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New registrar deal to bring big changes to the domain name industry

Kevin Murphy, April 23, 2013, Domain Registrars

Big changes are coming to Whois, privacy services and resellers, among other things, under the terms of a newly agreed contract between domain name registrars and ICANN.

A proposed 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement that is acceptable to the majority of registrars, along with a plethora of supporting documentation, has been posted by ICANN this morning.

This “final” version, which is expected to be approved by ICANN in June, follows 18 months of often strained talks between ICANN and a negotiating team acting for all registrars.

It’s expected that only 2013 RAA signatories will be able to sell domain names in new gTLDs.

Overall, the compromise reflects ICANN’s desire to ensure that all registrars adhere to the same high standards of conduct, bringing contractual oversight to some currently gray, unregulated areas.

It also provides registrars with greater visibility into their future businesses while giving ICANN ways to update the contract in future according to the changing industry landscape.

For registrants, the biggest changes are those that came about due to a set of 12 recommendations made a few years ago by law enforcement agencies including the FBI and Interpol.

Notably, registrars under the 2013 RAA will be obliged to verify the phone number or email address of each registrant and suspend the domains of those it cannot verify.

That rule will apply to both new registrations, inter-registrar transfers and domains that have changes made to their Whois records. It will also apply to existing registrations when registrars have been alerted to the existence of possibly phony Whois information.

It’s pretty basic stuff. Along with provisions requiring registrars to disclose their business identities and provide abuse points of contact, it’s the kind of thing that all responsible online businesses should do anyway (and indeed all the big registrars already do).

Registrars have also agreed to help ICANN create an accreditation program for proxy and privacy services. Before that program is created, they’ve agreed to some temporary measures to regulate such services.

This temporary spec requires proxy services to investigate claims of abuse, and to properly inform registrants about the circumstances under which it will reveal their private data.

It also requires the proxy service to hold the registrant’s real contact data in escrow, to be accessed by ICANN if the registrar goes out of business or has its contract terminated.

This should help registrants keep hold of their names if their registrar goes belly-up, but of course it does mean that their private contact information will be also stored by the escrow provider.

But the biggest changes in this final RAA, compared to the previously posted draft versions, relate to methods of changing the contract in future.

Notably, registrars have won the right to perpetual renewal of their contracts, giving them a bit more long-term visibility into their businesses.

Under the current arrangement, registrars had to sign a new RAA every five years but ICANN was under no obligation to grant a renewal.

The 2013 contract, on the other hand, gives registrars automatic renewal in five-year increments after the initial term expires, as long as the registrar remains compliant.

The trade-off for this is that ICANN has codified the various ways in which the agreement can be modified in future.

The so-called “unilateral right to amend” clauses introduced a few months ago — designed to enable “Special Amendments” — have been watered down now to the extent that “unilateral” is no longer an accurate way to describe them.

If the ICANN board wants to introduce new terms to the RAA there’s a series of complex hoops to jump through and more than enough opportunities for registrars to kill off the proposals.

Indeed, there are so many caveats and a so many procedural kinks that would enable registrars to prevent ICANN taking action without their consent I’m struggling to imagine any scenario in which the Special Amendment process is successfully used by the board.

But the final 2013 RAA contains something entirely new, too: a way for ICANN’s CEO to force registrars back to the negotiating table in future.

This seems to have made an appearance at this late stage of negotiations precisely because the Special Amendment process has been castrated.

It would enable ICANN’s CEO or the chair of the Registrars Stakeholder Group to force the other party to start talking about RAA amendments with a “Negotiation Notice”. If the talks failed, all concerned would head to mediation, and then arbitration, to sort out their differences.

My guess is that this Negotiation Notice process is much more likely to be used than the Special Amendment process.

It seems likely that these terms will provide the template for similar provisions in the new gTLD Registry Agreement, which is currently under negotiation.

The 2013 RAA public comment period is open until June 4, but I don’t expect to see any major changes after that date. The documents can be downloaded, and comments filed, here.

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NAF prices URS at $375 to $500 per case

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2013, Domain Policy

The National Arbitration Forum has released its price list for Uniform Rapid Suspension complaints, saying that the cheapest case will cost $375.

That’s for cases involving one to 15 domains. Prices increase based on the number of domains in the filing, capped at $500 for cases involving over 100 names.

The prices are within the range that ICANN had asked of its URS providers.

Some potential URS vendors had argued that $500 was too low to administer the cases and pay lawyers to act as panelists, but changed their tune after ICANN opened up an RFP process.

NAF’s price list also includes response fees of $400 to $500, which are refundable to the prevailing party. There are also extra fees for cases involving more than one panelist.

The prices are found in the NAF’s Supplemental Rules for URS, which have not yet been given the okay by ICANN. NAF expects that to come by July 1.

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Asian outfit named second URS provider

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2013, Domain Policy

The Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre has been approved by ICANN as a provider of Uniform Rapid Suspension services.

