Latest news of the domain name industry

Recent Posts

.XXX debate could test GAC powers

Kevin Murphy, November 1, 2010, Domain Policy

The long-running .xxx top-level domain saga has tested ICANN processes to their limits over the last decade, and it looks like it may do so at least one more time.

Digging a little deeper into the board’s decision to consult with its Governmental Advisory Committee before approving the TLD, it looks like the discussion will be quite broad-based.

The .xxx consultation could in fact have consequences for the board/GAC power balance, helping define the parameters of their future interactions.

This PDF, published at the same time as last week’s board resolution on .xxx, outlines three GAC positions that could have a bearing on the matter.

The first is its communiqué from the Wellington meeting in 2007, which noted that several GAC members were “emphatically opposed” to the introduction of .xxx.

The GAC operates on a consensus basis. When it can’t find consensus, its communiqués also reflect minority positions. So ICANN now wants to know whether the Wellington letter constitutes GAC “advice”.

The question remains whether a position taken by “several members of the GAC” can be equated with GAC advice on public policy matters. If it is not GAC advice, then the concern of inconsistency [of the .xxx contract with GAC advice] diminishes.

Some may be surprised to discover that, after over a decade, there’s no broad agreement about when something the GAC says constitutes official “advice” that ICANN, under its bylaws, must consider.

Attendees to the Brussels meeting this June will recall that the joint board-GAC meeting, transcribed here, spent most of its time labouring on this apparent oversight.

In consulting with the GAC on .xxx, there’s an outside chance that some answers with regards the definition of “advice” may be found.

It wouldn’t be the first time ICM Registry’s controversial application has forced ICANN to address shortcomings in its own accountability procedures.

Notably, the Independent Review Process, promised in the bylaws for years, was eventually implemented to allow ICM’s appeal after it had pushed the Reconsideration Request process to its limit.

ICANN’s latest resolution on .xxx also refers to a letter (pdf) GAC chair Heather Dryden sent to the board in August, which expressed a desire that no “controversial” TLDs should be added to the root.

While ostensibly addressing future TLD applications, rather than TLDs applied for under previous rounds, the letter did say that “objection procedures should apply to all pending and future TLDs”, which was widely interpreted as referring directly to .xxx.

Last week’s ICANN board documents say:

If the “pending” TLD refers to .XXX, the approval of the .XXX sTLD Registry Agreement without allowing for these types of objections would be inconsistent with GAC advice.

I’ve reason to believe that the “pending” language may have been inserted quite late into the drafting of the Dryden letter, and may not enjoy the unanimous support of GAC members.

Regardless, the letter implies that whatever “morality and public order” or “Rec6” objections process winds up in the new TLD Applicant Guidebook should also apply, retroactively, to ICM.

If ICANN were to agree on this point, a precedent would presumably be set that would allow the GAC to issue thirteenth-hour “advice” that moves the goal-posts for future new TLD applicants, removing a significant amount of predictability from the process.

For that reason, I think it’s unlikely that ICM will be told it is subject to the Rec6 process (whatever that may ultimately look like).

The consultation, however, may result in some clarity around where the GAC’s powers of “advice” begin and end, which is probably a good thing.

ICANN ombudsman quits

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2010, Domain Policy

Frank Fowlie, ICANN’s ombudsman, has announced he will leave the post before the end of January next year.

A statement posted to the ICANN web site does not explain the reasons for his departure, but it does include this nugget:

“After six years with ICANN, I have logged 794 days in travel status, or about two years and five months away from home,” said Fowlie in announcing his departure to the ICANN staff. “It’s time for me to spend a bit more time at home with my wonderful wife.”

Read into that what you will.

ICANN will now look for a replacement. The ombudsman’s role is to hear complaints about ICANN’s actions. Former UN staffer Fowlie was the first to hold the position.

For no other reason than I think that it’s funny, here’s a link to a story about Fowlie getting shirty with a flight attendant.

Businesses to object to Arab UDRP provider

Kevin Murphy, October 27, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN’s business constituency is to object to a new Jordan-based UDRP provider, saying that no new providers should be approved until rules governing their behavior are put in place.

The BC reckons that UDRP decisions need to be more consistent and predictable, and that a good way to achieve this would be with standard accountability mechanisms.

In a draft position statement, expected to be finalized and filed with ICANN tomorrow, the BC says that it:

strongly advocates that ICANN must first implement a standard mechanism with any and all UDRP arbitration providers that defines and constrains their authority and powers, and establishes regular and standardized review by ICANN with flexible and effective means of enforcement.

Its comment is expected to be filed in response to the Arab Center for Domain Name Dispute Resolution’s request for official recognition as a UDRP provider last month.

The BC does not appear to object to the ACDR on its own merits or on the basis of its location.

