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Incumbents get the nod for new TLD apps

Kevin Murphy, December 27, 2010, Domain Registries

Domain name registries such as Neustar, VeriSign and Afilias will be able to become registrars under ICANN’s new top-level domains program, ICANN has confirmed.

In November, ICANN’s board voted to allow new TLD registries to also own registrars, so they will be able to sell domains in their TLD direct to registrants, changing a decade-long stance.

Late last week, in reply (pdf) to a request for clarification from Neustar policy veep Jeff Neuman, new gTLD program architect Kurt Pritz wrote:

if and when ICANN launches the new gTLD program, Neustar will be entitled to serve as both a registry and registrar for new gTLDs subject to any conditions that may be necessary and appropriate to address the particular circumstances of the existing .BIZ registry agreement, and subject to any limitations and restrictions set forth in the final Applicant Guidebook.

That doesn’t appear to say anything unexpected. ICANN had already made it pretty clear that the new vertical integration rules would be extended to incumbent gTLD registries in due course.

(However, you may like to note Pritz’s use of the words “if and when”, if you think that’s important.)

Neustar’s registry agreement currently forbids it not only from acting as a .biz registrar, but also from acquiring control of greater than 15% of any ICANN-accredited registrar (whether or not its sells .biz domains).

That part of the contract will presumably need to be changed before Neustar applies for official registrar accreditation or attempts to acquire a large stake in an existing registrar.

VeriSign and Afilias, the other two big incumbent gTLD registries, have similar clauses in their contracts.

ICANN sets date for GAC showdown

Kevin Murphy, December 23, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN and its Governmental Advisory Committee will meet for two days of talks on the new top-level domains program in Geneva from February 28, according to GNSO chair Stephane Van Gelder.

As well as the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) for new TLDs, the meeting is also expected to address the GAC’s outstanding concerns with the .xxx TLD application.

While I’d heard Geneva touted as a possible location, this is the first time I’ve heard a firm date put to it. As well as Van Gelder, other sources have heard the same date.

Talks ending March 1 would give ICANN less than two weeks before its public meeting in San Francisco kicks off to get the AGB into GAC-compatible shape before the board votes to approve it.

Is that a realistic timeframe? I guess that will depend on how the GAC meeting goes, the depths of the concessions ICANN decides to make, how receptive the GAC is to compromise, and whether it is felt that more public comment is needed.

Also, as I speculated last week, ICANN may have to officially invoke the part of its bylaws that deals with GAC conflicts, which it does not yet appear to have done, if it wants to approve the Guidebook at the end of the San Francisco meeting in March.

If the program is approved in March, that would likely lead to applications opening in August.

There’s likely to be one ICANN board meeting between now and Geneva – its first meeting of the year is usually held in late January or early February – so there’s still time for ICANN to make changes to AGB based on public comment, and to get its process ducks in a row.

There’s also plenty of time for the GAC to provide its official wish-list or “scorecard” of AGB concerns, which I believe it has not yet done.

Van Gelder also wonders on his blog whether the Geneva meeting will take place in the open or behind closed doors.

ICANN’s director of media affairs, Brad White, put this question to ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush during a post-Cartagena interview. This was his answer:

We haven’t actually resolved the rules of engagement with the GAC on this particular meeting but the standard position for all organizations within ICANN is that they are open… On the other hand if at any point think we the negotiation could be assisted by a period of discussing things in private I guess we could consider that.

That looks like a “maybe” to me.

ICANN to tackle Trojan TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 22, 2010, Domain Registries

When failing community-based top-level domain registries attempt to change their business models, ICANN may in future have a new way of dealing with them.

That seems to be a possible result of Employ Media’s controversial .jobs liberalization plans and the subsequent Reconsideration Request, which I blogged about last week.

The .jobs reconsideration revealed that not only are Reconsideration Requests a rubbish way to appeal ICANN’s decisions, but also that the Registry Services Evaluation Process is often a rubbish way to handle major contract changes.

The RSEP was introduced back in 2005 in belated response to a couple of controversial “services” that VeriSign, testing boundaries, had planned to unilaterally introduce in the .com registry, notably Site Finder and the Waiting List Service.

