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New back-end approval program could reduce the cost of a new gTLD

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN will consider a new pre-approval program for registry back-end service providers in order to streamline the new gTLD application process and potentially reduce application fees.

The proposed “RSP pre-evaluation process” was one of the biggest changes to the new gTLD program agreed to by ICANN’s New gTLDs Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro), which published its final report for comment last week.

The recommendation addresses what was widely seen as a huge process inefficiency in the evaluation phase of the 2012 application round, which required each application to be subjected to a unique technical analysis by a team of outside experts.

This was perceived as costly, redundant and wasteful, given that the large majority of applications proposed to use the same handful of back-end RSPs.

Donuts, which applied for over 300 strings with virtual cookie-cutter business models and all using the same back-end, had to pay for over 300 technical evaluations, for example.

Similarly, clients of dot-brand service providers such as Neustar and Verisign each had to pay for the same evaluation as hundreds of fellow clients, despite the tech portions of the applications being largely copy-pasted from the same source.

For subsequent rounds, that will all change. ICANN will instead do the tech evals on a per-RSP, rather than per-application, basis.

All RSPs that intend to fight for business in the next round will undergo an evaluation before ICANN starts accepting applications. In a bit of a marketing coup for the RSPs, ICANN will then publish the names of all the companies that have passed evaluation.

The RSPs would have to cover the cost of the evaluation, and would have to be reevaluated prior to each application window. ICANN would be banned from making a profit on the procedure.

SubPro agreed that applicants selecting a pre-approved RSP should not have to pay the portion of the overall application fee — $185,000 in 2012 — that covers the tech eval.

RSPs may decide to recoup the costs from their clients via other means, of course, but even then the fee would be spread out among many clients.

The proposed policy, which is still subject to SubPro, GNSO Council and ICANN board approval, is a big win for the back-ends.

Not only do they get to offer prospective clients a financial incentive to choose them over an in-house solution, but ICANN will also essentially promote their services as part of the program’s communications outreach. Nice.

Single/plural gTLD combos to be BANNED

Kevin Murphy, August 27, 2020, Domain Policy

Singular and plural versions of the same string will be banned at the top level under proposed rule changes for the next round of new gTLDs.

The final set of recommendations of ICANN’s New gTLDs Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro), which were published after four years of development last week, state:

the Working Group recommends prohibiting plurals and singulars of the same word within the same language/script in order to reduce the risk of consumer confusion. For example, the TLDs .EXAMPLE and .EXAMPLES may not both be delegated because they are considered confusingly similar.

The 2012 round had no hard and fast rule about plurals. There were String Similarity Review and String Confusion Objection procedures, but they produced unpredictable results.

At least 15 single/plural string pairs currently exist in the root, including .fan(s), .accountant(s), .loan(s), .review(s) and .deal(s). Sometimes they’re both part of the same registry’s portfolio, other times they’re owned by competitors.

But others, including .pet and .pets and .sport and .sports, were ruled by independent panels too “confusingly similar” to be allowed to coexist.

The proposed new rule would remove much of the subjectivity from these kinds of decisions, replacing the current system of objections with a flat no-coexistence rule.

If a gTLD that was the plural of an existing gTLD were applied for, the application would be rejected. If the singular and plural variants of the same word were applied for in the same round, the applications would likely end up at auction.

But there would be some wriggle room, with the ban only applying if both applied-for strings truly are singular/plural variations of each other in the same language. The working group wrote:

.SPRING and .SPRINGS could both be allowed if one refers to the season and the other refers to elastic objects, because they are not singular and plural versions of the same word. However, if both are intended to be used in connection with the elastic object, then they will be placed into the same contention set. Similarly, if an existing TLD .SPRING is used in connection with the season and a new application for .SPRINGS is intended to be used in connection with elastic objects, the new application will not be automatically disqualified.

In such situations, both registries would have to agree to binding Public Interest Commitments to only use the gTLDs for their stated, non-conflicting purposes. Registrants would also have to commit to only use .spring to represent the season and .springs for the elastic objects, also.

The ban will substantially eliminate the problem I’ve previously referred to as “tailgating”, where a registry applies for the plural variant of a competitor’s successful, well-marketed gTLD, prices domains slightly lower, then sits back to effortlessly reap the benefits of their rival’s popularity.

