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GAC Early Warnings just got a whole lot more important

Kevin Murphy, January 18, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN will let new gTLD applicants change their applications in order to respond to the concerns of governments, it has emerged.

Changes to applications made as a result of Early Warnings made by the Governmental Advisory Committee “would in all likelihood be permitted”, ICANN chair Steve Crocker informed the GAC this week.

ICANN is also looking at ways to make these changes enforceable in the respective applicants’ registry contracts.

Combined, the two bits of news confirm that the GAC will have greater power over new gTLD business models than previously anticipated.

The revelations came in the ICANN board of directors’ official response to GAC advice emerging from last October’s Toronto meeting.

After Toronto, the GAC had asked ICANN whether applicants would be able to change their applications in response to Early Warnings, and whether the changes made would be binding.

In response, Crocker told his GAC counterpart, Heather Dryden, that ICANN already has a procedure for approving or denying application change requests.

The process “balances” a number of criteria, including whether the changes would impact competing applicants or change the applicant’s evaluation score, but it’s not at all clear how ICANN internally decides whether to approve a request or not. So far, none have been denied.

Crocker told Dryden:

It is not possible to generalize as to whether change requests resulting from early warnings would be permitted in all instances. But if such requests are intended solely to address the “range of specific issues” listed on page 3 of the Toronto Communique, and do not otherwise conflict with the change request criteria noted above, then such request would in all likelihood be permitted.

The “range of specific issues” raised in the Toronto advice (pdf) are broad enough to cover pretty much every Early Warning:

  • Consumer protection
  • Strings that are linked to regulated market sectors, such as the financial, health and charity sectors
  • Competition issues
  • Strings that have broad or multiple uses or meanings, and where one entity is seeking exclusive use
  • Religious terms where the applicant has no, or limited, support from the relevant religious organisations or the religious community
  • Minimising the need for defensive registrations
  • Protection of geographic names
  • Intellectual property rights particularly in relation to strings aimed at the distribution of music, video and other digital material
  • The relationship between new gTLD applications and all applicable legislation

Some Early Warnings, such as many filed against gTLD bids that would represent regulated industries such as finance and law, ask applicants to improve their abuse mitigation measures.

To avoid receiving potential lethal GAC Advice this April, such applicants were asked to improve their rights protection mechanisms and anti-abuse procedures.

In some cases, changes to these parts of the applications could — feasibly — impact the evaluation score.

The GAC also made it clear in Toronto that it expects that commitments made in applications — including commitments in changes made as a result of Early Warnings — should be enforceable by ICANN.

This is a bit of a big deal. It refers to Question 18 in the new gTLD application, which was introduced late at the request of the GAC and covers the “mission/purpose” of the applied-for gTLD.

Answers to Question 18 are not scored as part of the new gTLD evaluation, and many applicants took it as an invitation to waffle about how awesome they plan to be.

Now it seems possible they they could be held to that waffle.

Crocker told Dryden (with my emphasis):

The New gTLD Program does not currently provide a mechanism to adopt binding contractual terms incorporating applicant statements and commitment and plans set forth within new gTLD applications or arising from early warning discussions between applicants and governments. To address concerns raised by the GAC as well as other stakeholders, staff are developing possible mechanisms for consideration by the Board New gTLD Committee. That Committee will discuss the staff proposals during the upcoming Board Workshop, 31 Janaury – 2 February.

In other words, early next month we could see some new mechanisms for converting Question 18 blah into enforceable contractual commitments that new gTLD registries will have to abide be.

New gTLD “strawman” splits community

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2013, Domain Policy

The ICANN community is split along the usual lines on the proposed “strawman” solution for strengthening trademark protections in the new gTLD program.

Registrars, registries, new gTLD applicants and civil rights voices remain adamant that the proposals — hashed out during closed-door meetings late last year — go too far and would impose unreasonable restrictions on new gTLDs registries and free speech in general.

The Intellectual Property Constituency and Business Constituency, on the other hand, are (with the odd exception) equally and uniformly adamant that the strawman proposals are totally necessary to help prevent cybersquatting and expensive defensive registrations.

These all-too-predictable views were restated in about 85 emails and documents filed with ICANN in response to its initial public comment period on the strawman, which closed last night.

Many of the comments were filed by some of the world’s biggest brand owners — many of them, I believe, new to the ICANN process — in response to an International Trademark Association “call to action” campaign, revealed in this comment from NCS Pearson.

The strawman proposals include:

  • A compulsory 30-day heads-up window before each new gTLD starts its Sunrise period.
  • An extension of the Trademark Claims service — which alerts trademark owners and registrants when a potentially infringing domain is registered — from 60 days to 90 days.
  • A mandatory “Claims 2” service that trademark owners could subscribe to, for an additional fee, to receive Trademark Claims alerts for a further six to 12 months.
  • The ability for trademark owners to add up to 50 confusingly similar strings to each of their Trademark Clearinghouse records, provided the string had been part of a successful UDRP complaint.
  • A “Limited Preventative Registration” mechanism, not unlike the .xxx Sunrise B, which would enable trademark owners to defensively register non-resolving domains across all new gTLDs for a one-off flat fee.

