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ICANN chair says new gTLD program “will run smoothly”

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN chairman Steve Crocker has again said he expects the new generic top-level domains program to kick off next week as planned, and that he expects it to “run smoothly”.

His comments came in a New Year email sent to the rest of the ICANN board of directors, as well as the chairs of the community’s various policy-making bodies.

Here’s an extract focusing on new gTLDs:

In terms of immediacy, the opening of the window for applications for new gTLDs is January 12, ten days from now. This is occupying a large fraction of our attention and is also the source of much attention from our stakeholders and others watching us. An enormous amount of work has gone into the program and I, among many, many others, are eager to see what will happen. The opening of the window on January 12 will be a noteworthy day, but the closing date, three months later and the publication date for the names a bit later will also be quite noteworthy. I know there is a bit of controversy over some specific aspects of the program, but I am confident the program is well constructed and will run smoothly.

The message goes on to outline two other major issues facing ICANN in the near term: the renewal of the IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce and CEO Rod Beckstrom’s imminent departure.

It also touches on broader themes, notably ICANN’s effectiveness as an organization:

We often emphasize our commitment to a multi-stakeholder model. There’s no question this is important. However, from my point of view, we are organized around broad participation from all parties because it’s a system that has worked well in the Internet ecology. And “working well” means the job gets done. If we are not effective and reasonably efficient at doing the job we were created to do, the details of our processes will matter very little. We have many processes in place to measure ourselves in terms of transparency, accountability and other attributes of fairness. I applaud and support all of these, but I would like us all to keep in mind that in addition to these very important measures that we also focus on making sure that we deliver the service our community needs.

This echoes remarks Crocker made at ICANN’s last meeting, in Dakar last October, when he stamped his authority down on the registrar community, which stood accused of dragging its feet over improvements to how it deals with law enforcement.

“If all we have is process, process, process, and it gets gamed or it’s ineffective just because it’s not structured right, then we have failed totally in our duty and our mission,” he said at that time.

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Fight brewing over thick .com Whois

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2012, Domain Policy

This year is likely to see a new fight over whether Verisign should be forced to create a “thick” Whois database for .com and its other generic top-level domains.

While Verisign has taken a deliberately ambivalent position on whether ICANN policy talks should kick off, the community is otherwise split on whether a mandatory thick Whois is a good idea.

Currently, only .com, .net, .name and .jobs – which are all managed on Verisign’s registry back-end – use a thin Whois model, in which domain name registrars store their customers’ data.

Other gTLDs all store registrant data centrally. Some “sponsored” gTLD registries have an even closer relationship with Whois data — ICM Registry for example verifies .xxx registrants’ identities.

But in a Preliminary Issue Report published in November, ICANN asked whether it should kick off a formal Policy Development Process that could make thick Whois a requirement in all gTLDs.

In comments filed with ICANN last week, Verisign said:

As the only existing registry services provider impacted by any future PDP on Thick Whois, Verisign will neither advocate for nor against the initiation of a PDP.

Verisign believes the current Whois model for .com, .net, .name and .jobs is effective and that the proper repository of registrant data is with registrars — the entities with direct connection to their customers. However, if the community, including our customers, determines through a PDP that “going thick” is now the best approach, we will respect and implement the policy decision.

Thick Whois services make it easier to find out who owns domain names. Currently, a Whois look-up for a .com domain can require multiple queries at different web sites.

While Whois aggregation services such as DomainTools can simplify searches today, they still face the risk of being blocked by dominant registrars.

The thin Whois model can also make domain transfers trickier, as we witnessed just last week when NameCheap ran into problems processing inbound transfers from Go Daddy.

ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency supports the transition to a thick Whois. It said in its comments:

Simplifying access to this information through thick Whois will help prevent abuses of intellectual property, and will protect the public in many ways, including by reducing the level of consumer confusion and consumer fraud in the Internet marketplace. Thick Whois enables quicker response and resolution when domain names are used for illegal, fraudulent or malicious purposes.

However, Verisign noted that a thicker Whois does not mean a more accurate Whois database – registrars will still be responsible for collecting and filing customer contact records.

There are also concerns that a thick Whois could have implications for registrant privacy. Wendy Seltzer of the Non-Commercial Users Constituency told ICANN:

Moving all data to the registry could facilitate invasion of privacy and decrease the jurisdictional control registrants have through their choice of registrar. Individual registrants in particular may be concerned that the aggregation of data in a thick WHOIS makes it more attractive to data miners and harder to confirm compliance with their local privacy laws.

