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ICANN adds confusion over second new gTLD round

Kevin Murphy, January 7, 2012, 13:23:13 (UTC), Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors met on Thursday to discuss the imminent launch of the new generic top-level domains program.

No decisions were made, which means the organization is still set to start accepting applications on January 12, as ICANN’s top officials have stated several times this week.

I hear that the TLD Application System is due to go live one minute after midnight (UTC) on Thursday, in fact, which means too-eager Californian applicants may be able to sign up as early as Wednesday afternoon.

Six briefing documents used at the meeting have been published, one of which deals with the all-important issue of the timing of the second (or “next” as ICANN prefers) application round.

It’s become increasingly apparent recently that lots of big brands think they’re being forced to defensively apply for their own trademarks as gTLDs in the first round.

Some registries, lawyers and new gTLD consultants are probably just as much to blame for this fearmongering as opponents of the program such as the Association of National Advertisers.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse has recently championed the cause of a firm date for a second-round application window, to make a “wait and see” strategy more realistic.

I’ve previously said that a first round stuffed with useless defensive dot-brands would make a mockery of the whole new gTLD program.

ICANN evidently agrees. The board briefing materials (pdf) state:

A timely second round will relieve pressure on the first round, reducing demand and:

o Reducing delegation rates, thereby relieving stability concern perceptions,

o Addressing concerns of some trademark owners that are critical of the process, relieving the perception of need for “defensive registration” at the top-level,

o Decreasing the number of applications relieves some pressure on specific operational issues such as the number of batches, instances of string contention, and the amount of time it will take to process all the applications. Fewer applications will increase the ability to process applications in an efficient manner.

The Applicant Guidebook is currently vague and even a little confusing on the timing of the second round.

Unfortunately, the new briefing materials, which attempt to give some clarity into ICANN’s thinking, appear to contain errors and potentially just confuse matters further.

The documents state “ICANN should publicly announce its intention to launch a subsequent round as soon as practicable after the one opening on 12 January 2012″.

So far so good.

However, ICANN has promised its Governmental Advisory Committee that it will complete two reviews before opening a second round: one into the effect of the first round on root zone stability, the other into the effectiveness of the new trademark protection mechanisms.

ICANN now states that the trademark study would start “one year after 75 gTLDs are in the root” and gives a clearly impossible date of February 2013 for this happening.

I’m guessing this is one of those silly typos we all sometimes make during the first week of a new year.

Given that the first new gTLDs will not be delegated until 2013, ICANN almost certainly meant to say that it expects to start the trademark review a year later in February 2014.

ICANN also sensibly notes that it “cannot commit to when we get consensus on the conclusions of a Trademark study”, which doesn’t really add clarity to the timeline either.

The document also states:

The other critical path is completion of the round 1 applications – this is uncertain because (a) we don’t know the number of batches that are required and (b) if we could start the second round while we finish up the objections and stuff from the first round. However, if there are four batches, initial evaluations for them would finish in March 2013, and nearly all applications should clear in the second quarter of 2014.

I assume, but the document does not state, that this is a reference to the root zone stability study, which under a strict reading of the Guidebook is supposed to happen after the first round has ended.

Unfortunately, the dates appear to be wrong again.

According to the Applicant Guidebook, the Initial Evaluation phase takes five months. Four batches would therefore take 20 months, which would give a March 2014 date for the end of initial evaluations and a second-quarter 2015 date for the final delegations.

Again, this is probably just one of those first-week-of-the-year brainfarts. I assume (hope) the ICANN board noticed the discrepancy too and based its discussions on the actual timeline.

There’s also the matter of ICANN’s review of the program’s effects on competition and consumer choice, which is mandated by its Affirmation of Commitments with the US Department of Commerce.

Unfortunately, it’s not yet clear even to ICANN whether this is a prerequisite for a second round, according to the briefing documents.

Commerce has a bit of a predicament here. On the one hand, it wants to ensure new gTLDs are good for internet users. On the other, it’s under a massive amount of pressure from the trademark lobby, which would benefit from clarity into the timeline for future application rounds.

Either way, the US government’s interpretation of the Affirmation is going to be a key factor in determining the second-round launch date.

In short, given what is known and expected, 2015 seems to be the earliest possible date for the second round, but a hell of a lot rides on how many applications are received.

In a blog post today, ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom said: “The issues should be settled before the application window closes on 12 April but their resolution is not essential before the window opens on 12 January.”

I disagree. If ICANN is serious about reducing defensive applications, it needs to provide an unambiguous public statement about the second round before it starts accepting checks from brand owners.

Naming a date may not be possible, but it needs to say something.

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Comments (2)

  1. M says:

    In your article you say that 4 batches would take 20 months to process through Initial Evaluation. It would seem reasonable that the second round could open some time after all applications have been been through Initial Evaluation. But…if ICANN does not know how many applications they will receive in the first round how are they to commit to opening a second round?

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