But since then the process has been used as a general-purpose tool for requesting changes to registry contracts, even when it’s debatable whether the changes fit the definition of “registry services”.

For example, when .jobs launched five years ago, it was put into Employ Media’s contract that the TLD was designed for companies to register their brands and list their jobs, and that’s all.

But that model didn’t work. It’s one of the least successful TLDs out there.

So the registry decided it could make more money with general purpose jobs boards, using generic .jobs domains. But it did not necessarily want to let existing independent jobs sites take part.

For want of a better term, I’ll call this an example of a “Trojan” TLD – a registry that gets its attractive TLD string approved by ICANN after making a certain set of promises, then later decides to move the goal posts to broaden its market, potentially disenfranchising others.

I’ve no reason to believe it was a premeditated strategy in Employ Media’s case, but precedent has now been set for future TLD applicants to use “community” as a foot in the door for broader aspirations.

To take a stupid, extreme, unrealistic example, imagine that ICM Registry’s .xxx flops badly. Should the company be allowed to start selling all the good .xxx domains to churches and other anti-porn campaigners? That would be a pretty big departure from its promises.

There were similar concerns, although not nearly as loudly expressed, with regards to Telnic’s recent contract changes, which will allow it to start registering phone number domain names in .tel, despite years of promises that it would not.

Go Daddy’s policy chief Tim Ruiz objected to the proposal on the grounds that it would be “unfair to other [.tel] applicants and potential applicants to allow an sTLD to change its purpose after the fact.”

The ICANN Board Governance Committee, which handles Reconsideration Requests, acknowledged these problems in its decision on .jobs in Cartagena (pdf), concluding that it:

thinks that the Board should address the need for a process to evaluate amendments that may have the effect of changing, or seeking to change, an sTLD Charter or Stated Purpose of a sponsored, restricted or community-based TLD.

The BGC seems to be saying that the RSEP is not up to the task of dealing with community-based TLDs that later decide their business plans are not the money-spinners they had hoped and want to loosen up their agreed community restrictions.

The committee went on to say that:

Because such a process may impact gTLDs greatly and is a policy issue, the GNSO is the natural starting point for evaluating such a process. We therefore further recommend that the Board direct the CEO to create a briefing paper for the GNSO to consider on this matter, and for the GNSO to determine whether a policy development process should be commenced.

So the GNSO will soon have to decide whether new policies are needed to deal with broad contract changes at failing community TLDs.

Any new policies would, I believe, be binding on community TLDs approved under the new gTLD program as well as older sTLDs, so it will be an interesting policy track to follow.

OpenRegistry latest player in new TLD market

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2010, Domain Registries

OpenRegistry has become the domain name industry’s newest top-level domain registry operator.

The new company, which went by the name Sensirius while in stealth mode, announced itself officially at the ICANN meeting in Cartagena two weeks ago.

Jean-Christophe Vignes is giving up his operational role at EuroDNS to be CEO of the new company, which hopes to bring more modular, custom-tailored options to organizations that want to launch new TLDs.

For “open”, read “flexible” – OpenRegistry plans to differentiate itself by offering clients “a la carte” options, rather than the one-size-fits-all services it believes some competitors offer.

“We’ve noticed that no two clients are the same,” Vignes said. “Some of them are already pretty well taken care of when it comes to drafting applications and so on, and just need the registry solution, but others are happy to have the full suite of our services.”

The idea is that a city TLD or niche community TLD will not necessarily have the same needs as a full-blown mass-market gTLD, Vignes said.

OpenRegistry plans to make three packages available at first, according to its web site – all-inclusive, managed registry, and software-only. Prices appear to start at around 100,000 euros.

The software itself is based on the registry expertise used in the design of Belgium’s .be and EurID’s .eu, although it appears to be a fresh creation.

Vignes said that it will be able to natively handle start-up functions such as premium domain auctions and interfacing with the IP Clearinghouse.

The company does not intend to apply for its own TLDs, Vignes said, allowing it to focus on its clients.

But it does plan on being somewhat selective on which TLDs with which it works, with “feasibility studies” one of the services on offer.

Like the incumbent registry triumvirate of VeriSign, Afilias and Neustar, OpenRegistry hopes that the ICANN-accredited registrar community will be a good source of clients.

