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Olympic-backed .sport bidder looking for partners

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2011, Domain Registries

SportAccord, a worldwide coalition of sports federations with Olympic support, is looking for partners to help it with a possible .sport top-level domain bid.

In a request for proposals published today, the organization said it is looking not only for expertise and potential technical partners, but also financial backing:

The objective of SportAccord is to develop the best possible promotion of Sports Themed gTLDs by leveraging its unique relationship with its members, and to establish a usage policy that ensure respect of Sports key values.

SportAccord is therefore seeking to developing partnership with entities that could bring technical expertise and financial support to the common development of Sport themed gTLDs.

The 17-question RFP reveals that the organization has evidently done its homework.

Questions cover pertinent topics such as registrar integration, trademark protection, premium name monetization, and how to beat the ICANN threshold score for community-based applications.

The deadline for replying is September 30.

SportAccord, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, is an umbrella group comprising the international federations for over 100 sports, covering everything from football to tug of war.

The RFP states that the International Olympic Committee supports its gTLD initiative.

That’s an endorsement that may prove the deal-breaker for any .sport application. The IOC has been a vigorous defender of its rights in the new gTLD program.

Its lobbying efforts most recently compelled ICANN to build special protection for Olympic trademarks into the Applicant Guidebook itself (as well as lumbering the GNSO and ICANN staff with a bunch of unnecessary policy-development work).

Two other organizations have previously announced .sport applications

The loudest, Ron Andruff’s DotSport LLC, had appointed some of SportAccord’s member federations to its policy advisory council.

But SportAccord says in its RFP that “neither SportAccord nor any of its Members have made any commitment to support or participate in any sport themed gTLD.”

It looks like we may be looking at yet another push of the reset button on a well-lobbied gTLD.

The SportAccord RFP can be downloaded here.

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What Europe’s demands mean for new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, September 1, 2011, Domain Policy

The European Commission wants stronger government powers over ICANN’s new top-level domain approval process, according to leaked documents.

Six “informal background papers” obtained and published by .nxt yesterday indicate that the EC, perceiving snubs over the last six months, plans to take a hard line with ICANN.

The documents cover a lot of ground, including a discussion of the various mechanisms by which governments would be able to force ICANN to reject new gTLD applications.

This article covers just the bases related to new gTLDs.

As things currently stand, ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook gives governments three ways to register their objections to any given gTLD application. The EC wants two of them strengthened.

GAC Early Warning

The Governmental Advisory Committee may formally put an applicant on notice that one or more governments have a problem with their bid.

Any government can initiate an Early Warning “for any reason”, at any point during the 60-day public comment period that is currently scheduled to begin April 27.

The mechanism is designed to give applicants a chance to get out with their cash before a more formal objection is filed by the GAC or an individual government.

Applicants in receipt of such a warning can choose to withdraw at that point, receiving a partial refund of their fees, but it’s entirely voluntary.

Under the EC’s new proposals, a GAC Early Warning would trigger an additional requirement by the applicant to show the support of “the relevant internet community”.

Because there’s little chance of getting this provision into the Guidebook now, the EC wants this provision baked into ICANN’s IANA contract with the US Department of Commerce.

The IANA contract is currently the biggest stick governments have to beat ICANN with. It’s up for renewal before March, and it’s the US that decides what goes into the contract.

The European Commission paper on new gTLDs says:

The IANA contract should include a provision requiring applicants to positively demonstrate the support of the relevant Internet community in advance of formal consultation of the GAC (and other supporting organisations and advisory committees), in cases where there are prima facie grounds to believe that the application may raise a public policy concern.

The paper explains: “in other words, if the GAC issues an early warning, the applicant would be automatically required to demonstrate the support of the relevant Internet community”.

In the Guidebook today, only applicants that have self-designated as “community” applications have to show this level of support, using a strict scoring process.

The EC’s proposal could, hypothetically, force non-community applicants to show a similar level of support if a single government initiates an Early Warning in the GAC.

If there was a vanilla, non-community application for .gay, for example, an Early Warning spurred (anonymously) by Saudi Arabia, say, could force the applicant to provide evidence of community support.

How this evidence would be evaluated is unclear. It would depend on what final language the Department of Commerce puts into the IANA contract.

At a guess, it could be a matter for the ICANN board to decide, with the Damoclean sword of IANA non-compliance hanging over its decision.

Formal GAC Advice

The Guidebook today allows for over six months, from April 27 to November 12, for the GAC to formally object to any gTLD application.

The way the GAC will create this formal “GAC Advice on New gTLDs” is a black box. We probably won’t even be told which governments objected, or what level of support they received.