One could easily imagine applicants for strings such as .clubs or .sites in the next round, with applicants content to lazily ride the coat-tails of the million-selling singular namespaces.

The rule change will also remove the need for existing registries to defensively apply for the single/plural variants of their current portfolio, and for existing registrants to be compelled to defensively registry domains in yet another TLD.

On the flipside, it means that some potentially useful strings would be forever banned from the DNS.

While it might make sense for a film producer to register a .movie domain to market a single movie, it would not make sense for a review site or movies-related blog, where a .movies domain would be more appropriate. But now that’s never going to be possible.

SubPro’s work is still subject to final approval by SubPro, the GNSO Council and ICANN board of directors before it becomes policy.

ICANN might pay for your lockdown broadband

Kevin Murphy, August 25, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is to seriously consider requests that community volunteers should have their broadband costs subsidized out of the ICANN budget.

On Thursday, its board of directors will meet to discuss what it’s calling the “ICANN Pandemic Internet Access Reimbursement Program Pilot”.

No additional information is currently available, but the name of the proposed pilot is pretty descriptive.

The agenda item follows calls from some community members for ICANN to help out with the costs of broadband (and potentially hotel rooms) for those who have incurred out-of-pocket expenses to participate in ICANN’s remote Zoom meetings.

ICANN typically covers the travel and accommodation for certain key policy-making volunteers attending its thrice-yearly public meetings and occasional intersessional face-to-face gatherings.

With coronavirus confining most of these people to their home offices for the last several months, and with all official ICANN meetings going virtual, ICANN could save as much as $8 million this calendar year

Paying the broadband costs of a handful of community members would likely amount to a mere drop in that ocean.

However, while the details of the proposed pilot program are not yet known, one could imagine how galling it would be to many if ICANN opened its piggy-bank to North American lawyers on six-figure salaries, rather than only to volunteers from the broadband-poor developing world.

As a reminder, ICANN’s budget primarily comes from the “tax” registrants pay whenever they register a gTLD domain name.

Still, we shouldn’t prejudge these things. Perhaps the policy will be sensible.

ICANN introduced a similar pilot reimbursement program for community members with childcare needs last year, largely without controversy. Due to the absence of face-to-face meetings this year, this cash-for-kids scheme will run until ICANN 71 in June next year.

The end of the beginning? ICANN releases policies for next round of new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 25, 2020, Domain Policy

Over eight years after ICANN last accepted applications for new gTLDs and more than four years after hundreds of policy wonks first sat around the table to discuss how the program could be improved, the working group has published its draft final, novel-length set of policy recommendations.

Assuming the recommendations are approved, in broad terms the next round will be roughly similar to the 2012 round.

But almost every phase of the application process, from the initial communications program to objections and appeals, is going to get tweaked to a greater or lesser extent.

The recommendations came from the GNSO’s New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group, known as SubPro. It had over 200 volunteer members and observers and worked for thousands of hours since January 2016 to come up with its Final Draft Report.

Some of the proposed changes mean the cost of an application will likely go down, while others will keep the cost artificially high.

Some changes will streamline the application process, others may complicate it.

Many of the “changes” to policy are in fact mere codifications of practices ICANN brought in unilaterally under the controversial banner of “implementation” in the 2012 round.

Essentially, the GNSO will be giving the nod retroactively to things like Public Interest Commitments, lottery-based queuing, and name collisions mitigation, which had no basis in the original new gTLDs policy.

But other contentious aspects of the last round are still up in the air — SubPro failed to find consensus on highly controversial items such as closed generics.

The report will not tell you when the next round will open or how much it will cost applicants, but the scope of the work ahead should make it possible to make some broad assumptions.

What it will tell you is that the application process will be structurally much the same as it was eight years ago, with a short application window, queued processing, objections, and contention resolution.

SubPro thankfully rejected the idea replacing round-based applications with a first-come, first-served model (which I thought would have been a gaming disaster).

The main beneficiaries of the policy changes appear to be registry service providers and dot-brand applicants, both of which are going to get substantially lowered barriers to entry and likely lower costs.

There are far too many recommendations for me to summarize them eloquently in one blog post, so I’m going to break up my analysis over several articles to be published over the next week or so.