This concern was echoed to an extent by Verisign, which noted that transitioning to a thick Whois would mean the transfer of large amounts of data between legal jurisdictions.

European registrars, for example, could face a problem under EU data protection laws if they transfer their customer data in bulk to US-based Verisign.

Verisign also noted that a transition to a thick Whois would dilute the longstanding notion that registrars “own” their customer relationships. It said in its comments:

As recently as the June 2011 ICANN meeting in Singapore, Verisign heard from several registrars that they are still not comfortable with Verisign holding their customers’ data. Other registrars have noted no concern with such a transition

ICANN staff will now incorporate these and other comments into its final Issue Report, which will then be sent to the GNSO Council to decide whether a PDP is required.

If the Council votes in favor of a PDP, it would be many months, if at all, before a policy binding on Verisign was created.

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The first .xxx phishing site?

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2012, Domain Registries

Those readers following @domainincite on Twitter may have noticed I spent a lot of time on Friday Googling for .xxx web sites, to get an idea how the new namespace is being used.

All in the name of research, of course.

As well as the expected video, dating and forum sites, I found one or two inexplicably safe-for-work oddities.

I also found what I believe may be the first .xxx site set up for phishing.

The domain name signin.xxx, registered to an individual in Ohio, looks extremely suspicious, especially when you consider the subdomains the registrant has created.

Here’s a screenshot of the URL www.hotmail.com.signin.xxx:

Signin.xxx

I have no evidence that the site has been used in a phishing attack, or that the registrant intends to use it in one. However, it seems pretty clear that he’s noticed the potential for abuse.

The page’s footer offers to sell the domain for a seven-figure sum.

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Belarus cuts itself off from the web

Kevin Murphy, January 3, 2012, Domain Policy

You think the Stop Online Piracy Act is bad policy? Be grateful you’re not Belarusian.

The former Soviet state has reportedly banned its citizens from accessing foreign web sites, in a law that becomes effective later this week.

“Registered” entrepreneurs in the country will also be forced to use domain names registered in Belarus (presumably .by), according to a report from the Library of Congress.

Users accessing foreign sites face misdemeanor charges and fines, while operators of WiFi hotspots, such as cafes, face the shutdown of their businesses for violations, according to the report.

The law, as reported, appears to be so insanely Draconian I can’t help but wonder if the Library of Congress has got its facts wrong.

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Businesses may call for more new gTLD trademark protections

Kevin Murphy, December 31, 2011, Domain Policy

It’s open season on ICANN at the moment, and as the number of letters opposing the new gTLD program flittering between Washington DC and Marina del Rey becomes confusingly voluminous many groups think they’ve found another opportunity to demand last-minute changes.

ICANN’s Business Constituency is now considering making several recommendations for “critical improvements” to protect trademark holders in the new gTLD universe.

While the recommendations are still under discussion, they could include adding the option to transfer a domain name to a brand owner after a successful Uniform Rapid Suspension complaint.

This would prove unpopular among domain investors and others as it would increase the likelihood of the untested URS being used as a replacement for the already controversial UDRP, potentially increasing the risk of reverse domain name hijacking.

The BC is also discussing whether to ask for a “permanent registry block” feature to be added the forthcoming Trademark Clearinghouse, enabling brand owners to block their trademarks from all new gTLDs for a one-time fee in much the same way as ICM Registry enabled in the .xxx sunrise.

The Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse made a similar request to ICANN last week.

The idea is unlikely to find favor because it would essentially grant trademark owners exclusivity over strings, a right not usually given to them by trademark law.

Other BC discussion topics include making the Trademark Clearinghouse permanent (instead of just running for the first 60 days of each new gTLD) and putting a firm date on the opening of the second-round application window, a popular request from brand owners.

Much like 13th-hour requests originating in the At-Large Advisory Committee, the BC’s position is likely to be substantially revised before it is submitted to ICANN officially.

While ICANN chairman Steve Crocker told .nxt this week that there are no plans to delay or rate-limit the new gTLD program, it’s less clear whether the Applicant Guidebook is still open for the kinds of substantial amendments now being discussed by the business community.

But my hunch is that, regardless of the political pressure being brought to bear on ICANN in the US, the new gTLD program is going to launch on January 12 in more or less its current form.

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