Brand owners fully support all of these proposals, though some companies filing comments complained that they do not go far enough to protect them from defensive registration costs.

The Limited Preventative Registration proposal was not officially part of the strawman, but received many public comments anyway (due largely to INTA’s call-to-action).

The Association of National Advertisers comments were representative:

an effective LPR mechanism is the only current or proposed RPM [Rights Protection Mechanism] that addresses the critical problem of defensive registrations in the new Top Level Domain (gTLD) approach. LPR must be the key element of any meaningful proposal to fix RPMs.

Others were concerned that the extension to Trademark Claims and proposed Claims 2 still didn’t go far enough to protect trademark rights.

Lego, quite possibly the most aggressive enforcer of its brand in the domain name system, said that both time limits are “arbitrary” and called for Trademark Claims to “continue indefinitely”.

It’s pretty clear that even if ICANN does adopt the strawman proposals in full, it won’t be the end of the IP community’s lobbying for even stronger trademark protections.

On the other side of the debate, stakeholders from the domain name industry are generally happy to embrace the 30-day Sunrise notice period (many will be planning to do this in their pre-launch marketing anyway).

A small number also appear to be happy to extend Trademark Claims by a month. But on all the other proposals they’re clear: no new rights protection mechanisms.

There’s a concern among applicants that the strawman proposals will lead to extra costs and added complexity that could add friction to their registrar and reseller channel and inhibit sales.

The New TLD Applicant Group, the part of the Registries Constituency representing applicants for 987 new gTLDs, said in its comments:

because the proposals would have significant impact on applicants, the applicant community should be supportive before ICANN attempts to change such agreements and any negative impacts must be mitigated by ICANN.

There’s a concern, unstated by NTAG in its comments, that many registrars will be reluctant to carry new gTLDs at launch if they have to implement more temporary trademark-protection measures.

New registries arguably also stand to gain more in revenue than they lose in reputation if trademark owners feel they have to register lots of domains defensively. This is also unstated.

NTAG didn’t say much about the merits of the strawman in it comments. Along with others, its comments were largely focused on whether the changes would be “implementation” or “policy”, saying:

There can be no doubt that the strawman proposal represents changes to policy rather than implementation of decided policy.

If something’s “policy”, it needs to pass through the GNSO and its Policy Development Process, which would take forever and have an uncertain outcome. Think: legislation.

If it’s “implementation”, it can be done rather quickly via the ICANN board. Think: executive decision.

It’s becoming a bit of a “funny cause it’s true” in-joke that policy is anything you don’t want to happen and implementation is anything you do.

Every comment that addresses policy vs implementation regarding the strawman conforms fully to this truism.

NTAG seems to be happy to let ICANN mandate the 30-day Sunrise heads-up, for example, even though it would arguably fit into the definition of “policy” it uses to oppose other elements of the strawman.

NTAG, along with other commenters, has rolled out a “gotcha” mined from a letter then-brand-new ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade sent to the US Congress last September.

In the letter, Chehade said: “ICANN is not in a position to unilaterally require today an extension of the 60-day minimum length of the trademark claims service.”

I’m not sure how much weight the letter carries, however. ICANN could easily argue that its strawman negotiations mean any eventual decision to extend Claims was not “unilateral”.

As far as members of the the IPC and BC are concerned, everything in the strawman is implementation, and the LPR proposal is nothing more than an implementation detail too.

The Coalition for Online Accountability, which represents big copyright holders and has views usually in lock-step with the IPC, arguably put it best:

The existing Rights Protection Mechanisms, which the Strawman Solution and the LPR proposal would marginally modify, are in no way statements of policy. The RPMs are simply measures adopted to implement policies calling for the new gTLD process to incorporate respect for the rights (including the intellectual property rights) of others. None of the existing RPMs is the product of a PDP. They originated in an exercise entitled the Implementation Recommendation Team, formed at the direction of the ICANN Board to recommend how best to implement existing policies. It defies reason to assert that mechanisms instituted to implement policy cannot now be modified, even to the minimal extent provided in the current proposals, without invoking the entire PDP apparatus.

Several commenters also addressed the process used to create the strawman.

The strawman emerged from a closed-doors, invitation-only event in Los Angeles last November. It was so secretive that participants were even asked not to tweet about it.

You may have correctly inferred, reading previous DI coverage, that this irked me. While I recognize the utility of private discussions, I’m usually in favor of important community meetings such as these being held on the public record.

The fact that they were held in private instead has already led to arguments among even those individuals who were in attendance.

During the GNSO Council’s meeting December 20 the IPC representative attempted to characterize the strawman as a community consensus on what could constitute mere implementation changes.

He was shocked — shocked! — that registrars and registries were subsequently opposed to the proposals.

Not being privy to the talks, I don’t know whether this rhetoric was just amusingly naive or an hilariously transparent attempt to capitalize on the general ignorance about what was discussed in LA.