ICANN had tried to enforce certain transparency and procedural requirements on this mechanism, but the GAC told it to take a hike and ICANN bent over in the interests of expediency.

But any such Advice will nevertheless “create a strong presumption for ICANN that the application should not be approved”.

The ICANN board will technically still be able to overrule one of these objections, but it practice it seems unlikely. At the very least it’s not predictable.

Under the European Commission’s new proposals, this fail-safe would be weakened further:

The ICANN by-laws should be amended to ensure that consensus GAC advice is accepted as reflecting the global public interest, and should ICANN wish to reject such advice, it would bear the burden of demonstrating that the GAC advice would conflict with ICANN’s legal obligations or create problems for the stability or security of the Domain name System.

In other words, the bar for an ICANN board decision to overrule the GAC would be raised to only include cases where there was a legal or technical reason not to comply.

The GAC would have an effective veto on every decision ICANN is asked to make. The term “multi-stakeholder” would be subverted in almost textbook Orwellian fashion.

To have this proposal implemented, the EC suggests that ICANN and the GAC enter talks. There’s no talk of running to the US government to have it unilaterally imposed.

Reserved Words

Currently, all new gTLD registries will be forced to reserve strings such as country names from their spaces, and deal with individual governments to open them up.

The EC wants the list expanding to include basically any word that governments ask for, and it wants the US government to make this a condition of IANA contract renewal:

In relation to reserved and blocked names at the second level, the IANA contract should require the contractor to develop appropriate policies to allow governments and public administrations to identify names to be included in a reference list to be respected by all new gTLD operators.

This request appears to have been inspired by ICM Registry’s offer to block “culturally sensitive” strings from .xxx at the request of governments.

Yet again, we find global internet policy being driven by sex. What is it with these politicians?

Domain Name Takedown

Incredibly, the EC also wants the IANA contract to include a provision that would allow any government to ask any gTLD registry to turn off any domain:

The contractor [ICANN] should also be required to ensure that governments and public administrations can raise concerns about particular names after their registration if a serious public order concern is involved, and with a view to the registry “taking down” the name concerned.

This clearly hasn’t been thought through.

Facebook.com and Twitter.com have both been blamed recently for raising “serious public order concerns” in everything from the Egyptian revolution to the London riots.

The new powers the EC is discussing would have given the despotic former government of Egypt a legal basis for having Twitter shut down, in other words.

Cross-Ownership

Finally, the EC is still concerned, on competition grounds, about ICANN’s decision to drop the vertical separation rules that apply to registries and registrars.

It suggests that the IANA contract should create a new oversight body with an “extra-judicial review” function over ICANN, enabling its decisions to be challenged.

This would enable antitrust authorities in Europe or elsewhere to challenge the vertical integration decision without having to resort to the US courts.

Anyway

Overall, the proposals seem to represent a depressingly authoritarian ambition by the European Commission, as well as a disdain for the idea of the ICANN multi-stakeholder model and a shocking lack of respect for the rights of internet users.

While the documents are “informal background papers”, they do seem to give an indication of what certain elements within the EC think would make reasonable policy.

Whether the positions outlined in the papers became a reality would largely depend on whether the EC’s requests, if they were made, were compatible with US public policy.

As usual, the Department of Commerce still holds all the cards.

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Google ranks new .xxx site higher than its .com

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2011, Domain Tech

Is Google experimenting with swapping out .com domains when an equivalent .xxx exists?

Last week, ICM Registry announced it had granted ifriends.xxx to iFriends, a popular network of adults-only webcams, as part of its pre-launch Founders Program.

Today, a Google search for iFriends sometimes returns ifriends.xxx right at the top, with ifriends.com nowhere to be seen on the first page.

Other times, ifriends.com or ifriends.net gets top billing.

The iFriends network has been around since 1998, according to an ICM press release, so its .com and .net domains will presumably already have significant juice.

Obviously, Google has been useless for returning easily predictable results ever since it started “personalizing” SERPs a couple years back.

Running a few non-scientific experiments, it seems that the choice of browser, toolbar, Google site and location may play a factor in which results you see.

The significant thing seems to me to be the fact that when your results do include the .xxx domain first, it appears to completely replace the .com.

What do you see when you search? What do you think is going on?

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Fifth ad group opposes new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2011, Domain Policy

The World Federation of Advertisers has become the fifth major coalition of advertising big-spenders to ask ICANN to rethink its new gTLD program.

Stephan Loerke, managing director of the Brussels-based organization, wrote to Rod Beckstrom, to “strongly urge ICANN to abandon the program in its current form”.

The letter (pdf) explicitly echoes statements first made by Bob Liodice of the US Association of National Advertisers, which is a WFA member.