In the meantime, ICANN has opened up the final draft report for public comment. You have until September 30.

The report notes that previously rejected comments will not be considered, so if your line is “New gTLDs suck! .com is King!” you’re likely to find your input falling on deaf ears.

After the comment period ends, and SubPro considers the comments, the report will be submitted to the GNSO Council for approval. Subsequently, it will need to be approved by the ICANN board of directors.

It’s not impossible that this could all happen this year, but there’s a hell of a lot of implementation work to be done before ICANN starts accepting applications once more. We could be looking at 2023 before the next window opens and 2024 before the next batch of new gTLDs start to launch.

UPDATE: This post was updated August 27, 2020 to clarify procedural and timing issues.

It’s a CONSPIRACY! Canadian registrant “sues” pretty much everybody

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2020, Domain Policy

Canadian domain registrant and noted industry troll Graham Schreiber has sued, or at least claims to have sued, just about every notable figure in the ICANN community.

A document purporting to be a lawsuit is being circulated today among some of the dozens of named defendants, which include several people who’ve not been involved with ICANN for many years.

It names 27 volunteers from ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency, 21 current and former senior executives of registries and registrars, several members of the US and UK governments, an FBI agent, an unnamed “White House Conspirator”, as well as lawyers for LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, ICANN, Google and the UK Intellectual Property Office.

It’s my job to tell you in simple terms what the alleged lawsuit alleges, but I’m afraid I’m at an utter loss with this one. It reads like the fever dream of a conspiracy theorist that would make the average Qanon believer appear the model of reason and clarity.

Schreiber variously refers to his defendants as “Kingpins” involved in a “Cartel” or “Conspiracy”, the factual details of which he never quite gets to.

Here’s a representative sample paragraph, unedited:

If and when, the “Defensive Registrations” obliged by ICANN’s R[r]egistry & R[r]egistrar “Stakeholders” = “Kingpins” and specifically CentralNic [ weren’t purchased ] assailants would strike; and Infringe, Dilute, Blur and Pass-Off as our online business, individually with identical and confusingly similar domain name, faking to be appointed or an authorized agent of the primary Registrant, in a country’s entrepreneurs Intellectual Property may or may not have been protectable at Common Law Trademark, under Madrid Protocol Rules, as it / they fulfilled the obligations of local National laws, to become a Registered Trademark, as I secured in the USA with USPTO, after the CIPO did their work.

At one point, he admits to trolling the defendants on social media since 2012, and points to their failure to sue him as evidence of a conspiracy:

I’ve made statements via those Social Media resources which would, if they were untrue, subject me to a singular lawsuit or multiple lawsuits from the Defendants listed, for: Defamation, Slander and Libel.

As yet, these well taunted Defendants have all conspired together, in collective silence, anticipating that their grandeur and my insignificance would, maintain safe passage, for them to continue.

As the vast majority of the Defendants are well schooled, powerful U.S. Attorneys, it’s my expectation that the Court oblige them to address the charges here stated, or collectively for their defence, they must File a lawsuit with this Court, charging me for what could be [ but aren’t ] remarks constituting Defamation, Slander & Libel against them, which again, I’ve posted on some of the Defendants own clients, Social Media Platforms

Schreiber was once a regular fixture in DI’s comments section too. Thankfully, we’ve not heard from him in years.

The root cause of the “lawsuit” appears to be an old beef Schreiber has with CentralNic.

He says he owns what he calls a “common law trademark” on the term “Landcruise” and he once used the matching .com domain to operate a motor-home rental business.

At some point in 2011, he became aware that a British registrant had registered landcruise.co.uk and landcruise.uk.com.

At the time, CentralNic was primarily in the business of selling domains at the third level in pseudo-gTLDs such as uk.com, gb.com and us.com.

Schreiber tried and failed (twice) to get the .uk domain transferred under Nominet’s Dispute Resolution Service, and then he took his beef to the courts.

In 2012, he sued CentralNic, ICANN, Verisign, eNom, and Network Solutions in a complaint that barely made much more sense than the “lawsuit” being circulated today.

That case was thrown out of court in 2013.

I expect the same fate to befall the current lawsuit, if indeed it has even been filed in a court.

Schreiber wants $5 million from every defendant.

