ICANN’s decision to press ahead with the “Trademark+50” trademark protection mechanism over the objections of much of the community may not be the end of the controversy.
Some in the Generic Names Supporting Organization are even complaining that ICANN’s rejection of a recent challenge to the proposal may “fundamentally alter the multi-stakeholder model”.
Trademark+50 is the recently devised adjunct to the suite of rights protection mechanisms created specially for the new gTLD program.
It will enable trademark owners to add up to 50 strings to each record they have in the Trademark Clearinghouse, where those strings have been previously ruled abusive under UDRP.
Once in the TMCH, they will generate Trademark Claims notices for both the trademark owner and the would-be registrant of the matching domain name during the first 60 days of general availability in each new gTLD.
Guinness, for example, will be able to add “guinness-sucks” to its TMCH record for “Guinness” because it has previously won guinness-sucks.com in a UDRP decision.
If somebody then tries to register guinness-sucks.beer, they’ll get a warning that they may be about to infringe Guinness’ trademark rights. If they go ahead and register anyway, Guinness will also get an alert.
Trademark+50 was created jointly by ICANN’s Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency late last year as one of a raft of measures designed to strengthen rights protection in new gTLDs.
They then managed to persuade CEO Fadi Chehade, who was at the time still pretty new and didn’t fully appreciate the history of conflict over these issues, to convene a series of invitation-only meetings in Brussels and Los Angeles to try to get other community members to agree to the proposals.
These meetings came up with the “strawman solution”, a list of proposed changes to the program’s rights protection mechanisms.
Until two weeks ago, when DI managed to get ICANN to publish a transcript and audio recording of the LA meetings, what was said during these meetings was shrouded in a certain degree of secrecy.
I don’t know why. Having listened to the 20-hour recording, I can tell you there was very little said that you wouldn’t hear during a regular on-the-record public ICANN meeting.
Everyone appeared to act in good faith, bringing new ideas and suggestions to the table in an attempt to find a solution that was acceptable to all.
The strongest resistance to the strawman came, in my view, from the very small number (only one remained by the end) of non-commercial interests who had been invited, and from the registrars.
The non-coms were worried about the “chilling effect” of expanding trademark rights, while registrars were worried that they would end up carrying the cost of supporting confused or frightened registrants.
What did emerge during the LA meeting was quite a heated discussion about whether the IPC/BC proposals should be considered merely “implementation” details or the creation of new “policy”.
That debate spilled over into 2013.
Under the very strictest definition of “policy”, it could be argued that pretty much every aspect of every new rights protection mechanism in the Applicant Guidebook is “implementation”.
The only hard policy the GNSO came up with on trademarks in new gTLDs was back in 2008. It reads:
Strings must not infringe the existing legal rights of others that are recognized or enforceable under generally accepted and internationally recognized principles of law.
Pretty much everything that has come since has been cobbled together from community discussions, ad hoc working groups, ICANN staff “synthesis” of public comments, and board action.
But many in the ICANN community — mainly registries, registrars and non-commercial interests — say that anything that appears to create new rights and/or imposes significant new burdens on the industry should be considered “policy”.
During the LA meetings, there was broad agreement that stuff like extending Trademark Claims from 60 to 90 days and instituting a mandatory 30-day notice period before each Sunrise period was “implementation”.
Those changes won’t really incur any major new costs for the industry; they merely tweak systems that already have broad, if sometimes grudging, community support.
But the attendees were split (IPC/BC on the one side, most everyone else on the other) about whether Trademark+50, among other items, was new policy or just an implementation detail.
If something is “policy” there are community processes to deal with it. If it’s implementation it can be turned over to ICANN staff and forgotten.
Because the registries and registrars have an effective veto on GNSO policy-making and tend to vote as a bloc, many others view a “policy” label as a death sentence for something they want done.
A month after the strawman meetings, in early December, ICANN staff produced a briefing paper on the strawman solution (pdf) for public comment. Describing what we’re now calling Trademark+50, the paper stated quite unambiguously (it seemed at the time):
The inclusion of strings previously found to be abusively registered in the Clearinghouse for purposes of Trademark Claims can be considered a policy matter.
Chehade had previously — before the strawman meetings — strongly suggested in a letter to members of the US Congress that Trademark+50 was not doable:
It is important to note that the Trademark Clearinghouse is intended be a repository for existing legal rights, and not an adjudicator of such rights or creator of new rights. Extending the protections offered through the Trademark Clearinghouse to any form of name (such as the mark + generic term suggested in your letter) would potentially expand rights beyond those granted under trademark law and put the Clearinghouse in the role of making determinations as to the scope of particular rights.
Personally, I doubt then-new Chehade wrote the letter (at least, not without help). It mirrors Beckstrom-era arguments and language and contrasts with a lot of what he’s said since.
But it’s a pretty clear statement from ICANN’s CEO that the expansion of Trademark Claims to Trademark+50 night expand trademark rights and, implicitly, is not some throwaway implementation detail.
Nevertheless, a day after the staff briefing paper Chehade wrote to GNSO Council chair Jonathan Robinson in early December to ask for “policy guidance” on the proposal.
Again, there was a strong suggestion that ICANN was viewing Trademark+50 as a policy issue that would probably require GNSO input.
Robinson replied at the end of February, after some very difficult GNSO Council discussions, saying “the majority of the council feels that is proposal is best addressed as a policy concern”.
The IPC disagreed with this majority view, no doubt afraid that a “policy” tag would lead to Trademark+50 being gutted by the other GNSO constituencies over the space of months or years.
But despite ICANN staff, most of the GNSO Council and apparently Chehade himself concluding that Trademark+50 was policy, staff did a U-turn in March and decided to go ahead with Trademark+50 after all.
An unsigned March 20 staff report states:
Having reviewed and balanced all feedback, this proposal appears to be a reasonable add-on to an existing service, rather than a proposed new service.
It is difficult to justify omission of a readily available mechanism which would strengthen the trademark protection available through the Clearinghouse. Given that the proposal relies on determinations that have already been made independently through established processes, and that the scope of protection is bounded by this, concerns about undue expansion of rights do not seem necessary.
This caught the GNSO off-guard; Trademark+50 had looked like it was going down the policy track and all of a sudden it was a pressing reality of implementation.
Outraged, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which had been the strongest (if smallest through no fault of their own) voice against the proposal during the strawman meetings filed a formal Reconsideration Request (pdf) with ICANN.
Reconsideration Requests are one of the oversight mechanisms built into ICANN’s bylaws. They’re adjudicated by ICANN’s own Board Governance Committee and never succeed.
In its request, the NCSG told a pretty similar history to the one I’ve just finished relating and asked the BGC to overturn the staff decision to treat Trademark+50 as implementation.
The NCSG notes, rightly, that just because a domain has been lost at UDRP the string itself is not necessarily inherently abusive. To win a UDRP a complainant must also demonstrate the registrant’s bad faith and lack of rights to the string at issue.
To return to the earlier example, when notorious cybersquatter John Zuccarini — an unambiguously bad guy — registered guinness-sucks.com back in 2000 he told Guinness he’d done it just to piss them off.
That doesn’t mean guinness-sucks.beer is inherently bad, however. In many jurisdictions I would be well within my rights to register the domain to host a site criticizing the filthy brown muck.
But if I try to register the name, I’m going to get a Trademark Claims notice asking me to verify that I’m not going to infringe Guinness’ legal rights and advising me to consult a lawyer.
Chilling effect? Maybe. My own view is that many people will just click through the notice as easily as they click through the Ts&Cs on any other web site or piece of software.
Either way, I won’t be able to claim in court that I’d never heard of GuinnessTM, should the company ever decide to sue me.
Anyway, the NCSG’s Reconsideration Request failed. On May 16 the BGC issued a 15-page determination (pdf) denying it.
It’s this document that’s causing consternation and death-of-the-GNSO mutterings right now.
Last week, Neustar’s lead ICANN wonk Jeff Neuman asked for the Reconsideration Request to be put on the agenda of the GNSO Council’s June 13 meeting. He wants BGC representatives to join the call too. He wrote:
This decision was clearly written by legal counsel (and probably from outside legal counsel). It was written as a legal brief in litigation would be written, and if upheld, can undermine the entire bottom-up multi-stakeholder model. If ICANN wanted to justify their decision to protect their proclamation for the 50 variations, they could have done it in a number of ways that would have been more palatable. Instead, they used this Reconsideration Process as a way to fundamentally alter the multi-stakeholder model. It not only demonstrates how meaningless the Reconsideration process is as an accountability measure, but also sends a signal of things to come if we do not step in.
He has support from other councilors.
I suspect the registries that Neuman represents on the Council are not so much concerned with Trademark+50 itself, more with the way ICANN has forced the issue through over their objections.
The registries, remember, are already nervous as hell about the possibility of ICANN taking unilateral action to amend their contracts in future, and bad decision-making practices now may set bad precedents.
But Neuman has a point about the legalistic way in which the Reconsideration Request was handled. I spotted a fair few examples in the decision of what can only be described as, frankly, lawyer bullshit.
For example, the NCSG used Chehade’s letter to Congress as an example of why Trademark+50 should be and was being considered “policy”, but the BGC deliberately misses the point in its response, stating:
The NCSG fails to explain, however, is how ICANN policy can be created through a proclamation in a letter to Congress without following ICANN policy development procedures. To be clear, ICANN cannot create policy in this fashion.