To recap, these organizations are worried about consumer confusion, leading to phishing and cybersquatting and an increase in the cost of defending trademarks online.

Loerke said in a press release:

ICANN’s decision flies in the face of their own impact assessments, which highlight the potential dangers and massive costs that unlimited domain names could incur. Worse, it could lead to significant confusion among consumers and expose them to abuse by fraudulent operators.

The WFA is an umbrella trade group that comprises the national advertising trade groups of 50-odd countries. It also has 50-odd brand names as members.

Its members collectively spend $700 billion a year on advertising.

As well as the ANA, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Association of American Advertising Agencies and the UK Direct Marketing Association have recently opposed the new gTLD program.

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Should new gTLDs be delayed?

Kevin Murphy, August 31, 2011, Domain Policy

Is the world ready for the new generic top-level domains program? Is ICANN ready?

It’s been well over two months since ICANN approved its new gTLD program, and the initial sense of excitement and purpose in the industry seems to have given way to virtual silence from ICANN and a profound lack of audible enthusiasm from the internet at large.

What’s going on with the program? Where’s the final Applicant Guidebook? Who are the experts ICANN is going to hire to actually decide which applications succeed or fail?

Is four months really sufficient time to put the world on notice that new gTLDs are coming and to give everybody enough opportunity to prepare?

Is anybody outside the industry even paying attention?

Read this quote (with my emphasis) from Friday’s wrap-up session at the .nxt conference in San Francisco and see if you can guess whose mouth it came out of.

My takeaways, if I can run through them quickly…

…a sense of relief that this program is finally underway as of June 20 has suddenly now turned into a worry. There’s a whole lot of people who can’t believe it’s happening, and there’s a sense of worry that it’s all going to happen too fast. So that’s quite interesting. There’s a hell of a lot that has to be done between now and launch.

Some things are not yet done… We haven’t got the information about the [Trademark] Clearinghouse yet, we don’t know what the [Governmental Advisory Committee] processes are going to be, and we actually have to design registry systems and explain those two to customers and show how they are going to fit together and we can’t. So there’s a problem there about the rush.

You may be thinking that those are the words of some naysayer in a stuffed shirt – a hater from the trademark lobby or the advertising industry who wants to put the stoppers on new gTLDs.

Actually, that’s the opinion of Peter Dengate Thrush, who was chairman of the ICANN board of directors when it voted to approve the program, despite concerns that it wasn’t ready yet, in June.

Dengate Thrush is now of course executive chairman of Minds + Machines, which is in the position of actually having to deal with the program in its incomplete state.

His words were, I believe, offered up as an analysis of the mood of the conference, rather than some kind of mea culpa, if you were wondering about the context or tone.

Nevertheless, he had a point.

Here are some of things that don’t seem to have been finalized yet:

The Applicant Guidebook

Incredibly, the most recent version of the application rulebook posted on the ICANN web site dates from May. It’s still essentially still an almost-done draft document.

ICANN’s board voted in June to amend the Applicant Guidebook before the first round of applications opens.

So, where is it? Where’s the final Guidebook?

Who’s going to sign a check investing in new gTLDs when the rules are still open to change?

Still minding the GAC

How, precisely, will the Governmental Advisory Committee decide whether to intervene to thwart a gTLD application on public policy grounds?

ICANN has agreed to let the GAC make up its own rules governing how it reaches consensus before it objects to applications, but so far it has not said what those rules are going to be.

If you think you might apply for a potentially controversial gTLD string – or even if you don’t – you still don’t have enough information today to make a fully informed risk analysis.

Your best strategy right now might be to ensure that your string complies with Sharia, or to pay off a bunch of government officials to ensure they fight your corner.

Where are the experts?

ICANN has not yet named the company or individuals who have been or will be hired to process the hundreds of gTLD applications that are likely to be received next year.

As Dengate Thrush noted, it also hasn’t appointed a Trademark Clearinghouse, which is a critical component of two mandatory new gTLD rights protection mechanisms.

Currently, it’s hard to say for certain what integration between registries and the Clearinghouse will entail financially or technologically.

That may not be an enormous problem, but it could make writing an application slightly trickier.

Watching the watchmen

ICANN is in receipt of letters from competition authorities in the US and European Union, telling it in fairly blunt terms that its decision to allow registries and registrars to integrate is Bad Policy.

The rules that separate registrars like Go Daddy from registries such as VeriSign have been good for consumers, they say, and should be kept in place under the new gTLD regime.

ICANN, also in its June 20 vote, has already agreed to talk to these authorities about possibly scaling back the proposed liberalization of the vertical integration rules.

But if this is already happening, it’s happening behind closed doors, because we’ve not heard a peep about it from ICANN or the two governments since June.