If you want to check whether you’re one of them, read the PDF “complaint” here.

ICANN names Egypt-based head of Istanbul office

Kevin Murphy, August 19, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has appointed veteran staffer Baher Esmat as the new head of its regional office in Istanbul, Turkey.

His new job title will be managing director for Middle East and Africa, having previously headed ICANN’s partnership programs for the region. He’s basically become ICANN’s point man in the region.

He’s replacing Nick Tomasso, who’s sticking around at ICANN in his main role as VP of meetings but appears to be leaving Istanbul.

Esmat currently lives in Egypt, which isn’t even in the same time zone, and there does not appear to be a short-term plan to move him to Istanbul

The ICANN board noted in its resolution promoting Esmat:

There will be a fiscal impact on ICANN in FY21 only to the extent of travel and related costs for Mr. Esmat as he will continue to reside in Egypt for the time being, but ICANN will save on the costs associated with Mr. Tomasso’s having resided in Istanbul during his tenure as the representative of the liaison office in Turkey, Istanbul.

It’s not clear whether the decision to stay in Egypt is coronavirus-related, but I imagine working from home in Egypt isn’t much different from working from home in Turkey.

Esmat has been at ICANN for 14 years. Tomasso ran the Istanbul office from 2017. The handover is effective at the end of the month.

The pricey, complex, clusterfuck plan to reopen Whois

Kevin Murphy, August 3, 2020, Domain Policy

After a little more than two years, an ICANN working group has finalized the policy that could allow people to start accessing unredacted Whois records again.

Despite the turnaround time being relatively fast by ICANN standards, the Expedited Policy Development Process group has delivered what could be the most lengthy and complex set of policy recommendations I’ve seen since the policy work on new gTLDs over a decade ago.

Don’t get too excited if you’re itching to get your hands on Whois data once more. It’s a 171-page document containing over a hundred recommendations that’s bound to take ages to implement in full, if it even gets approved in the coming weeks.

I’d be surprised if it’s up and running fully before 2022 at the earliest. If and when the system does eventually come online, don’t expect to get it for free.

It’s already being slammed in multiple quarters, with one constituency saying it could result in a “multi-year-implementation resulting in a system which would effectively be a glorified, overly complex and very expensive ticketing system”.

Trademark owners are livid, saying the proposed policy completely fails to address their needs, and merely entrenches the current system of registrar discretion into formal ICANN policy.

The recommendations describe a proposed system called SSAD, for System for Standardized Access/Disclosure, which would be overseen by ICANN and enforced through its contracts with registries and registrars.

It’s a multi-tiered system involving a few primary functions, wrapped in about a thousand miles of red tape.

First and foremost, you’ve got the Central Gateway Manager. This would either be ICANN, or a company to which ICANN outsources. Either way, ICANN would be responsible for overseeing the function.

The gateway manager’s job is to act as a middleman, accepting Whois data requests from accredited users and forwarding them to registries and registrars for processing.

In order to access the gateway, you’d need to be accredited by an Accreditation Authority. Again, this might be ICANN itself or (more likely) a contractor.

The policy recommendations only envisage one such authority, but it could rely on a multitude of Identity Providers, entities that would be responsible for storing the credentials of users.

It’s possible all of these roles and functions could be bundled up in-house at ICANN, but it appears the far more likely scenario is that there will be a bunch of RFPs coming down the pike for hungry contractors later this year.

But who gets to get accredited?

Anyone with a “legitimate interest or other lawful basis”, it seems. The document is far from prescriptive or proscriptive when it comes to describing possible users.

But the recommendations do give special privileges to governments and government-affiliated entities such as law enforcement, consumer protection bodies and data privacy watchdogs.

For law enforcement agencies, the proposed policy would mandate fully automated processing at the gateway and at the registry/registrar. It sounds like cops would get pretty much instant access to all the Whois data they need.

Requests just the for city field of the record would also be fully automated, for any accredited requestor.

There would be at least three priorities of Whois request under the proposed system.

The first, “Urgent”, would be limited to situations that “pose an imminent threat to life, serious bodily injury, critical infrastructure (online and offline) or child exploitation”. Non-cops could use this method too. Contracted parties would have one business day or three calendar days to respond.

