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Trademark Clearinghouse to open March 26

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2013, Domain Policy

The Trademark Clearinghouse is set to open its doors for submissions March 26, ICANN will announce today.

From that date, trademark owners and their agents will be able to start uploading trademark data, enabling them to participate in one or two of the new gTLD program’s rights protection mechanisms.

Adding a mark to the TMCH qualifies it for the Trademark Claims service, which notifies both rights-holders and registrants whenever somebody tries to register a domain matching the mark.

Trademark Claims will run for at least the first 60 days after each new gTLD launches, but ICANN may extend that window depending on the outcome of its “strawman” discussions.

Many trademarks will also qualify for Sunrise periods in new gTLDs by being entered into the Clearinghouse.

Submissions start at $150 per mark per year, with discounts available when marks are registered in bulk.

DI PRO subscribers can work out how painful the TMCH will be on their wallets, and how to maximize their discounts, using our Trademark Clearinghouse Cost Calculator.

The TMCH is being managed by Deloitte, with a back-end database run by IBM.

While March 26 is just four weeks before ICANN expects to approve the first new gTLDs, I wouldn’t expect to see the first Sunrise periods for a few months after that.

The TMCH is still subject to some fierce debate, and not only because of the proposed strawman changes.

On the technical side, registries and registrars have been fuming recently about the lack of any hard technical specifications for integration, which will be needed when the new gTLDs launch.

Last night, ICANN finally posted the first spec as an IETF Internet Draft.

The format, “Mark and Signed Mark Objects Mapping” describes an Extensible Provisioning Protocol extension used by the TMCH to exchange data with registries about registered trademarks.

Nutty DCA complains to US Congress about .africa

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2013, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrica’s increasingly unhinged campaign for the .africa gTLD has seen it take the unusual step of complaining to the US Congress about “wholesale illegality” in the contest.

The company also appears to be running an astroturf campaign on Twitter and bogus blogs to advance its case.

In a rambling nine-page letter (pdf) to the chairs of the House and Senate telecommunications committees this week, DCA chief Sophia Bekele outlines a series of “corruption” claims against rival .africa applicant UniForum.

DCA and UniForum are both applying for .africa. UniForum, per ICANN rules, has the support of the African Union and over 60% of the national governments in Africa. DCA has no support.

As far as I can tell, DCA thinks the way the African Union went about picking a favored applicant for .africa was “corrupt” but the letter needs to be read several times in order to even begin to figure out what the allegations are.

The allegations seem to stretch back to 2011, when the AU publicly stated that it did not support DCA‘s claims to .africa, and that it had opened up an Expressions of Interest process to pick a preferred registry.

At the time, an organization called AfTLD, which represents African ccTLD operators, said it was preparing a bid for .africa. This bid later morphed into the UniForum bid.

According to information in Bekele’s letter, the AU wanted an experienced, Africa-based registry operator to run the TLD, and UniForum, which runs South Africa’s .za ccTLD, was the only qualified candidate.

DCA goes on to say that Vika Mpisane, who was both chair of AfTLD and CEO of .za policy overseer ZADNA, worked within AfTLD to have UniForum put forward as its preferred applicant for .africa.

The AU Commission, at the conclusion of its tender process, decided to support the UniForum proposal.

So what’s DCA’s beef?

Where exactly is the alleged corruption, according to DCA?

It’s almost impossible to tell from Bekele’s letter, which seems to deliberately confuse the process AfTLD used to back UniForum and the process the AU Commission used to select UniForum.

By DCA’s maddening logic, if Mpisane used his influence as chair of AfTLD to push for AfTLD to support UniForum’s bid, that means the AU Commission’s subsequent tender process was somehow corrupt.

It makes no sense to me, and I doubt it will make any sense to the dozens of US Congressmen DCA has carbon-copied on the letter.

My understanding is that DCA didn’t even bother to respond to the AU Commission’s tender anyway.

The second main prong of DCA’s new attack concerns the fact that UniForum’s bid for .africa is not a “Community” application, as defined under ICANN’s rules.

Again, DCA attempts to confuse the reader by conflating the normal everyday use of the word “community” with the special meaning of “Community” in the new gTLD program.

Bekele writes (emphasis removed):

UniForum contrived to obtain a highly valuable endorsement for a geographic name string under the pretext that it would be submitting an application on behalf of the African Community, but after obtaining the endorsement from the African Union Commission, not only failed to prepare and submit a Community TLD application for .Africa, but also failed, rather deliberately, to acknowledge the same African Community in its application that was submitted to ICANN for the .Africa gTLD name. DCA Trust believes that this was a very serious infraction on the part of UniForum ZA Central Registry.

Of course no applicant was obliged to submit a big-C Community application under ICANN’s rules, even if their gTLD purports to represent a small-c community.

Community applications are just a technicality of the ICANN program, designed to give advantages to applicants that truly do have the support of a community. There’s no need to take advantage of the mechanism if you’re applying for a geographic string and have the necessary government support.

Note also that DCA did not apply as a Community applicant either.

What does DCA want from Congress?

DCA is based in Mauritius. It appears to be complaining to the US Congress due to the US’ special oversight relationship with ICANN, and because its complaints to African governments have fallen on deaf ears.