If this situation escalates when everybody gets back from vacation, I will not be surprised.

Where’s the outreach?

ICANN has promised a four-month communications campaign before the start of the first round of applications. That means it has to kick off by September 12, just two weeks from now.

This campaign actually began at the press conference about half an hour after the June 20 board vote, ICANN president Rod Beckstrom said at the time, but apart from a couple of plaintive cries for help there’s been precious little visible outreach since then.

Director Bertrand de La Chapelle evidently gave Beckstrom a hard time about this during a board meeting a month ago, according to the minutes.

A new ICANN web site devoted to new gTLDs is expected to launch next month, and I understand that staff including Beckstrom will hit the road for a world tour around the same time.

But given the recent mock outrage from ad industry shills such as the Association of National Advertisers, it’s arguably a little late for ICANN to start to worry about framing the issue.

Most people reading about new gTLDs in the press the last few weeks probably came away thinking new gTLDs are nothing but a money grab by registries and cybersquatters/domainers.

(It is that, of course, but it’s lots of other nicer things too.)

From a public relations perspective, ICANN will be starting on the back foot. Its outreach efforts may turn out to be not be so much about educating the world about its program but re-educating it.

Oh, and it only has $750,000 to pull off this feat.

As a very wise man said at .nxt on Friday: “The size and scale of that [budget] doesn’t really match up to the problem it’s trying to address.”

(Yeah, that was Dengate Thrush again)

Welcome to the cheap seats

ICANN has committed $2 million from reserves to a mechanism whereby needy applicants from developing nations will be able to get a discount (TBC) on their application fees.

That mechanism does not yet exist. Such applicants are today at a disadvantage compared to their wealthier competitors when it comes to planning applications and raising funds.

A volunteer working group known as JAS has been working out the details, meeting by phone two or three times a week, but reaching consensus seems to have been a very tough slog.

Policies developed from the bottom up have a convoluted chain of custody before they get approved. A deadline missed by a day or two can delay the ICANN rubber stamp by weeks.

The way things look today, the JAS applicant support policy is going to be cutting it extremely fine if it wants to make it before the ICANN board’s October meeting in Dakar.

Wither round two?

Perhaps the most intractable problem underlying the whole program is the absence of a launch date for the second-round application window.

Speakers at the .nxt conference last week reckoned lawsuits over individual contested gTLDs are inevitable, and that they could delay the second round until as late as 2017, if it happens at all.

It’s in that context that large companies, already nervous about entering into a new, unmeasurable, unproven marketing paradigm, are being asked to commit potentially millions to new gTLDs today.

It’s arguably like being asked, in 1991, to pay $500,000 for sex.com, with no idea whether this newfangled “hypertext” thing is going to take off.

Sounds like a great deal today, but back then it would have sounded like a 419 scam.

As Yahoo lawyer J Scott Evans said at .nxt, many companies feel they have “a gun to their heads”.

It’s hardly surprising some of them have persuaded their trade groups to lobby against the program, threatening to bring their pocket Congressmen down on ICANN’s head and/or file a lawsuit or two.

Which brings me to my headline

Which brings me to my headline. Would another delay be good for the new gTLD program?

If the ANA were to sic its lawyers on ICANN tomorrow, would a temporary restraining order that delayed the program by a few month actually be healthy for it in the longer term?

A great many people and organizations that could make valuable contributions to the domain name industry will not have heard about new gTLDs before June 20.

A delay before January could give ICANN and its community a bit more time to smooth away the rough edges of the program and to address the issues that have not yet been resolved.

It could give potential applicants from outside the established community more time to decide whether to engage with the program, more time to raise funds or secure budgets, and more time to develop their new gTLD application strategies.

I’m referring here not only to large corporations with lengthy budgeting cycles, but also to entrepreneurs with cool ideas and meager resources that perhaps need more time to be able to get on board.

Could a delay also increase the proportion of applicants from outside Europe and North America, and the proportion of IDN gTLD applicants who truly understand their markets?

Bluntly, would a short delay in the launch, whether it came about as a result of legal action or not, make round one of the ICANN new gTLD program less of a clusterfuck?

Yeah, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here

The best quote I heard during my remote participation in the .nxt conference last week was offered up by Brian Larson from DotMLS as “Larson’s Corollary to Newton’s Third Law”:

Any discussion about what the post-new-gTLD world is going to look like is inherently speculative… For any argument about the post-new-gTLD world there is an equally plausible but opposite argument.

For the avoidance of doubt, if there was any doubt in your mind, that maxim certainly applies to the opinions expressed in this article. I could just as easily write 2,000 words arguing for the opposing view.

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