Either way, it didn’t pass my sniff test for a second, and contracted parties obviously rebutted the IPC’s take on the meeting.

What I do know is that this kind of pointless, time-wasting argument could have been avoided if the talks had happened on the public record.

Twitter files UDRP over twitter.org

Kevin Murphy, January 14, 2013, Domain Policy

Twitter has filed a cybersquatting complaint over the domain name twitter.org, which is currently being used for one of those bogus survey scam sites.

The domain has been registered since October 2005 — six months before Twitter was created — but appears to have changed hands a number of times since then.

It’s been under Whois privacy since mid-2011, but the last available unprotected record shows the domain registered to what appears to be Panama-based law firm.

Hiding ownership via offshore shell companies is a common tactic for people cybersquatting high-profile brands.

The UDRP complaint, which looks like a slam-dunk to me, has been filed with WIPO.

Policy versus implementation… shouldn’t that be complexity versus simplification? [Guest Post]

Stéphane Van Gelder, January 11, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN has just published a paper that attempts to frame what is policy and what is implementation. Now, if you’re a normal person, your natural response would be “who cares?”.

But if you’re an Icannite, chances are you’re already in a bit of a state. Because the question of what, within the ICANN decision-making process constitutes policy development, and what should be considered implementation of policies that have already been developed, is one that has grown contentious indeed in recent times.

The theory behind ICANN is that it works by bringing together groups of people from various backgrounds or with various interests and then waiting until they all take a decision. That can then become part of the sets of official guidelines that govern the way the Internet’s addressing and numbering system works.

In this obvious oversimplification of the ICANN model, the group of people are called stakeholders and the decisions they take are policies. The way they arrive at those decisions goes by the sweet name of “bottom-up, consensus-driven, policy development process”.

This is what makes ICANN such a unique governance body. One that (in theory) takes into account the opinions and inputs of all interested parties.

It is designed to prevent one view from dominating all others, be it the opinion of industry insiders, politicians or even free-speech advocates — all groups with legitimate interests, but all groups that, when they find themselves in the ICANN fish pond, have to listen to the other fish.

Except that they don’t always want to. And in recent years, as the pressure on the ICANN model has increased because of the new gTLD program, there have been several occasions when some thought it would be better to cut through (or go around) the policy development process to get things done.

This is where the policy versus implementation debate comes from. It’s a boring one to most balanced human beings, but a crucial one for those who rate ICANN and the work that goes on there as a major interest.

The new staff paper is a welcome initiative by ICANN to try and make real progress on a debate that has, up until now, simply exacerbated tensions within the ICANN community.

It’s a first step. A kind of “state of play” view of what can at present be considered policy within the ICANN system, and a first attempt at separating that from implementation.

It’s only eight pages long (and if that seems long to you, believe me, as far as ICANN papers go, this is the equivalent of a 140-character tweet), but if you can’t be bothered to read it, I’ll break it down for you in just one word: complexity.

A first step towards much needed simplification

The real issue behind this debate is the overly complex thing that ICANN has become. Don’t agree? Even though staff need to write an eight-page report just to help everyone, including themselves, understand what “policy” means?

Read the paper and marvel at the number of different processes that could be termed policy within ICANN, including something called “little p policies”, as opposed to “Capital P Policies”. Then there’s “formal policies”, “operational policies” and even “consensus policies”.

Just in setting that scene, the staff paper is useful!

Let’s hope it leads all ICANN stakeholders to the clear realization that this can’t go on any longer. ICANN must simplify its processes so that there is no longer a need to spend time and energy splitting hairs on deciding things like: when in the ICANN universe is policy making actually making policy, and when is it implementing policies that have already been made?

This is a guest post by domain name industry consultant Stephane Van Gelder of Stephane Van Gelder Consulting. He has served as chair of the GNSO Council and is currently a member of ICANN’s Nominating Committee.

Crocker sees new gTLDs going live “towards the end of the year”

Kevin Murphy, January 10, 2013, Domain Policy

Not exactly the news that new gTLD applicants wanted to hear.

ICANN chairman Steve Crocker has put a tentative date of “towards the end of the year” for the first approval and delegation of new gTLDs, months later than some applicants were expecting.

In a video interview with ICANN media affairs chief Brad White, reviewing the organization’s goals for the year, Crocker said:

We will see some strings towards the end of the year I think actually approved and perhaps delegated into the root and so it will be interesting to see the how all that comes out what kinds of moves are made.

That time-frame is later than most industry experts speaking to Bloomberg BNA for a recent briefing paper had predicted. Some expected new gTLDs to start hitting the root as early as April.

Better news for applicants came in Crocker’s response to a question about whether ICANN was wedded to its 1,000 delegations-per-year limit, which could artificially throttle some applicants’ plans. He said:

I do not want to suggest that there will be a change, but I suspect there is plenty of capacity to increase that somewhat if it were necessary to do so.

The interview also discusses ICANN’s investment strategy for its new gTLD funds, its meetings strategy for the next few years, and the Registrar Accreditation Agreement (which Crocker said is “nearing completion”).

Watch the whole thing here: