An as-yet unidentified new gTLD applicant plans to lobby Washington DC and Brussels hard to get dozens of Google’s new gTLD bids thrown out of ICANN on competition grounds.
Phil Corwin of the law firm Virtuallaw, who is representing this applicant, told DI yesterday that his client believes Google plans to use new gTLDs to choke off competition in the web search market.
“They’re trying to use the TLD program to enhance their own dominance and exclude potential competitors,” Corwin said. “We think this should be looked at now because once these TLDs are delegated the delegations are basically forever.”
He’s planning to take these concerns to “policy makers and regulators” in the US and Europe, in a concerted campaign likely to kick off towards the end of the month (his client’s identity will be revealed at that time, he assured us).
Corwin’s client — which is in at least one contention set with Google, though in none with Amazon — reckons ICANN’s new gTLD program is ill-suited to pick the best candidate to run a gTLD.
If objections to new gTLD applications fail, the last-resort method for deciding the winner of a contention set is auction. Google obviously has the resources to win any auction it finds itself in.
“On any TLD Google has applied for, nobody can beat them,” said Corwin. “They have $50bn cash, plus the value of their stock. If they want any of the TLDs they’ve applied for, they get them.”
“A string contention process that relies solely on an auction clearly favors the deep-pocketed,” he said.
Google applied for 101 new gTLDs, 98 of which remain in play today. A small handful of the strings are dot-brands (such as .youtube and .google), with the majority comprising dictionary words and abbreviations.
Some of its generic bids propose open business models, while others would have “closed” or single-registrant business models. As we reported on Friday, this has kicked off a firestorm in the ICANN community.
Corwin said that Google appears to be planning to close off not only individual TLDs, but entire categories of TLDs.
For example, Google has applied for .youtube as a brand, but it’s also applied for .film, .movie, .mov, .live, .show and .tube with a variety of proposed business models.
“You can pretty well bet that they’ll exclude those that will pose a competitive threat to YouTube,” Corwin said.
Search will become much more important after the launch of hundreds of new gTLDs, Corwin reckons, as consumers are “not going to know that most of them exist”.
“Generic words are the perfect platform for constructing vertical search engines that can compete against Google’s general search engine,” Corwin said.
“Google is trying to buy up not just one but multiple terms that cover the same goods and services in key areas of internet commerce, and in effect control them so competition cannot arise and challenge Google’s dominance as a search engine,” he said.
Google has not yet revealed in any meaningful way how its search engine will handle new gTLDs.
The US Federal Trade Commission, at the conclusion of an antitrust investigation, recently gave Google a pass for its practice of prominently displaying results from its own services on results pages.
With that in mind, if Google were to win its contention set for .movie, but not for .film, is it possible that .movie would get a competitive advantage from preferential treatment in search?
Corwin reckons that Google anti-competitive intentions are already suggested by its strategy in ICANN’s new gTLD prioritization draw, which took place in December.
Of the roughly 150 applications for which Draw tickets were not purchased, Google is behind 24 of them — including .movie, .music, .tube and .search — 22 of which are in contention sets.
As a result, these contention sets have all been shunted to the back of ICANN’s application processing queue, adding many months to time-to-market and costing rival, less-well-funded applicants a lot of money in ongoing overheads.
“We see Google playing a rather different game here to most other applicants in terms of their motivation, which is not to enter the market but to protect their market dominance,” Corwin said.
Corwin said the game plan is to taken all these concerns to policy makers and regulators in the US and Europe in order to get governments on-side, both inside and outside of the ICANN process.
Corwin is also counsel and front-man for domainer group the Internet Commerce Association, but he said that the new anti-Google drive is unrelated to his work for ICA.
So why is his client only bringing up the issue now? After all, we’ve all known about the contents of every new gTLD application since last June.
My hunch is that Google is playing hard-ball behind the scenes in settlement talks with contention set rivals.
Contention sets can be resolved only when all but one of the applicants drops out, either following an ICANN auction or private buy-outs. Most applicants favor private resolution because it offers them the chance to recoup some, all, or more than the money they splashed out on applying.
That game plan probably does not apply to Google, of course, which is not wanting of funds. The company may even have good reason to prefer ICANN auctions, in order to to discourage those who would apply for new gTLDs in future just in order to put their hands in Google’s pockets.