Only a lawyer could come up with this kind of pedantic misinterpretation.
The NCSG wasn’t arguing that Chehade’s letter to Congress created a new policy, it was arguing that he was explaining an existing policy. It was attempting to say “Hey, even Fadi thought this was policy.”
Strike two: the NCSG had also pointed to the aforementioned staff determination, since reversed, that Trademark+50 was a policy matter, but the BCG’s response was, again, legalistic.
It noted that staff only said Trademark+50 “can” be considered a policy matter (rather than “is”, one assumes), again ignoring the full context of the document.
In context, both the Chehade letter and the March staff document make specific reference to the fact that the Implementation Recommendation Team had decided back in 2009 that only strings that exactly match trademarks should be protected. But the BGC does not mention the IRT once in its decision.
Strike three: the BGC response discounted Chehade’s request for GNSO “policy guidance” as an “inartful phrase”. He wasn’t really saying it was a policy matter, apparently. No.
Taken as a whole, the BGC rejection of the Reconsideration Request comes across like it was written by somebody trying to justify a fait accompli, trying to make the rationale fit the decision.
In my view, Trademark+50 is quite a sensible compromise proposal with little serious downside.
I think it will help trademark owners lower their enforcement costs and the impact on registrars, registries and registrants’ rights is likely to be minimal.
But the way it’s being levered through ICANN — unnecessarily secretive discussions followed by badly explained U-turns — looks dishonest.
It doesn’t come across like ICANN is playing fair, no matter how noble its intentions.
An anonymous individual claiming to be an ICANN staffer has warned the organization’s board of directors about senior-level cronyism and a “climate of fear” among employees.
However, DI’s private conversations with other ICANN staffers suggest that the concerns may not be widely shared, at least not to the same extreme.
DI received a lengthy email yesterday in which it is claimed that hiring practices since last year have seen “incompetent” friends of CEO Fadi Chehade and COO Akram Atallah appointed to senior positions, which has hurt morale and proved divisive among employees.
Here are some extracts:
While it is natural for a new CEO or COO to bring in their own team, many senior hires to ICANN have been selected without going through an interviewing process, hired despite recommendation by staff to the contrary, in some cases with lack of relevant experience and not following basic business practices on the selection on the basis of merit. It in many cases has been replaced by hiring friends, family and neighbors.
In some cases these hires have turned out to be quite competent but in other cases they are flat-out incompetent. They not only will remain on staff because Akram views them as loyal but they have enjoyed additional responsibilities and promotions unfairly based on their relationship with Akram or Fadi.
Because of these hiring practices, staff morale is at a low point. Staff now falls into two camps: (1) those hired before Fadi (2) those hired after Fadi. There are a record number of employees looking for other jobs. Some have already left and if a significant number leave in the future, ICANNs qualified talent pool will suffer.
The email was unsigned and sent from an anonymized account, but includes sufficient detail that nobody who has seen it doubts that it came from an ICANN employee.
The author refers to an intern, briefly employed, who would have had little to no interaction with the rest of the community and was even unknown to some staff, for example.
I’ve confirmed that the email was sent to at least some members of the board of directors — currently holed up at a retreat in Amsterdam — at about the same time it was sent to DI.
The email lists about 10 current or former ICANN executives who, it is claimed, were hired because they are friends with either Atallah or Chehade or worked with them at other companies.
To the extent that the relationships detailed are professional, they’re easily confirmed by online resumes. Others have been confirmed privately by ICANN staffers.
While the email names names, I’m not going to.
Having spent the last day running the email author’s concerns privately by a handful of ICANN employees, I was unable to find the same degree of concern expressed by anyone.
Some I spoke to recognized the scenario outlined in the email — a new batch of senior staff aligned to the new boss and perhaps not yet fully integrated with the old guard — but said that this is to be expected whenever a new CEO takes over.
“I’m really surprised that someone feels so strongly,” said one staffer. “It’s not that horrendous, new CEOs bring in their people and we’re not going to appreciate them all.”
The phrase “climate of fear”, used in the email, invokes (possibly deliberately) the words of Maria Farrell, the former ICANN staffer who humiliated then-CEO Rod Beckstrom with a scathing public assessment of staff morale during the meeting in San Francisco two years ago.
But another message that also came through loud and clear talking to staff is that while morale might remain low, things at ICANN are a lot better than they were before Chehade took over.
“At least Fadi and his people seem competent,” one person said.
ICANN’s Ombudsman Chris LaHatte has received complaints about some new gTLD objections that were apparently filed after the submission deadline but are being processed anyway.
Two companies have officially called on LaHatte to tell ICANN that “late complaints should not be received on the basis that the deadlines were well advertised and achievable”.
The issue seems to be that ICANN had set a deadline of 2359 UTC March 13 for objections to be filed, and some of them arrived slightly late.