ICANN recently said it plans to lift restrictions on registrars applying for and running registries.

Did .jobs win or lose in Cartagena?

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Employ Media, the .jobs registry, had a victory in Cartagena last week, when the ICANN board voted not to overturn its August decision to allow .jobs to relax its registration policies.

The company will now be able to continue with its RFP process, allocate premium generic .jobs domains to its partners, auction them, and generally liberalize the namespace.

But the registry may not have got everything it wanted.

For at least a year, Employ Media, along with the DirectEmployers Association, has been pushing the idea of creating a massive free jobs board called universe.jobs.

The site would be fed traffic from thousands of premium geographic domains such as newyork.jobs, texas.jobs and canada.jobs, as well as vocational names such as nursing.jobs and sales.jobs.

Because Employ Media was previously only allowed to sell domains that corresponded to the names of companies, such as ibm.jobs and walmart.jobs, it asked ICANN to change its contract to allow these new classes of generic names to be registered.

The registry submitted a Registry Services Evaluation Process request, which was approved by the ICANN board in early August. The contract was amended shortly thereafter.

A few weeks later, a group of jobs sites including Monster.com, calling itself the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition, filed a Reconsideration Request, asking ICANN to reverse its decision.

The Coalition was concerned that the contract changes would enable universe.jobs, creating a potentially huge competitor with an unfair SEO advantage, while continuing to prohibit independent jobs sites from registering .jobs domains.

While the .jobs contract had been amended, the .Jobs Charter, which restricts those who can register .jobs domains to members of the human resources community, was not.

This potentially presented a problem for universe.jobs, as DirectEmployers may not have qualified to be a registrant under the charter.

But Employ Media’s RSEP proposal talked about creating a “self-managed class” of domains – the domains would belong to the registry but would be shared with third parties such as DirectEmployers.

That would have created an interesting precedent – registries would be able to keep hold of premium generic domain names and allow them to be “used” by only partner companies that agree to enter into revenue-sharing agreements.

But that “implementation method was withdrawn” by Employ Media after the ICANN Board Governance Committee asked about it as part of its Reconsideration Request investigation.

The BGC, while rejecting the Coalition’s request (pdf), also asked ICANN’s compliance department to keep a close eye on Employ Media, to make sure it does not overstep the bounds of its charter:

the BGC recommends that the Board direct the CEO, and General Counsel and Secretary, to ensure that ICANN’s Contractual Compliance Department closely monitor Employ Media’s compliance with its Charter

Even though its Reconsideration Request was denied, the .JOBS Charter Compliance Coalition counted both of these developments as a big win for its campaign, saying in a press release:

Given the Board’s commitment to aggressively monitor Employ Media’s implementation of the Phased Allocation Program, the Coalition is highly confident that ICANN will not permit Employ Media to register domain names to “independent job site operators” for purposes of operating job sites.

So does this mean that universe.jobs is dead?

Apparently not. Talk in the halls at the ICANN Cartagena meeting last week leads me to believe that the registry has figured out a way to launch the service anyway.

And DirectEmployers this Monday published a white paper (pdf), dated January 2011, which says universe.jobs will launch early next year.

DirectEmployers declined to immediately comment on its plans when I inquired this week, and the white paper sheds little light on the technicalities of the plan.

Judging from a promotion currently being run by EnCirca, a .jobs registrar, it seems that companies will only be able to list their jobs on universe.jobs if they own their own companyname.jobs domain.

EnCirca’s offer, which alludes to the .jobs sponsor, the Society for Human Resources Management, a “SHRM special“, says:

NEWS ALERT: December 13, 2010: ICANN has RE-CONFIRMED the .Jobs registry’s plan to allocate generic occupational and geographic-related .jobs domain names. Register your companyname.jobs to be part of this new initiative.

It will be interesting to see how domain allocations are ultimately handled.

While Employ Media’s request for proposals is ostensibly open, it looks a little bit like a smokescreen for its plan to hand big chunks of the .jobs namespace to the universe.jobs project.

But who will be the registrant of these domains? And will the allocations violate the .jobs charter? Will the registry carry on with its plan to create new “self-managed” class of domain names?

I think we’re going to have to wait for the new year to find out.