will follows as stated previously by ICANN.

  3. Joe says:

    “Under the NTIA’s proposed IANA contract language, if ICANN were to overrule a GAC objection to a controversial application, the NTIA would be able to claim that the gTLD was approved without stakeholder consensus, in violation of the IANA contract.”

    This proposition sounds politically unworkable: 1) It would implicitly designate the NTIA as a proxy decision-maker and enforcement arm for the GAC – which would make the USG open to accusations of making a power grab, and 2) if the NTIA were ever to exercise this nuclear option, it would not only undermine ICANN’s credibility, but for many it would equally undermine that of IANA and challenge the legitimacy of the USG’s unique role.

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