The second would be limited to ICANN-related procedures like UDRP and URS, and registrars would have a maximum of two business days to respond.

The third would encapsulate all other requests, with some priority given to fraud or malware-related requests. Response times here could be a long as 10 days.

I’m trying to keep it simple here, but a lot of the recommendations describe the aforementioned red tape surrounding each stage of the process.

Registrars and registries would be bound to service level agreements, there’d be appeals processes for rejected requests, there’d be logging, audits, reporting, methods to de-accredit users and methods for them to appeal their de-accreditation… basically a shedload of checks and balances.

And who’s going to pay for it all?

ICANN’s latest guesstimate is that SSAD will cost $9 million to build and another $8.9 million annually to operate.

It seems the main burden will be placed on the shoulders of the end-user requestors, which will certainly have to pay for accreditation (which would have to be renewed periodically) and may have to pay per-query too.

Trademark lawyers within the ICANN community are furious about this — not because they have to pay, but because SSAD functionality does “not come close to justifying the costs”.

They’d envisaged a system that would be increasingly automated as time went by, eventually enabling something pretty much like the old way of doing Whois lookups, but say the current proposals preclude that.

It’s also not impossible that the system could lead to higher fees for registrants.

The EPDP group is adamant that domain registrants should not have to pay directly when somebody queries their Whois data, and says the SSAD should be cheaper to run for registrars than the current largely manual system, but acknowledges there’s nothing ICANN can do to stop registrars raising their prices as a result of the proposed policy.

The recommendations say that ICANN should not take a profit from SSAD, but do not discount its contractors from making a fair return from their work.

Prices are, like much else described in this Final Report, still very much TBD. The EPDP working group was given a lot to accomplish in very little time, and there’s a lot of buck-passing going on.

And there’s no guarantee that the policy will even be approved in the short term, given the level of dissent from working group participants.

Before the recommendations become formal Consensus Policy — and therefore binding on all registries and registrars — they first have to be approved by the GNSO Council and then the ICANN board of directors.

The first opportunity for the GNSO Council to vote is at its meeting September 24, but it could be a very tight vote.

For an EPDP to pass, it needs a supermajority vote of the Council, which means a two-thirds majority of both “houses” — the Contracted Parties House (ie, registries and registrars) and the Non-Contracted Parties house — or a 75% approval in one house and a simple majority in the other.

The way things stand, it looks to me like the CPH will very likely vote 100% in favor of the proposal, which means that only seven out of the 13 NCPH members will have to vote in favor of the report in order for it to pass.

The NCPH is made up of six people from the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which generally hold pro-privacy views and have already criticized the report as not going far enough to protect registrants’ data.

Six more NCPH members comprise two members each from the Intellectual Property Constituency, Business Constituency and Internet Service Providers Constituency.

The IPC and BC put their names to a joint minority statement in the Final Report saying that its recommendations:

amount to little more than affirmation of the [pre-EPDP] status quo: the elements of WHOIS data necessary to identify the owners and users of domain names are largely inaccessible to individuals and entities that serve legitimate public and private interests.

I’m chalking those four Council members down as reliable “no” votes, but they’ll need the support of the two ISP guys and the wildcard Nominating Committee appointee in order to bury this policy proposal.

If it does pass the Council, the next and final stage of approval for SSAD would be the ICANN board, probably at ICANN 69 in October.

But then ICANN would actually have to build the damn thing.

This would take many months of implementation and review, then there’d have to be multiple RFP processes to select the companies to write the software and build the infrastructure to run it, who’d then actually have to build and test it.

In the same guesstimate that put a $9 million price tag on the system, ICANN reckoned that it would take a full year for a third party to build and test SSAD. That’s not even taking registrar integration into account.

So, if you’re looking for streamlined Whois access again, you’d best think 2022 at the very earliest, if ever.

If you wish to read the EPDP working group’s Final Report, you can do so here (pdf).

UPDATE: This article originally misstated the date of the next GNSO Council meeting at which this proposal could be considered. It’s not August 20. It’s September 24, which means initial ICANN board consideration is out in October. Add another month to whatever timeline you were hoping for.