The delays appear to have been a matter of mere minutes, and blamed on latency caused by heavy email attachments and other technical problems.
According to ICANN, the dispute resolution providers decided to give objectors a five-minute grace period, essentially extending the deadline from 2359 UTC to 0004 UTC the following day.
The recipients of these objections clearly now want to use this technicality to kill off the objections, avoiding the cost of having to defend themselves.
In a set of answers to questions posed verbally in Beijing last month, published last week (pdf), ICANN said:
ICANN is confident that the Dispute Resolution Service Providers are complying with the guidelines in the [Applicant Guidebook].
I don’t know which applications are affected by the issue, but the question at the Beijing public forum was posed by new gTLD consultant Jim Prendergast of the Galway Strategy Group.
He received applause, so I guess he wasn’t the only person in the room with an interest in the subject.
LaHatte, on his blog, is looking for feedback before making his decision.
The International Organization for Standardization, known as ISO, doesn’t want to have its acronym blocked in new gTLDs by the International Sugar Organization.
ISO has told ICANN in a letter that demands for special favors coming from intergovernmental organizations, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, should be rejected.
Secretary general Rob Steele wrote:
We have very strong concerns with the GAC proposal, and firmly oppose any such block of the acronym “ISO.”
To implement a block on the term “ISO” (requiring its release be permitted by the International Sugar Organization) disregards the longstanding rights and important mission of the International Organization for Standardization. To be frank, this would be unacceptable.
please be assured that the International Organization for Standardization is prepared to take all necessary steps if its well-known short name is blocked on behalf of another organization.
For several months the GAC has argued that IGOs are “objectively different category to other rights holders, warranting special protection from ICANN” in new gTLDs.
Just like the “unique” Olympics and Red Cross were in 2011.
The GAC proposes that that any IGO that qualifies for a .int address (it’s a number in the hundreds) should have its name and acronym blocked by default at the second level in every new gTLD.
But ICANN pointed that this would be unfair on the hundreds (thousands?) of other legitimate uses of those acronyms. It gave several examples.
The GAC in response said that the IGOs would be able to grant consent for their acronyms to be unblocked for use by others, but this opened up a whole other can of implementation worms (as the GAC is wont to do).
ICANN director Chris Disspain of AuDA said in Beijing:
Who at each IGO would make a decision about providing consent? How long would each IGO have to provide consent? Would no reply be equivalent to consent? What criteria would be used to decide whether to give consent or not? Who would draft that criteria? Would the criteria be consistent across all IGOs or would consent simply be granted at the whim of an IGO?
In the GAC’s Beijing communique, it seemed to acknowledge this problem. It said:
The GAC is mindful of outstanding implementation issues and commits to actively working with IGOs, the Board, and ICANN Staff to find a workable and timely way forward.
The GAC insists, however, that no new gTLDs should be allowed to launch until the IGO protections are in place.
Given the amount of other work created for ICANN by the Beijing communique, I suspect that the IGO discussions will focus on implementation detail, rather than the principle.
But the principle is important. IGOs are not typically victims of pernicious cybersquatting. If they deserve special protections, then why don’t trademark owners that are cybersquatted on a daily basis?
ISO standardizes all kinds of stuff in dozens of sectors. In the domain name space, it’s probably best known for providing ICANN with ISO 3166-1 alpha-2, the authoritative list of two-letter strings that may be delegated as ccTLDs.
The International Sugar Organization is very important too, probably, if you’re in the sugar business.
Does it need better brand protection than Microsoft or Marriott or Facebook or Fox? Is anyone going to want to cybersquat the International Sugar Organization, really?
If it does deserve that extra layer of protection, should that right trump the more-famous ISO’s right to register domains matching its own brand?
The European Commission plans to build a massive web site and database of information related to global internet policy-making.
The Global Internet Policy Observatory, which is still in the planning stages, would be a “clearinghouse for monitoring Internet policy, regulatory and technological developments across the world”.
The idea appears to be to make it easier for people interested in this kind of thing to wade through information overload. According to a Commission press release, the site would:
- automatically monitor Internet-related policy developments at the global level, making full use of “big data” technologies;
- identify links between different fora and discussions, with the objective to overcome “policy silos”;
- help contextualise information, for example by collecting existing academic information on a specific topic, highlighting the historical and current position of the main actors on a particular issue, identifying the interests of different actors in various policy fields;
- identify policy trends, via quantitative and qualitative methods such as semantic and sentiment analysis;
- provide easy-to-use briefings and reports by incorporating modern visualisation techniques;
GIPO (I’m choosing to pronounce it with a hard G) could get underway in 2014, pending the results of a feasibility study, the Commission said.
Brazil, the African Union, Switzerland, the Association for Progressive Communication, Diplo Foundation and the Internet Society are also all involved in the project.