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TLDH weighs in on “terrifying” GAC advice

Top Level Domain Holdings is the latest portfolio applicant to slate the Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice on new gTLDs, calling it “troubling in principle” and “terrifying in practice”.

The company, which applied directly for 70 gTLDs and is involved in several others, filed its comments on the “safeguard advice” in the GAC’s Beijing communique with ICANN today.

The comments focus mainly on the overarching issues of governmental power and process, rather than delve into the nitty-gritty implementation problems presented by the advice.

TLDH CEO Antony Van Couvering wrote:

The Communiqué’s prescriptions define the opposite of a well-regulated sector. Instead of a clear process in which all concerns are weighed, the Communiqué sets up an ad-hoc GAC process from which the views of applicants are excluded.

Instead of clear rules to which industry players must adhere, ill-defined categories have been set up that applicants have a hard time even to understand.

Instead of a clear authority on who will determine policy, the ICANN community must now wonder who is in charge.

The comment points to the fact that the GAC’s 2007 principles on new gTLDs state that applicants should have a clear, objective process to follow, and that Beijing undermines that principle.

It also puts forth the view that the GAC appears to be trying to create policy unilaterally, and in a top-down manner that doesn’t give the Generic Names Supporting Organization a role.

The GAC Beijing Communiqué as enunciated in Section IV.1.b [the safeguard advice] unilaterally expands the role of the GAC from an advisory committee, with a remit of providing advice on policy originating in the GNSO, into a policy-making body from which other members of the ICANN community are excluded.

TLDH also notes that some parts of the advice are “not in themselves bad ideas” and that the company has offered to adopt some of them already in the Public Interest Commitments appended to its applications.

It comments follow those from rival Demand Media, which questioned the feasibility of implementing the GAC’s advice, last week.

Separately, over the weekend, Medicus Mundi International Network — an organization of healthcare non-governmental organizations — filed comments saying that the GAC advice does not go far enough.

Rather, it said, ICANN should delay the introduction of .health until a “broad-based consultation of the health community” can be carried out and a “multi-stakeholder” governance model for it created.

Donuts not pursuing new gTLD joint ventures

Following the news that Uniregistry and Top Level Domain Holdings are to work together on the .country new gTLD, larger portfolio applicant Donuts has said it’s not interested in similar arrangements.

While not entirely ruling out joint ventures along the lines of the .country tie-up, company VP of communications Mason Cole told DI that Donuts’ strategy is to completely own each of the new gTLDs it has applied for.

“We aren’t categorically ruling anything out, but any kind of proposal would have to be very compelling,” he said. “Our strategy from the beginning has been, and still is, to secure the strings we applied for and manage them ourselves.”

While TLDH and Uniregistry seem open to such partnerships, Donuts’ stance appears to reduce the likelihood of three-way joint ventures on the four applications for which the three companies are the only applicants.

Donuts is also in two-horse races on an additional 58 strings.

The company, which is believed to have raised $100 million to $150 million in venture capital funding, is a strong supporter of private auctions to settle contention sets.

It originally brought the auctioneer Cramton Associates, which runs ApplicantAuction.com. into the ICANN process.

Cramton, according to a blog post this week, expects to run a mock auction May 23 and start auctions proper five days later.

ICANN does not expect to finish delivering the results of Initial Evaluation until August, so it seems possible some applicants may participate before they know if they’ve passed.

.love dies as applicants pull five more new gTLD bids

Jewelry maker Richemont is the latest new gTLD applicant to withdraw one of its bids, yanking its application for .love.

The proposed gTLD was one of 14 single-registrant namespaces applied for by the company, and also the most heavily contested, with six other applicants competing.

Google, Donuts, TLDH and Uniregistry are also bidding. The string will almost certainly go to auction and may fetch a high price.

Richemont was the only applicant for .love as a “closed generic”, but the string was not among those listed in the Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice in the Beijing communique.

According to its application, Love is also a brand of bracelet produced by its Cartier jewelry business.

It’s the first application Richemont has withdrawn.