ICANN close to becoming $200 million gift-giver

Kevin Murphy, July 27, 2020, Domain Policy

Remember how ICANN raised hundreds of millions of dollars auctioning off new gTLD contracts, with only the vaguest of ideas how to spend the cash? Well, it’s coming pretty close to figuring out where the money goes.

The GNSO Council approved a plan last Thursday that will turn ICANN into a giver of grants, with some $211 million at its initial disposal.

And the plan so far does not exclude ICANN itself for applying to use the funds.

The plan calls for the creation of a new Independent Project Applications Evaluation Panel, which would be charged with deciding whether to approve applications for this auction cash.

Each project would have to fit these criteria:

  • Benefit the development, distribution, evolution and structures/projects that support the Internet’s unique identifier systems;
  • Benefit capacity building and underserved populations, or;
  • Benefit the open and interoperable Internet

Examples given include improving language services, providing PhD scholarships, and supporting TLD registries and registrars in the developing world.

The evaluation panel would be selected “based on their grant-making expertise, ability to demonstrate independence over time, and relevant knowledge.” Diversity would also be considered.

While existing ICANN community members would not be banned from being on the panel, it’s being strongly discouraged. The plan over and over again stresses how there must be rigorous conflict-of-interest rules in place.

What’s less clear right now is what role ICANN will play in the distribution of funds.

The Cross-Community Working Group that came up with the proposal offers three possible mechanisms, but there was no strong consensus on any of them.

The one being pushed, “Mechanism A”, would see ICANN org create a new department — potentially employing as many as 20 new staff — to oversee applications and the evaluation panel.

Mechanism B would see the same department created, but it would work with an existing independent non-profit third party.

Mechanism C would see the function offloaded to a newly created “ICANN Foundation”, but ICANN’s lawyers are not keen on this idea.

The Intellectual Property Constituency was the lone dissenting voice at Thursday’s GNSO Council vote. The IPC says that support for Mechanism A actually came from a minority of CCWG participants, depending on how you count the votes.

It thinks that ICANN should divorce itself as far as possible from the administration of funds, and that not to do so creates the “unreasonable risk” of ICANN being perceived as “self-dealing”.

But as the plan stands, ICANN is free too plunder the auction funds at will anyway. ICANN’s board of directors said as long ago as 2018:

ICANN maintains legal and fiduciary responsibility over the funds, and the directors and officers have an obligation to protect the organization through the use of available resources. In such a case, while ICANN would not be required to apply for the proceeds, the directors and officers would have a fiduciary obligation to use the funds to meet the organization’s obligations.

It already took $36 million from the auction proceeds to rebuild its reserve fund, which had been diminished by ICANN swelling its ranks and failing to predict the success of the new gTLD market.

The CCWG also failed to come to a consensus on whether ICANN or its constituent parts should be banned from formally applying for funds through the program.

Because the plan is a cross-community effort, it needs to be approved by all of ICANN’s supporting organizations and advisory committees before heading to the ICANN board for final approval.

There also looks to be huge amount of decision-making and implementation work to be done before ICANN puts its hand in its pocket for anyone.

ICANN washes its hands of Amazon controversy

Kevin Murphy, July 22, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN has declined to get involved in the seemingly endless spat between Amazon and the governments representing the Amazonia region of South American.

CEO Göran Marby has written to the head of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization to say that if ACTO still has beef with Amazon after the recent delegation of .amazon, it needs to take it up with Amazon.

ACTO failed to stop ICANN from awarding Amazon its dot-brand gTLD after eight years of controversy, with ICANN usually acting as a mediator in attempts to resolve ACTO’s issues.

But Marby yesterday told Alexandra Moreira: “”With the application process concluded and the Registry Agreement in force, ICANN no longer can serve in a role of facilitating negotiation”.

She’d asked ICANN back in May, shortly before .amazon and its Japanese and Chinese translations hit the root, to bring Amazon back to the table for more talks aimed at getting ACTO more policy power over the gTLDs.

As it stands today, Amazon has some Public Interest Commitments that give ACTO’s eight members the right to block any domains they feel have cultural significance to the region.

Marby told Moreira (pdf) that it’s now up to ACTO to work with Amazon to figure out how that’s going to work in practice, but that ICANN’s not going to get involved.