The topic of closed generics and competition is likely to be a hot-button topic at ICANN’s next public meeting, coming up in Beijing this April.
Members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee have already expressed some concerns about many “closed gTLD” applications made by Google, Amazon and others.
ICANN’s board of directors is currently mulling over what to do about the issue, and has thrown it open to public comment for your feedback.
Howls of criticism about Google, Amazon and others’ plans to grab huge swathes of new gTLD real estate and keep it to themselves seem to have spurred ICANN into action.
A public comment period opened this week seeks community feedback (indirectly) on applications such as Amazon’s .music, L’Oreal’s .beauty and Google’s .blog, among many others.
These gTLDs have all been proposed with “single-registrant” business models, in which the registry controls all second-level domains and regular registrars cannot sell them to anyone else.
It’s the “dot-brand” model, but applied to generic dictionary words for which the applicants have no trademark rights.
Scores of such applications have been made, notably by Google and Amazon, but they have drawn criticism from many in the ICANN community, such as a small group of registrars and others led by Blacknight Solutions.
Members of the Governmental Advisory Committee, most vocally Australia, have also expressed serious concerns about the model, saying it could be anti-competitive.
ICANN’s board of directors is currently mulling over these complaints, and has thrown the issue open to public comment to aid in its deliberations.
What it wants from you is:
proposed objective criteria for:
- classifying certain applications as “closed generic” TLDs, i.e., how to determine whether a string is generic, and
- determining the circumstances under which a particular TLD operator should be permitted to adopt “open” or “closed” registration policies.
The way the public comment request is phrased should be quite worrying to applicants for closed generic gTLDs.
It seem to assume that ICANN should be classifying gTLDs, something it has steadfastly refused to do for all of the years these kinds of debates have been raging.
What is a “closed generic” anyway?
The DI PRO New gTLD Application Tracker classifies gTLD applications into three buckets: Open, Restricted and Single-Registrant.
We made no attempt to segregate dot-brands from other Single Registrant bids, precisely because there’s currently no such thing as a dot-brand under ICANN’s rules.
There doesn’t seem to be much community concern about the apps we have classified as “Restricted” — applications for .lawyer that propose to vet registrants for their lawyerly credentials, for example.
The concern is all directed at Single Registrant bids. We have 912 of these in our database.
Many of these are dot-brands, where the applied-for string is an exact match with a famous trademark, but many are for dictionary words for which the applicant has no preexisting rights.
In order to sanely operate a dot-brand, applicants must request an exemption to the ICANN rules that oblige them to offer their gTLDs via accredited registrars on a non-discriminatory basis.
This Code of Conduct is a part of the base Registry Agreement for new gTLDs, but it contains a carve-out for single-registrant applicants:
Registry Operator may request an exemption to this Code of Conduct, and such exemption may be granted by ICANN in ICANN’s reasonable discretion, if Registry Operator demonstrates to ICANN’s reasonable satisfaction that (i) all domain name registrations in the TLD are registered to, and maintained by, Registry Operator for its own exclusive use, (ii) Registry Operator does not sell, distribute or transfer control or use of any registrations in the TLD to any third party that is not an Affiliate of Registry Operator, and (iii) application of this Code of Conduct to the TLD is not necessary to protect the public interest.
This provision was added specifically in order to enable “dot-brands” to exist.
It would be pretty weird if, for example, L’Oreal was forced to make .loreal domains available via hundreds of registrars. By requesting an exception, L’Oreal has the chance to keep .loreal in-house.
However, because ICANN deliberately has made no distinction between commonly used words and brands (.amazon could be both), L’Oreal was also able to apply for .beauty as a single-registrant gTLD.
It’s not really a loophole — the possibility of companies applying for closed generics was envisaged by ICANN and the policy-making community long before the application window even opened.
Make no mistake, this is well-trodden ground. ICANN had plenty of opportunities to address the issue before the new gTLD application window opened a year ago and it quite consciously decided not to.
The feeling over the last couple of years has been that objection mechanisms such as the Community Objection, as well as GAC Advice, would be sufficient to close down these problematic gTLDs bids.