The New gTLD Application Tracker has also been updated today to reflect the withdrawals of .spa, .zulu, .free and .sale by Top Level Domain Holdings, which were announced last week but which ICANN has only just finished processing.

Unrest remains despite new new gTLD contract

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2013, Domain Registries

ICANN has proposed big changes to how it will handle premium domain names, dot-brands, mergers and acquisitions and mandatory fees in new gTLDs.

It published a new version of the proposed Registry Agreement for new gTLD operators this morning, saying that it is the product of months of “negotiations” with applicants and registries.

But some applicants and back-end providers disagree with this characterization, saying that while some registries helped ICANN with the text they have no authority to speak for all applicants.

The agreement was posted for 42 days of public comment this morning. Before it is approved by the ICANN board of directors, no new gTLD applicants will be able to sign contracts and begin to go live.

There are several major changes compared to the version in the Applicant Guidebook.

Premium domains not dead after all

In what could prove to be the most significant and controversial changes, ICANN has given registries the ability to run Founders Programs and premium name schemes without interference from trademark owners.

New text in the contract will let them self-register up to 100 names “necessary for the operation or the promotion of the TLD” and release those names to third parties if they want.

This appears to be a way around the fear that mandatory Sunrise periods could thwart registries’ plans to sign up anchor tenants to the gTLDs, a crucial launch marketing tactic for many.

The new RA also appears to give broad powers to the registry to allocate premium domain names at will.

Registry Operator may withhold from registration or allocate to Registry Operator names (including their IDN variants, where applicable) at All Levels in accordance with Section 2.6 of the Agreement. Such names may not be activated in the DNS, but may be released for registration to another person or entity at Registry Operator’s discretion.

There does not appear to be a numerical limit on how many domains can be reserved in this way.

Hypothetically, this might allow a registry to reserve the entire dictionary (or dictionaries) at launch, preventing holders of trademarks on generic terms grabbing the matching names during Sunrise.

The still-draft Trademark Clearinghouse rules will also play a part here, but from the RA it looks like registries have just been handed a massively flexible reservation tool.

If my initial interpretation is correct, I expect the trademark lobby will have strong view here.

Concessions for dot-brands

New text in the agreement makes it clearer that ICANN has no plans to redelegate dot-brand gTLDs to third parties after the Registry Agreement expires or is terminated.

This means, for example, that if L’Oreal decides to stop using .loreal at some point in future, ICANN very probably won’t give .loreal to a competitor. The new text is:

(i) ICANN will take into consideration any intellectual property rights of Registry Operator (as communicated to ICANN by Registry Operator) in determining whether to transition operation of the TLD to a successor registry operator

It’s probably not rigid enough language to satisfy some lawyers’ wishes, but I think it does enough to convey the spirit of ICANN’s intentions.

ICANN is of course mainly concerned that dead gTLDs don’t leave registrants with dead domain names, but if there are no registrants I can’t imagine why it would want to redelegate.

Lower fees for registries

Newly added text in the RA specifies that registries must pay ICANN a $5,000 one-off fee (per TLD) to use the new Trademark Clearinghouse, plus with $0.25 per domain that uses its services.

Domains registered under Sunrise periods or which trigger Trademark Claims alerts would incur this one-time fee, which appears to have been reduced from the $0.30 previously discussed.

These fees will actually be passed on to the Trademark Clearinghouse operators (Deloitte and IBM), for which ICANN has agreed to manage billing in order to keep costs down.

In addition, the RA now clarifies that the registry operator’s regular fixed fees to ICANN of $6,250 a quarter only kick in from the date that the gTLD hits the DNS root, not the date of contract signing. That could save registries up to a year’s worth of fees, if they’re late to delegation.

M&A approvals

There are also changes to the way ICANN plans to approve of mergers and acquisitions among registries.

First, it will be much easier for the contract to be passed around within a corporate holding group. The RA now states:

Registry Operator may assign this Agreement without the consent of ICANN directly to a wholly-owned subsidiary of Registry Operator, or, if Registry Operator is a wholly-owned subsidiary, to its direct parent or to another wholly-owned subsidiary of its direct parent, upon such subsidiary’s or parent’s, as applicable, express assumption of the terms and conditions of this Agreement

This change would seem to enable portfolio applicants that have applied for many gTLDs each under separate shell company names (Donuts, for example) to consolidate their contracts under a single parent.