The statement notes that registrars are bound by contracts setting the rules for domain registrations, but that UDRP providers can force transfers unconstrained by any ICANN guidelines or oversight.

It’s well-known that UDRP decisions from the various existing providers are currently about as predictable as flipping a coin, with panelists frequently interpreting the rules along quite different lines.

The BC seems concerned that this could be exacerbated as more UDRP providers are approved and as new TLD registries start popping up in different countries.

The draft statement notes that currently about 99% of UDRP cases are heard by WIPO and NAF, and that most gTLDs are “based in a limited number of national jurisdictions”.

Former ICANN chief speaks out against new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2010, Domain Policy

Former ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey has expressed his support for rules curbing the ability of international governments to object to new top-level domains.

Twomey’s suggestions could be seen as going even further to limit government powers in the new TLD process than previous recommendations from the community.

The advice came during the ICANN comment period on the so-called “Rec6” recommendations, which previously sought to create an objection process based on “morality and public order” or “MOPO” concerns.

There had been a worry from some elements of the ICANN community that backwards governments could use Rec6 to arbitrarily block controversial new TLDs on national interest grounds.

But a cross-constituency working group, which included a few members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, instead developed recommendations that would create a much narrower objections process with a greater emphasis on free speech.

Twomey, who quit ICANN in June 2009, has now expressed broad support for the working group’s recommendations, and suggests a few tweaks to make the process less open to abuse.

He said ICANN “should be careful not to view one government alone as having veto power over any particular gTLD string which is designed to serve a global or at least international user group”.

Notably, Twomey has urged ICANN to steer clear of the phrase “national interest”, which appears in the current Rec6 recommendations, and instead use “national law”.

He reasons that giving weight to “national interests” could enable fairly junior civil servants to object to new TLDs without the full backing of their governments or legislation.

phrases such as “perceived national interest” reflect a degree of political consideration which can be more fleeting, be expressed by very junior officials without Ministerial or Parliamentary approval, and often is a matter of debate between different groups within the country and government. In some respects it is similar to the phrase “public policy”. I remember a GAC member many years ago stating that “public policy is anything I decide it is”.

Twomey then recommends that even when a government has an objection based on an actual national law, that law “should only derive from a national law which is in accordance with the principle of international law.”

A law which violated human rights treaties, for example, or which was hurriedly passed specifically in order to scupper a TLD bid, would therefore not be valid grounds for objection.

Twomey’s reasoning here is fascinating and a little bit shocking:

without such a linkage, a unique, one-off power to a government would be open to gaming by well-funded commercial interests with political influence.

I am aware of some commercial entities involved in the ICANN space in years past that quietly boasted of their ability to get laws passed in certain small jurisdictions which would suit their commercial interests in competing with other players. This is not behaviour the ICANN Board should inadvertently incent.

I’ll leave it for you to speculate about which companies Twomey is referring to here. I don’t think there are many firms in the domain name space that well-funded.

Prior to becoming ICANN’s president, Twomey chaired the GAC as the Australian representative. He’s currently president of Leagle and managing director of Argo Pacific, his own consulting firm.

His full commentary, which delves into more areas than I can get into here, can be found here. The Rec6 working group’s recommendations can be found here (pdf). My previous coverage of the Rec6/MOPO issue can be found here.

Trademark lobby keeps up pressure on ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 24, 2010, Domain Policy

The International Trademark Association is continuing to press ICANN into commissioning a study of the potential economic “harms” its new top-level domain program could cause.

INTA executive director Alan Drewsen earlier this month sent ICANN a quick reminder (pdf) that it expects to see the study carried out before the new TLD application round launches.

The trademark lobby believes that new TLDs will increase costs to brand-conscious businesses through an increase in the number of defensive registrations and dispute proceedings they have to pay for.

ICANN hired some third-party analysts to look into the issue, and published a preliminary report in July that basically just speculated about studies that could be carried out in future.

The plan was to carry out a second-phase study, which was to begin after public comments on the first report had been analyzed and summarized by ICANN staff.

Three months after the public comment period closed, this analysis has not been published and there’s no news on phase two.

INTA’s latest missive also notes that the ICANN board does not appear to have discussed the economic study at its Trondheim meeting in September.

Drewson also refers back to previous correspondence, sent in early September by INTA president Heather Steinmeyer, in which she wrote:

trademark owners believe that such a study is not only a sensible recommendation, but an essential prerequisite before any rollout of new gTLDs.

It’s not clear to me whether ICANN also thinks the study needs to be completed before the new TLD program launches.

Such a study would presumably take some considerable time to compile, and noises from ICANN currently point to the program becoming finalized at some point in the next six months.

If the study were to conclude that new TLDs would be hugely financially damaging, after three years of work… well, red faces would be the very least concern.