The ICANN board has rescheduled an important decision for trademark owners, apparently at the behest of members of the Generic Names Supporting Organization Council.
The board’s New gTLD Program Committee was due to vote June 11 on whether to approve the rejection of a Reconsideration Request filed by the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group.
But the item has been removed from the agenda and will now instead be discussed at a new June 18 meeting that appears to have been specially scheduled for the purpose.
The rescheduling follows an appeal by GNSO Councillor Jeff Neuman directly to the committee and other senior ICANNers.
Neuman and others were concerned that a June 11 decision would preempt a discussion of the issue slated for the Council’s June 13 meeting, which would have been very bad for board-GNSO relations.
For the full background, read this post.
Essentially, Neuman and other councilors are worried that ICANN seems to be riding roughshod over the GNSO in an attempt to make a proposal known as “Trademark+50” a part of the new gTLD program.
Trademark+50 is a mechanism that will greatly expand the number of strings trademark owners can submit to the Trademark Clearinghouse and get limited protection for.
The NCSG’s Reconsideration Request had asked ICANN to reconsider its classification of the proposal as an “implementation” change that didn’t require GNSO “policy” review.
But the ICANN board’s Board Governance Committee, which adjudicates such matters, last month rejected the request in what I would describe as a sloppily argued and disconcertingly adversarial decision.
It’s now up to the New gTLD Program Committee, acting for the full board, to rubber-stamp the rejection, clearing the path for Trademark+50 to become law for new gTLD registries.
Rescheduling the decision won’t change the outcome, in my view. Trademark+50 is very probably a done deal.
But voting before the GNSO Council even had a chance to put its concerns to the board would have given fuel to the argument that ICANN ignores the GNSO when it is politically expedient to do so.
ICANN may have dodged a bullet for now, but the dispute continues.
ICANN has poached a Yahoo! executive to head up its outreach efforts in Asia.
Singapore-based Kuek Yu-Chuang, who held a similar role at Yahoo, has been named vice president for global stakeholder engagement for Asia. He starts August 1.
Asia is one of the regions in which ICANN is trying to establish itself a more prominent presence.
Singapore has been named as a “hub”, ostensibly of equal importance to its LA headquarters, and it was announced in April that a satellite office will also be opened in China.
Before Yahoo, Yu-Chuang had experience working for the Singapore government.
If there was any doubt in your mind that Verisign is trying to delay the launch of new gTLDs, its latest letter to ICANN and the Governmental Advisory Committee advice should settle it.
The company has ramped up its anti-expansion rhetoric, calling on the GAC to support its view that launching new gTLDs now will put the security and stability of the internet at risk.
People might die if some strings are delegated, Verisign says.
Among other things, Verisign is now asking for:
- Each new gTLD to be individually vetted for its possible security impact, with particular reference to TLDs that clash with widely-used internal network domains (eg, .corp).
- A procedure put in place to throttle the addition of new gTLDs, should a security problem arise.
- A trial period for each string ICANN adds to the root, so that new gTLDs can be tested for security impact before launching properly.
- A new process for removing delegated gTLDs from the root if they cause problems.
In short, the company is asking for much more than it has to date — and much more that is likely to frenzy its rivals — in its ongoing security-based campaign against new gTLDs.
Verisign has provided one of the most detailed responses to the GAC advice of any ICANN has received to date, discussing how each item could be resolved and/or clarified.
In general, it seems to support the view that the advice should be implemented, but that work is needed to figure out the details.
In many cases, it’s proposing ICANN community working groups. In others, it says each affected registry should negotiate individual contract terms with ICANN.
But much of the 12-page letter talks about the security problems that Verisign suddenly found itself massively concerned about in March, a week after ICANN started publishing Initial Evaluation results.
The letter reiterates the potential problem that when a gTLD is delegated that is already widely used on internal networks, security problems such as spoofing could arise.
Verisign says there needs to be an “in-depth study” at the DNS root to figure out which strings are risky, even if the volume of traffic they receive today is quite low.
It also says each string should be phased in with an “ephemeral root delegation” — basically a test-bed period for each new gTLD — and that already-delegated strings should be removed if they cause problems:
A policy framework is needed in order to codify a method for braking or throttling new delegations (if and when these issues occur) either in the DNS or in dependent systems that provides some considerations as to when removing an impacting string from the root will occur.
While it’s well-known that strings such as .home and .corp may cause issues due to internal name clashes and their already high volume of root traffic, Verisign seems to want every string to be treated with the same degree of caution.
Lives may be on the line, Verisign said:
The problem is not just with obvious strings like .corp, but strings that have even small query volumes at the root may be problematic, such as those discussed in SAC045. These “outlier” strings with very low query rates may actually pose the most risks because they could support critical devices including emergency communication systems or other such life-supporting networked devices.
We believe the GAC, and its member governments, would undoubtedly share our fundamental concern.
The impact of pretty much every recommendation made in the letter would be to delay or prevent the delegation of new gTLDs.
A not unreasonable interpretation of this is that Verisign is merely trying to protect its $800 million .com business by keeping competitors out of the market for as long as possible.
Remember, Verisign adds roughly 2.5 million new .com domains every month, at $7.85 a pop.
New gTLDs may well put a big dent in that growth, and Verisign doesn’t have anything to replace it yet. It can’t raise prices any more, and the patent licensing program it has discussed has yet to bear fruit.
But because the company also operates the primary DNS root server, it has a plausible smokescreen for shutting down competition under the guise of security and stability.
If that is what is happening, one could easily make the argument that it is abusing its position.
If, on the other hand, Verisign’s concerns are legitimate, ICANN would be foolhardy to ignore its advice.
ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade has made it clear publicly, several times, that new gTLDs will not be delegated if there’s a good reason to believe they will destabilize the internet.
The chair of the SSAC has stated that the internal name problem is largely dealt with, at least as far as SSL certificates go.
The question now for ICANN — the organization and the community — is whether Verisign is talking nonsense or not.
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.