What I don’t think it does is allow for contention set resolution based on joint ventures (which are obviously not “wholly owned”), such as what Uniregistry and Top Level Domain Holdings announced they had agreed to yesterday.

The new RA also states that ICANN must approve subcontracting deals the registry inks for any of the five “critical functions” (EPP, DNS, DNSSEC, Whois and escrow).

Unilateral amendments are gone

The controversial “unilateral right to amend” that ICANN wanted to grant itself — essentially an emergency power to change the contract almost at whim and over the objections of registries — is gone.

It’s been replaced with a convoluted series of procures almost identical to those found in the proposed final version of the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement currently open for comment.

Registries would get the ability to punt the changes to a GNSO Policy Development Process, submit alternative amendments, take ICANN to arbitration or request exemptions, under the new rules.

While the new provisions still give ICANN the ability to force through unpopular changes under certain circumstances, a lot more engagement by registries is envisaged so “unilateral” is probably not a good word to use any more.

So is the deal final or not?

ICANN said in a blog post: “The proposed agreement is the result of several months of negotiations, formal community feedback, and meetings with various stakeholders and communities.”

It added:

We have come a long way since February 2013 when we posted a proposed Revised New gTLD Registry Agreement for public comment. A new and highly spirited sense of mutual trust has catapulted us into a fresh atmosphere of collaboration, which in turn has led to a consistently more productive environment. The spirit of teamwork, productive dialogue and partnership that has underpinned this negotiation process is tremendously heartwarming, as it has allowed us to bring to fruition a robust contractual framework for the New gTLD Program.

But some are worried that ICANN seems to be portraying the RA as equivalent to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, which was subject to 18 months of talks with a negotiating team representing registrars.

The registries’ Registry Agreement Negotiating Team (RA-NT), on the other hand, was formed less than three weeks ago during ICANN’s meeting in Beijing, and did not have the authority to speak for all applicants.

The RA-NT said in a statement published by ICANN:

The RA-NT agreed to review the new gTLD Registry Agreement with ICANN staff in an effort to minimize some of the more controversial aspects of the Agreement for applicants as a whole. While participants reflected a variety of perspectives, the team did not “represent” or have any authority to “speak for” new gTLD applicants generally, or any group of applicants.

ARI Registry Services CEO Adrian Kinderis told DI:

My fears (and frustrations) come from the fact that ICANN staff have made it sound like they have reached the same point in the process. “It is done”. It most certainly isn’t “done”. They need to understand that the negotiation is actually still very much active and all of the community should feel like their opinions and feedback will be considered in the development of the “final draft”.

The draft RA is now open for public comment until June 11.

That would give ICANN about a month to synthesize all the comments, make any changes, and put the deal to its board of directors for approval during the meeting in Durban, South Africa, this July.

First new gTLD contention set settled as Uniregistry and TLDH sign deal

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2013, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings and Uniregistry have inked a deal to go splits on the proposed .country registry, the first publicly announced settlement of a new gTLD contention set.

The two companies are the only applicants for .country, so assuming one or both applications are approved by ICANN no auction will be required to decide who gets to run it.

It’s not yet clear which applicant will drop out of the race; it appears that TLDH and Uniregistry are waiting for their Initial Evaluation results to come out before making that call.

A new 50:50 joint venture will be formed to take over the contract. The companies said in a press release:

Under the conditional heads of terms for the proposed joint venture, either Uniregistry or TLDH will withdraw its application and, once the surviving applications is approved by ICANN, the authority to operate .country will be transferred to the new joint venture. The transfer will require ICANN approval, which the directors of the Company fully expect to be forthcoming.

Uniregistry’s prioritization number is 1232 and TLDH’s is 664. If TLDH passes Initial Evaluation, it would make sense for Uniregistry to pull out at that time to speed up the time to delegation.

TLDH CEO Antony Van Couvering said the deal is “pro-competitive and will result in lower prices for consumers”.

Uniregistry and TLDH are competing on another 20 gTLD strings, but .country is the only two-horse race they’re involved in.

Looking for a better new gTLD search engine?

Kevin Murphy, April 26, 2013, Domain Services

I’ve heard a few people complain this week about ICANN’s revamped new gTLD application page, so I thought it would be an ideal time to shamelessly plug DI’s New gTLD Application Tracker.

The Application Tracker has been significantly improved since it was first released last year, and now supports no less than 19 advanced search criteria, enabling users to construct extremely granular searches.

DI PRO Application Tracker

Want to search for only geographical, community or IDN gTLDs, or vice versa? You can do that.

Want to search for only gTLDs with GAC Advice or GAC Early Warnings? You can do that.

Want to see all the bids that failed Initial Evaluation? You can do that.

Want to search for all the contention sets where Uniregistry is competing with Amazon? You can do that.

Want to search for all the applications in contention sets with Google that have been withdrawn? You can do that.

Want to search for all the non-IDN bids filed by TLDH that have passed IE but are in contention and have GAC Advice but didn’t get an Early Warning? You can do that.

Want to search for “closed generic” strings containing the letter C applied for by Google that have GAC Advice and Objections and are in contention with Donuts? You can do that too.

DI PRO Application Tracker

Each application also has its own page containing key portions of the application as well as listing public comments, competing bids, objections, GAC Advice and Early Warnings in a simple one-page view.

In short, the Application Tracker is an extremely flexible research tool for people closely following the new gTLD program.

We’re always receptive to additional feature suggestions.

The Application Tracker is currently available as one of the services provided to annual or monthly DI PRO subscribers.

GAC claims its first new gTLD scalps

Kevin Murphy, April 25, 2013, Domain Registries

Two new gTLD portfolio applicants have withdrawn a total of nine applications following advice from ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee.

Top Level Domain Holdings, owner of Minds + Machines, said it has binned its bids for .free, .sale, .spa and .zulu “as a consequence of these warnings, and after discussion with relevant governments”.

.spa and .zulu are both on the GAC’s shortlist for further consideration on geographical/cultural grounds (Spa is also a town in Belgium) and were due to be discussed at the ICANN meeting in Durban this July.

It’s less clear why TLDH has chosen to scrap .free and .sale, however.

Both were among over 300 bids to receive GAC advice on “consumer protection” grounds, but they were by no means the only TLDH applications to get hit with the same stick.

The company has 21 applications with “consumer protection” advice.

Its bids for .book and .cloud, for example, are listed in exactly the same place in the GAC’s Beijing communique as .free and .sale, and have similar contention profiles, but have not been withdrawn.

TLDH said in a press release that it expects to get a $520,000 from ICANN for withdrawing the bids and another $144,000 from the release of its Continued Operations Instrument risk fund.

Meanwhile, entrepreneur Bekim Veseli has yanked the remaining five of his original seven gTLD bids, all of which had been hit by advice on the basis that they’re “corporate identifiers” such as .inc and .corp.

I understand this withdrawals may not have related directly to the GAC advice, however, and may be also due to the fact that they’re all highly contested strings.

Did Uniregistry over-sell the auction antitrust risk?

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2013, Domain Registries

Uniregistry’s revelation that it believes private auctions to resolve new gTLD contention sets may be illegal — based on its talks with the US Department of Justice — has caused widespread angst.

Following yesterday’s news, some commentators — some interested — questioned the company’s motive for revealing that Justice had declined to give private auctions a clean bill of health under antitrust law.

Others wondered whether Justice had been given the full facts, whether it had understood the new gTLD program, and whether Uniregistry had accurately reported Justice’s advice.

Given that yesterday’s piece was straight news, I figured it might be good to delve a little deeper into the situation and, yes, indulge in some quite shameless speculation.

What is it that Uniregistry is saying?

Here’s the argument, as I understand it.

“Bid-rigging” is illegal in many countries, including ICANN’s native US, where the Department of Justice prosecutes it fairly often, securing billions of dollars in damages and sometimes criminal sentences.

More often than not, it seems, the prosecutions are related to government contracts, where agencies are looking for a company to carry out a job of work for the lowest possible price.

Bid-rigging emerges when contractors decide among themselves who is going to win the contract. If two contracts are up for grabs, two companies may agree to submit separate high-ball bids so that they can guarantee getting one contract each.

This, of course, inflates the price the government agency pays for the work. There’s no true competition, so prices are artificially high, harming the tax-payer. That’s why it’s illegal.

The ICANN new gTLD program is a bit different, of course.

First, ICANN isn’t a government agency. While it has quasi-governmental powers, it’s a private corporation. Second, it’s looking for high bids, not low bids. Third, it doesn’t care if it doesn’t see any money.

There can be little doubt that private auctions technically harm ICANN, because the winning bidder’s money would be divided up between applicants rather than flowing into ICANN’s coffers.

Uniregistry seems to believe that a new gTLD applicant signing a private auction agreement — basically, competitors agreeing to pay or be paid to decide who wins a contract — that takes money out of ICANN’s pocket could be considered illegal collusion.

But ICANN has stated regularly that it prefers applicants to work out their contention sets privately, explicitly endorsing private auctions and/or applicant buy-outs.

ICANN, it seems, doesn’t care if it is harmed.

According to Uniregistry, however, that doesn’t matter. Its view, following its conversations with Justice, is that what ICANN says is completely irrelevant: the law’s the law.

As the company said yesterday:

the Department emphasized that no private party, including ICANN, has the authority to grant to any other party exemptions to, or immunity from, the antitrust laws. The decision means that the Department of Justice reserves its right to prosecute and/or seek civil penalties from persons or companies that participate in anti-competitive schemes in violation of applicable antitrust laws.

In other words, just because it’s very unlikely that ICANN would start filing antitrust suits against new gTLD applicants, the DoJ could feasibly decide to do so anyway.

Why would it do so? Well, consider that the thing ICANN is auctioning is a spot in the DNS root server, and the root server is ultimately controlled by the US Department of Commerce…

ICANN may not care about the money, but the thing it is selling off “belongs” to the United States government.

That’s the argument as I understand it, anyway.

Isn’t this all a bit self-serving?

Uniregistry’s press release and DI’s blog post yesterday were met with disappointment (to put it mildly) among some new gTLD applicants, auction providers and others.

They noted that Uniregistry had no documentary evidence to back up information it attributed to Justice. Some accused DI of reporting Uniregistry’s statement without sufficient skepticism.

It seems to be true that the company has not been a big fan of private auctions since the concept was first floated.

Uniregistry has applied for 54 new gTLDs, the majority of which are contested. Its main competitors are Donuts, with 37 contention sets, and Top Level Domain Holdings, with 21.

Who wins these contention sets depends on who has the most money and how much they’re prepared to pay.

Unlike Donuts, Uniregistry hasn’t gone to deep-pocketed venture capital firms. It’s reportedly funded to the tune of $60 million out of CEO Frank Schilling’s own pocket.

And unlike TLDH, which is listed on London’s Alternative Investment Market, Uniregistry doesn’t have access to the public markets to raise money. It seems to be better-funded, however.

Donuts raised $100 million to fund its new gTLD ambitions. It’s more than Schilling claims to have put into Uniregistry, but Donuts has spent much more on application fees.

Donuts is involved in 307 applications, many more than Uniregistry’s 54.

The money remaining for auctions is also spread much thinner with Donuts. It’s also in 158 contention sets, more than three times as many as than Uniregistry’s 45.

Private auctions arguably benefit Donuts because, depending on the auction model, it could reinvest the money it raises by losing an auction into a future auction. Its VC money would last longer.

The same logic applies to all applicants, but it becomes more of a pressing issue if you’re on a tight budget or have a large number of applications.

Uniregistry may have calculated that it stands a better chance of winning more contention sets against Donuts and TLDH if its competitors don’t get the chance to stuff their war chests.

Of course, Uniregistry could have simply refused to participate in private auctions in order to force an ICANN auction in its own contention sets. All new gTLD applicants have that power.

But by publicizing its antitrust concerns too, it may have also torpedoed private auctions for some contention sets that it’s not involved in.

That could limit the amount of money flowing from losing auctions to its competitors.

Another theory that has been put forwards is that Uniregistry went public with its Justice conversations — over-selling the risk, perhaps — in order to give its competitors’ investors jitters.

That might potentially reduce the capital available to them at auction, keeping auction prices down.

So did Uniregistry stand to benefit from playing up the risk of antitrust actions against new gTLD applicants? Probably.

Does it mean that its interpretation of its Department of Justice conversations is not completely accurate? Ask a lawyer.

The 100% Porn-Free Top 10 DI Stories You Should Have Been Reading In 2012.

Kevin Murphy, January 2, 2013, Gossip

Happy New Year everyone.

It’s time for the now-traditional round-up of the last year’s biggest DI stories, but this year it’s going to be a little different.

Having perused the traffic logs for the last 12 months, it’s pretty clear that the Top 10 stories for 2012 would be about 90% porn-related.

The list is all “YouPorn this” and “.xxx that”, with dishonorable mentions for stories about “Hot Czech girls” and photos of Go Daddy girls’ bottoms.

It’s sad, but perhaps inevitable, that sex-related stories seem to appeal to a wider readership than the more chaste variety. Residual search traffic also seems to linger for longer with these pieces.

Traffic logs are a rubbish way to gauge the importance of a story.

So I’ve ignored all that guff in this year’s rundown. With apologies to Manwin and ICM Registry, here’s the hand-picked 100% Porn-Free Top 10* DI Stories You Should Have Been Reading In 2012.

(* More than 10)

The New gTLD Program Splutters Into Life

Our Word Of The Year for 2012 is “glitch”.

With hindsight, ICANN chairman Steve Crocker is probably regretting saying in a New Year email to colleagues, “I am confident the program is well constructed and will run smoothly.”

And with hindsight, I’m regretting not being more skeptical in my January 3 article, ICANN chair says new gTLD program “will run smoothly”.

A week later, ICANN started to accept new gTLD applications (ICANN opens new gTLD program) and the TLD Application System at first did appear to run more or less smoothly, but it didn’t last long.

By early February the first “glitches” were emerging (New gTLD applications briefly vanish after glitch) and by April the TAS had completely imploded.

As the application window was just about to close April 30, ICANN shut down TAS, saying that a “technical glitch” had led to “unusual behavior” (ICANN extends new gTLD application window after technical glitch)

It turned out that a bug in ICANN’s custom-made TAS software had allowed some applicants to see other applicants’ applications (It’s worse than you thought: TAS security bug leaked new gTLD applicant data)

Over 100 applicants were affected (TAS bug hit over 100 new gTLD applicants) but the damage appears so far to have been limited to ICANN’s reputation and the cost to applicants of over a month’s delay (TAS reopens after humiliating 40 days) while the bug was being fixed.

Wow. How Many Applications?

By the time Reveal Day rolled around in June, tensions were high.

Moderating a panel discussion during the live London event (Big Reveal confirmed for London), I got my hands on a print-out of the list of gTLD applications half an hour before it was released publicly.

In hard copy, it was thick enough to choke a horse.

There were 1,930 applications in total (It’s Reveal Day and there are 1,930 new gTLD bids), largely made up of English keywords and Western dot-brands, with not as much representation from the developing world or non-Latin scripts as ICANN had hoped.

While we’d long expected big portfolio bids from the likes of Donuts (Donuts applies for 307 (yes, 307) gTLDs), Uniregistry (Schilling applies for “scores” of new gTLDs) and TLDH, Amazon and Google were the surprise big applicants, facing off on several prime keywords.

When it became clear that both companies were planning to keep huge swathes of real estate private, using the dot-brand model with dictionary words (Most new gTLDs could be closed shops), a controversy was set in motion that has not yet been resolved (Industry objection forming to Google and Amazon’s keyword gTLD land grab).