ICANN still has no clue how coronavirus will affect the domain industry

Kevin Murphy, July 21, 2020, Domain Policy

ICANN is still in the dark about how the coronavirus pandemic is going to affect the domain industry’s fortunes and its own budget, judging by a blog post published overnight by CEO Göran Marby.

In the post, Marby outlined his 10 priorities (six created by himself, four by the ICANN board) for the recently commenced fiscal year, and the impact of the virus is front and center.

Notably, it appears that ICANN is thinking about creating a new department or hiring a new senior “economist” to track the domain market and forecast trends.

Bullet #6 on Marby’s list is:

Develop a plan for the potential economist function within ICANN org to follow and evaluate Domain Name System (DNS) market trends.

Background: I’ve heard the question asked, “Is the DNS market changing?” My answer is yes, probably. The questions we need to ask now are, what’s good for the end user, and what will be bad?

My read on this is that we might be looking at a new VP — an astrologer-in-chief, if you like — whose job it would be to read the tea leaves, stare into a crystal ball, rummage through pigeon guts, and predict budget-affecting market moves before they happen.

That’s a function currently occupied by the office of CFO Xavier Calvez, but his track record is spotty, having in previous years failed to predict basic stuff like junk drops in the new gTLD space.

Another of Marby’s goals, set by the board, is:

Develop and implement a plan to ensure continued financial stability in a world affected by COVID-19.

Background: While ICANN’s financial situation is sound at the moment, the impact of the unprecedented effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on the world economy is still unknown.

ICANN’s recently passed FY21 budget predicts an 8% slump in revenue due to an estimated 33% plummet in new gTLD registrations and a 2.3% drop in legacy gTLD regs, as well as a loss of 62 fee-paying dot-brand gTLDs and 380 accredited registrars.

That said, it’s also saving millions by eschewing face-to-face meetings until the whole coronavirus mess is sorted.

It’s not entirely clear how ICANN arrived at its numbers, but it seems the domain industry is looking into unknown waters right now.

It’s undeniable that the pandemic-related lockdown mandates around the world have proved a huge boon to the industry, as bricks-and-mortar businesses retreat online to try to save their livelihoods, but it’s unclear whether this boost will continue as nations emerge from quarantine and into record-setting recessions.

ICANN’s budget is dependent more than anything else on registration volumes in gTLDs, so its fiscal stability will depend on whether people continue to buy and renew domains as they lose their jobs and their companies go out of business.

It seems inevitable that companies going bust and dropping their domains is a trend we’re going to face over the coming few years, but as long as there’s enough liquidity in the domainer community that shouldn’t prove a massive issue for ICANN, which does not care who registers a domain, merely that it is registered.

Aside from budgeting concerns, the impact of coronavirus on ICANN meetings is #1 on Marby’s list of priorities.

Work with Supporting Organization and Advisory Committee leaders, community members, and the Board to define and implement a phased plan to return to face-to-face meetings. This plan will ensure the provision of safe and effective meeting formats that support the ongoing work of the community as well as allow robust remote participation options for anyone unable to attend in person. The final plan will be integrated with regional and global engagement activities.

Background: Face-to-face meetings have always been an important part of ICANN’s DNA. Despite the current pandemic-related restrictions, the Board, community, and org must ensure that we remain able to collaborate, and that we are still able to attract new participants into ICANN.

Since March, every meeting that would usually be held face to face, including the two big public meetings, has instead been held over Zoom, which has drawbacks and limitations. This October’s Hamburg meeting will also be online-only.

Marby to a great extent has his hands tied here.

As long as the virus rages out of control in ICANN’s native US, he’s going to be limited to hosting meetings in locations not only where the coronavirus has been tackled to the degree where large congregations are permitted but also where Americans are allowed to travel quarantine-free.

The next scheduled public meeting is due to take place in Cancun, Mexico in March 2021, but that country currently has locked its border to travelers from the north.

And regardless of what laws are in place next March, ICANN’s going to have to get a read on whether any community members will feel safe enough to travel — to a windowless room where everyone wears masks two meters apart for 10 hours a day — before going ahead with an expensive in-person meeting.

It seems more likely that F2F meetings will resume first on a regional level before going fully international. Travel narriers within the European Union, for example, are relatively low, so it’s not impossible to imagine small meetings going ahead with only participants from that community.