It wants Congressional oversight of the new gTLD program, through the appointment of a special Ombudsman.

The letter says (again, emphasis removed):

We are hereby appealing directly to the United States Senate as the Upper House of the United States Congress, its Judiciary Committee, and other important Congressional committees that have a relevant stake in a successful outcome of the new gTLD process; to give the necessary approval and official impetus for the establishment of a new gTLD Program Ombudsman that would handle and look into different forms of grievances reported by new gTLD applicants; and investigate any forms of alleged irregularities and acts of illegality committed by applicants, especially of the sort that DCA Trust has outlined against its direct competitor for the .Africa gTLD, UniForum ZA Central Registry.

ICANN already has an Ombudsman, of course, Chris LaHatte. DCA complained to him late last year about two perceived conflicts of interest on the ICANN board of directors.

The complaint was dismissed last December because DCA was unable to provide LaHatte with any information about any improper actions.

LaHatte did however ask Bekele to simmer down the tone of her attacks, which she “readily agreed to”.

More fake identities?

Almost as an aside, I noticed today that a lot of similar-looking Twitter accounts (pictured) have been tweeting links with the hashtag #dotafrica this week.

The accounts all appear to have been created on Monday, using silhouette-based avatars, and have tweeted the same stuff at roughly the same time.

Is this more DCA astroturfing?

Bekele was caught out using a fake identity on the AfrICANN mailing list a few months ago.

Two of the “news blogs” these Twitter accounts have been linking to, domainingafrica.com and domainnewsafrica.com, were originally registered on November 21 2011, before disappearing behind Whois privacy last June.

The original registrant of both? Why, it’s Sophia Bekele.

NAF picked to be first URS provider

Kevin Murphy, February 21, 2013, Domain Policy

The US-based National Arbitration Forum has been selected by ICANN as the first provider of Uniform Rapid Supsension services.

NAF, which is one half of the longstanding UDRP duopoly, submitted “an outstanding proposal demonstrating how it would meet all requirements presented in the [Request For Information]”, according to ICANN.

URS is meant to complement UDRP, enabling trademark owners to relatively quickly take down infringing domain names in clear-cut cases of cyberquatting.

Unlike UDRP, URS does not allow prevailing trademark owners to take control of the infringing domain, however. The names are merely suspended by the registry until they expire.

NAF already runs a suspension process, the Rapid Evaluation Service, for ICM Registry’s .xxx gTLD.

While exact pricing has not yet been disclosed, ICANN has previously stated that the successful RFI respondent had offered to process URS case for its target of between $300 and $500 per domain.

ICANN expects to approve more URS providers in future, saying that the system will be modeled on UDRP.

URS will only apply to new gTLDs for the time being, though there will inevitably be a push to have it mandated in legacy gTLDs such as .com in future, should it prove successful.

Iranian org not happy about .eco bids

Kevin Murphy, February 20, 2013, Domain Policy

The Iran-based treaty organization ECO, the Economic Cooperative Organization, has registered its displeasure with ICANN that several companies have applied for .eco as a gTLD.

ECO is a multinational IGO focused on development formed by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey in 1985. It has seven other Asian and Eurasian member states.

In a letter to ICANN brass this week, the organization said it “expresses its disapproval and non-endorsement to all the applications for .ECO gTLD and requests the ICANN and the new gTLD application evaluators to not approve these applications.”

.eco has been proposed as a gTLD for environmental causes by four companies. It was one of the first new gTLD ideas to emerge, several years ago, and was once backed by Al Gore.

Under changes to the application rules currently under development at ICANN, ECO may enjoy a second-level ban on the string “eco”, possibly only temporarily, under all new gTLDs.

The criteria for this IGO name protection is expected to be based on the criteria for registering a .int domain name, which are reserved for certain categories of international treaty organizations.

Unless ICANN really pulls the rug out from under applicants, the protection would not extend to the top-level in the current application round, however.

ECO notes in its letter that as it qualifies for a .int, it should be protected.

However, eco.int is not registered and ECO uses a .org domain for its web site, begging the question of how seriously it takes its domain name brand protection strategy.

Read ECO’s letter here.

Pile up! GM cancels two more new gTLD bids

Kevin Murphy, February 19, 2013, Domain Policy

Is General Motors bowing out of ICANN’s new gTLD program completely? It’s certainly looking that way, following the withdrawal of two more of its five original applications.

ICANN updated its site yesterday to reflect that GM has yanked its bids for .chevrolet and .cadillac, two of its proposed automotive dot-brands.

It comes just a few days after its .gmc application was pulled, and suggests that its remaining applications — for .buick and .chevy — may also be withdrawn in the near future.

The total number of gTLD applications withdrawn is now up to 17, a dozen of which are dot-brands, from an original list of 1,930.

We may be seeing more in the near future. Applications withdrawn before ICANN publishes Initial Evaluation results — expected to start March 23 — qualify for a refund of 70%, or $130,000. After that, the refund halves.

The final number of withdrawn applications will be telling, and likely to inform future new gTLD application rounds.

If it turns out a large number of companies applied for dot-brands purely defensively (I wouldn’t consider 12 to 17 withdrawals a large number) then ICANN may have to rethink how the program is structured.