During the year-long community discussion about registry-registrar vertical integration, the possibility of closed generics was acknowledged and heavily debated.
The GNSO’s Vertical Integration Working Group failed to reach consensus on almost everything, but most of the recommendations emerging from it included some Code of Conduct exemptions for dot-brands.
Some in the WG suggested that the exemptions should only apply to true dot-brands (ie, those back up by a trademark) but ICANN decided against referring to trademarks when it wrote the Code of Conduct due to the very real possibility that it would encourage gaming by speculators.
That problem has not disappeared. While there’s no such gaming in the current batch of applications, there will be second and third and fourth application rounds that the rules being hastily debated at the last minute right now will also (presumably) apply to.
What do closed generic applicants want?
Some ICANN community members assumed that it would be the big domainer-backed companies (later emerging as Donuts, Uniregistry et al) that would attempt these kinds of land-grabs.
But that (so far) hasn’t turned out to be the case. The domainers have generally proposed registration policies that are super, super liberal in comparison to Google, Amazon and other closed-generic applicants.
I believe it’s partly because it’s these massively powerful e-commerce companies that are the ones making the land-grabs, and the scale of the grabs, that the issue of closed generics has reemerged now.
There are two broad use cases of concern here.
First, the .beauty scenario: L’Oreal keeps all the second-level .beauty domains to itself, essentially converting the word “beauty” into a brand name as far as the DNS is concerned.
Second, the .blog scenario: Google implements a policy that all .blog domains must use its Blogger service, potentially to the detriment of competitors such as WordPress or Tumblr.
In both scenarios, the bids could be rejected in their entirety as a result of formal objections, ICANN board action or Governmental Advisory Committee advice.
If the applications were approved, ICANN could also subjectively apply the ill-defined “public interest” test outlined above to force compliance with the Code of Conduct.
But that would merely lead to the bizarre scenario where 1,700 accredited registrars all qualify to sell .music domain names, but the only potential customer is Amazon.com’s intellectual property management department (which wants to run .music as a single-registrant gTLD).
As ICANN points out in its public comments request, the Code of Conduct regulates who can sell domain names in new gTLDs, not who they can sell them to.
The .blog scenario is a little different.
This is what Google, which has applied via its Charleston Road Registry subsidiary, has proposed (with my emphasis):
Should ICANN grant Charleston Road Registry’s exemption to the Code of Conduct, and the proposed gTLD operate with Google as the sole registrar and registrant, members of the public will not be able to directly register domain names in this new gTLD. Users will, however, be given the opportunity to make use of a vanity second-level domain as a memorable identifier linked to content in Blogger.
In other words, Google will “own” all the second-level .blog domains, but will allow Blogger customers to “use” them.
It looks like what it is: a transparently bogus attempted workaround of the Code of Conduct, designed to let Google exclude rival blogging services and independent, self-managed bloggers from .blog.
(Disclosure: DI is an independent, self-managed blog.)
However, I can’t see how what Google has proposed could possibly qualify for an exemption, which is only supposed to be granted provided the registry does not “transfer control or use of any registrations in the TLD to any third party”.
If sanity prevails, Google probably won’t qualify for an exemption.
But that won’t stop it tying .blog to Blogger.
The Code of Conduct, remember, is only concerned with equal, non-discriminatory access for accredited registrars. It does not speak to registry services or registry policies.
Google could possibly still have a registry policy stating that all .blog domains must point to Blogger.
In addition, Google could make the registration fee $0, making it unattractive for most registrars to carry (though I guess registrars could use it as a loss-leader, they wouldn’t be able to up-sell hosting and other services if all .blog domains have to use Blogger).
Applicants for closed generics paid millions of dollars to apply, using the rules set down in the Applicant Guidebook at the time, and I can’t see them being too happy about this eleventh hour surprise.
However, there can be little doubt that ICANN, if its role is to protect the public interest and consumer trust, has to seriously tackle the issue of closed generics.
But it has to address it in 2011.
ICANN has given new gTLD applicants a month to draft their own death warrants.
Okay, that might be a little hyperbolic. Let’s try again:
ICANN has given each new gTLD applicant 28 days to come up with a list of voluntary “Public Interest Commitments” that, if breached, could lead to the termination of their registry contracts.
The proposed, far-reaching, last-minute changes to the basic new gTLD Registry Agreement were introduced, published and opened for public comment on Tuesday.
PICs — as all the cool kids are calling them — are designed to appease ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which wants applicants to be held accountable to statements made in their gTLD applications.
If an applicant said in its application for .lawyer, for example, that only actual lawyers will be able to register a .lawyer domain name, the GAC wants ICANN to be able to step in and enforce that promise if the registry changes its registration policies at a later date.
Public Interest Commitments are the way ICANN proposes to let applicants state clearly what they commit to do and not to do, either by flagging parts of their existing application as binding commitments or by writing and submitting entirely new commitments.
Submitting a set of PICs would be voluntary for applicants, but once submitted they would become a binding part of their Registry Agreement, assuming their gTLD is approved and delegated.
“These are commitments you’re making to the community, to the governments, to everybody that can object to your applications, these are not commitments you’re making with ICANN,” ICANN COO Akram Atallah said on Tuesday’s webinar.
Registries would be subject to a new dispute policy (the Public Interest Commitment Dispute Resolution Process or PICDRP) that would enable third parties to file official complaints about breaches.
“We’re allowing third parties that are affected to be able to bring these claims, and then based upon the outcome of the dispute resolution process ICANN will enforce that third party dispute resolution result,” ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey said.
Registries that lost a PICDRP would have to “implement and adhere to any remedies ICANN imposes” up to and including the termination of the registry contract itself.
ICANN is asking applicants to submit their PICs before March 5, just 28 days after revealing the concept.
How PIC (probably) would work
Let’s take an example new gTLD application, selected entirely at random.
Donuts has applied for .dentist.
While the applied-for string suggests that only dentists will be able to register domain names, like all Donuts applications the gTLD would actually be completely open.
The government of Australia has filed a GAC Early Warning against this bid, stating that “does not appear to have proposed sufficient protections to address the potential for misuse”.
The Aussies want Donuts to detail “appropriate mechanisms to mitigate potential misuse and minimise potential consumer harm” or risk getting a potentially lethal GAC Advice objection to its bid.
If Donuts were so inclined, it could now attach a PIC to its .dentist bid, outlining its commitment to ensuring that .dentist is not abused by amateur dental surgery enthusiasts.
The PIC would be subject to public review and comment. If, subsequently, Donuts won the .dentist contention set, the PIC would be attached to its .dentist Registry Agreement and become binding.
Donuts may even stick to its commitments. But the moment some Marathon Man-inspired nutter managed to slip through the cracks, Donuts would be open to PICDRP complaints, risking termination.
What’s good about this idea?
From one perspective, PIC is a brilliantly clever concept.
The proposed solution doesn’t require applicants to amend their applications, nor would it require lengthy contractual negotiations during the gTLD approval and delegation process.
Applicants could merely attach their commitments to the base registry agreement, sign it, and be on their merry way.
This means fewer delays for applicants and relatively little additional up-front work by ICANN.
On an ongoing basis, the fact that PICs would be enforceable only by third parties via the PICDRP means fewer headaches for ICANN compliance and fewer debacles like the aborted attempt to bring .jobs into line.
Finally, it’s also completely voluntary. If applicants don’t want to file a PIC, they don’t have to. Indeed, most applicants aren’t even in a position where they need to think about it.
Do I sense a “but”?
But I can’t see these proposals going down too well in applicant land.
ICANN is, essentially, giving applicants one short month to bind themselves to a completely new, almost completely unknown dispute resolution process.
Repeat: the PICDRP does not yet exist.
Indications were given that it will be modeled on existing dispute resolution procedures in the Applicant Guidebook, but there’s no actual text available to review yet.
We do know that the process would be designed to enable third parties to file complaints, however. Agreeing to PICDRP could therefore potentially open up applicants to competitive or nuisance complaints.
The “remedies” that ICANN could impose when a PICDRP case is lost are also currently rather vague.
While the nuclear option (termination) would be available, there’s no information yet about possible lesser remedies (financial penalties, for example) for non-compliance.
I’ve talked to enough domain name industry lawyers over the years to guess that most of them will take a very dim view of PIC, due to these uncertainties.
One of the guiding principles of the new gTLD program from the outset was that it was supposed to be predictable. ICANN has veered away from this principle on multiple occasions, but these eleventh-hour proposed changes present applicants with some of the biggest unknowns to date.
The timeline doesn’t work
The raison d’être for the PIC concept is, ostensibly, to enable applicants to avoid not only potential GAC Advice but also official objections by other third parties.
But according to ICANN documentation, applicants are being asked to submit their PICs by March 5. ICANN will publish them March 6. They’d then be open for public review until April 5 before becoming final.
But the deadline for filing objections is March 13. That deadline also applies to objections filed by governments (though not GAC Advice, which is expected to come in mid-late April).
Judging by this timeline, potential objectors would have to decide whether to file their objections based on PICs that have been published for just one week and that could be amended post-deadline.
Unless ICANN extends the objection filing window, it’s difficult to see how PIC could be fit for its stated purpose.
On the bright side
I believe that only a small percentage of applicants will be affected by PIC.
Out of 1,917 applications and 1,409 strings, GAC governments filed just 242 Early Warnings against 145 strings. Some of those warnings merely tell the applicant to withdraw its bid, which no amount of PIC will cure.
I expect that very few, if any, applicants without Early Warnings will bother to file PICs, unless of course the objections deadline is moved and PIC becomes an effective way to avoid objections.
For those with Early Warnings, an alternative strategy would be to lobby friendly GAC members — demonstrably flexible to lobbying, judging by the Early Warnings — to ensure that they do not receive full, consensus GAC Advice against their applications.
That would be risky, however, as there’s currently no way of knowing how much weight ICANN’s board of directors will give to non-consensus GAC Advice against applications.
The International Foundation For Online Responsibility, which sets policy for .xxx, wants to broaden its scope and is to launch a “Policy Engine” service for new gTLD registries.
Kieren McCarthy, who has been working for IFFOR as its public participation manager for the last year, has been tapped to lead the organization too, taking over from Joan Irvine as executive director in April.
IFFOR is the sponsoring organization for .xxx, independent but created by registry manager ICM Registry as a way to demonstrate to ICANN that it planned to operate the porn gTLD responsibly.
It’s kept a bit of a low profile since .xxx launched, only emerging to distribute some small grants to worthy causes, but McCarthy says that it’s built up substantial policy-making and compliance expertise.
Now, it wants to let new gTLD registries outsource these functions to it.
“Broadly, the Policy Engine service lets gTLD applicants outsource their policy issues to an independent body,” McCarthy said.
IFFOR reckons plenty of new gTLDs will want such services, especially given the increased interest from governments in how new gTLDs are operated.
As the organization is currently set up to deal only with .xxx — it’s funded $10 a year from every .xxx sold — only three of its nine-member Policy Council are not members of the adult entertainment industry or connected to ICM.
Additionally, ICM’s general counsel is on its three-member board of directors.
But McCarthy said that the Policy Council, which also has substantial expertise in privacy, child protection and free speech issues, usually uses sub-groups to come up with its policies.
“The majority of what we do is applicable across any top-level domain,” he said.
McCarthy is the former journalist and ICANN staffer, current CEO of .nxt. When he takes over from Irvine in April, she is expected to stay around as a consultant.
ICANN has picked a provider for its Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting service, one that’s willing to manage cases at under $500 per filing.
The news came from new gTLD program manager Christine Willett during webcast meetings this week.
“We have identified a provider for the URS who’s going to be able to provide that service within the target $300 to $500 filing fee price range. We’re in the process of formalizing that relationship,” she said last night.
The name of the lucky provider has not yet been revealed — Willett expects that news to come in February — but it’s known that several vendors were interested in the gig.
URS is a complement to the existing UDRP system, designed to enable trademark owners to execute quick(ish) takedowns, rather than transfers, of infringing domain names.
ICANN found itself in a bit of a quandary last year when UDRP providers WIPO and the National Arbitration Forum said they doubted it could be done for the target fee without compromising registrant rights.
But a subsequent RFP — demanded by members of the community — revealed several providers willing to hit the sub-$500 target.
ICANN expects to approve multiple URS vendors over time.