The two organizations signed a memorandum of understanding last week, ICANN said.

ADNDRC is the second URS resolution provider to be named, after the US-based National Arbitration Forum. It’s got offices in Beijing, HongKong, Seoul and Kuala Lumpur and tends to hand local cases.

While it’s been a UDRP provider since 2001, it’s only handled about 1,000 cases in that time, according to DI’s records. That’s about 16 times fewer than NAF and 17 times fewer than WIPO.

ICANN said that more providers will be appointed in future.

URS is a faster, cheaper version of UDRP that allows obviously trademark-infringing domains to be suspended — not transferred — for about $500 a pop. It will only apply to new gTLDs at first.

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ICANN starts the clock on new gTLD GAC advice

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2013, Domain Policy

The over 500 new gTLD applicants affected by Governmental Advisory Committee advice on their bids have 21 days from today to file their responses officially with ICANN.

But there’s still some confusion about who exactly is expected to file responses, given the extraordinary breadth of the advice contained within the GAC’s Beijing communique.

ICANN today put applicants on formal notice of the publication of the Beijing communique, which actually came out a week ago, and said applicants have until May 10 to respond to the ICANN board.

What it didn’t do is say which applicants are affected. Technically, it could be all of them.

The Beijing communique contains six “safeguards” related to things such as abuse and security, which it said “should apply to all new gTLDs”.

On a more granular level, the GAC has called out, we believe, 517 individual applications that should not be approved or that should not be approved unless they do what the GAC says.

The Beijing communique, it could be argued, throws the whole new gTLD program into disarray, and this is the first chance applicants will get to put their views directly in writing to the ICANN board.

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Lawyer asks: how the hell did Demand Media pass the new gTLD cybersquatting test?

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2013, Domain Registries

A lawyer apparently representing a rival new gTLD applicant has questioned ICANN’s background screening processes after Demand Media managed to get a pass despite its history of cybersquatting.

Jeffrey Stoler, now with the law firm Holland & Knight, last July said ICANN should ban Demand Media and its partner Donuts from applying for new gTLDs under the rules of the program.

This month, he’s written to ICANN, the GAC and the US government to express “alarm” that both companies have managed to pass their background checks. Stoler wrote:

This alarm arises from the overwhelming evidence, as referenced below, that: (a) Donuts is a “front” for Demand Media, Inc. (“Demand Media”), and (b) Demand Media’s status as precisely the kind of proven cybersquatter that ICANN’s rules were designed to weed-out of the gTLD application process.

How ICANN’s background screening panel could — in the teeth of that evidence — approve the continued participation of Donuts in the new gTLD program (the “Donuts Decision”) requires justification. This letter formally requests that ICANN, pursuant to its obligations of accountability and transparency, provide an explanation of how, and on what basis, the Donuts Decision was made.

Both Donuts and Demand Media responded with anger and disdain.

CEO Paul Stahura told ICANN that Donuts has discovered that Stoler, who has still not disclosed which client he’s representing in this matter, is actually on the payroll of a rival.

Donuts suspected his client was a competing applicant seeking to gain commercial advantage, and we have since confirmed this in fact is the case.

Not only do the letters intentionally misrepresent facts, they are a preposterous, extra-­procedural tactic that is a regrettable waste of time and community resources.

David Panos, director of Demand’s applying subsidiary, United TLD Holdco, was similarly dismissive:

Clearly, Mr. Stoler’s client has a substantial commercial interest in the new gTLD program and is seeking to eliminate its competition by mischaracterizing the relationships of other competing applicants and by restating factually inaccurate statements

What’s notable from both the Stahura and Panos letters is that neither company actually addresses Stoler’s allegations directly, resorting instead to mainly fudging and ad hominem arguments.

Stoler probably is seeking a competitive advantage for his mystery client, and his claims about Donuts being a “front” for Demand do come across as a bit of a stretch even for a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean that all of his arguments are wrong.

ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook for the new gTLD program is pretty clear: if you’ve had more than three adverse UDRP decisions, with at least one in the last four years, you’re “automatically disqualified” from the program.

Demand Media, as Stoler alleges and the public record supports, has lost about three dozen UDRP cases through subsidiaries such as Demand Domains, the most recent of which was in 2011.

So how did Demand pass its ICANN background screening?

The Guidebook does say “exceptional circumstances” are enough to get an applicant off the hook, but it’s hard to see how that would apply to Demand’s over 30 UDRP losses.

And Demand doesn’t want to talk about it.

None of its responses to ICANN that have been published to date even attempt to say why Stoler is wrong, and the company declined to comment when we asked for clarification today.

Donuts, which is using Demand as its back-end registry and has given the company the right to acquire interests in over 100 of its new gTLDs (should they be approved) didn’t want to comment either.

Which, some might say, plays right into Stoler’s hands.

If there’s a simple, straightforward explanation for why the background screening rules apparently didn’t apply to Demand Media, is it unreasonable to ask what that explanation is?

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