Digital Archery misses the target

By far the year’s weirdest rolling story was the creation, deployment, failure and death of Digital Archery, ICANN’s whacky way of splitting new gTLD applications into evaluation batches.

Applicants would have to take their chances with network latency, clicking a button on a web page and hoping ICANN’s servers received the ping as close to a target time as possible, as we revealed in March (Here’s how new gTLD batching will work).

The system was branded “Digital Archery” (ICANN approves “digital archery” gTLD batching). It later transpired that the ICANN board was warned that it looked absurd (Digital archery looked “silly” but had “minor risks”, ICANN board was told).

Several companies quickly seized on the opportunity to make a bit of cash from the process, leveraging years of drop-catching experience (Pool.com offers $25k gTLD digital archery service).

But opposition to the system quickly grew, with several companies openly wondering whether Digital Archery was any better than the illegal lottery it was supposed to replace.

(See Revolt brewing over digital archery and ARI: digital archery is a lottery and we can prove it, Is this why digital archery is borked?

Despite beginning Digital Archery, by June the process had been suspended (Digital archery suspended, surely doomed) and finally killed off (Digital archery is dead, but uncertainties remain).

Roll up! Roll up!

Archery was replaced by a lottery, in one of the most surprising about-faces of the year.

Apparently prize draws were not illegal under Californian law after all, clearing the way for a widely lauded chance-based solution to the prioritization problem (New gTLD winners will be decided by lottery after all).

And what do you know… it worked. At least, nobody has yet publicly complained about the New gTLD Prioritization Draw, which took place in LA a couple of weeks ago. (Amazon, Uniregistry, Verisign… here’s who won the new gTLDs lottery)

Conflicts Over Conflicts Of Interest

The repercussions of Peter Dengate Thrush’s 2011 move from ICANN’s chair to a top job at Top Level Domain Holdings continued in 2012, with paranoia over conflicts of interest rife.

This was the year in which ICANN made serious efforts to avoid even the perception of conflicts of interest on its board of directors (Seven ICANN directors have new gTLD conflicts) by starting up a New gTLD Program Committee stacked with non-conflicted individuals.

Despite this move, other questions were raised over the course of the year about the relationship between directors on the committee and new gTLD applicants (Another conflicted ICANN director? and Ombudsman asks DCA to simmer down after .africa conflict of interest complaint).

CEO Rod Beckstrom even used his penultimate ICANN meeting keynote to take a pop at his fellow directors (Beckstrom slams his own board over conflicts) over the poorly perceived ethics environment.

But it didn’t take long before many community members started to question the value of excluding industry expertise from the new gTLD committee, a view given weight by the fact that one of the committee’s first decisions was approving Digital Archery.

To the disappointment of many, even recently promoted new gTLD program overseer Kurt Pritz fell victim to the paranoia over clashes, tendering his resignation in November after fessing up to a personal conflict of interest (Pritz’s conflict of interest was with ARI).

To cap it all, concern about conflicts led to one GNSO Council member accidentally torpedoing his own client’s interests (albeit temporarily) when he abstained from a November vote. (GNSO gives thumbs down to Olympic trademark protections in shock vote).

The Death of the GNSO

Worries about the decreasing relevance of the Generic Names Supporting Organization were aired a few times in 2012, pretty much every time the brand protection side of the house locked horns with non-commercial interests.

At the Costa Rica meeting in March, all of the unnecessary but politically valuable work that the GNSO had put into giving the Red Cross and International Olympic Committee special brand protection seemed to come to naught due to Non-Commercial User Constituency shenanigans (Olympic showdown spells doom for ICANN, film at 11).

While the storm was very much of the teacup variety (The Olympics and the death of the GNSO, part deux), more recent apparent attempts by ICANN executives and the GAC to do end-runs around the GNSO have started to raise many of the same concerns.

Too sluggish to react to the industry? Too complicated to function? Interests too entrenched for compromise? The “death of the GNSO” is a meme that is stronger than ever as we head into 2013.

Change at the top

In June, the industry mourned the departure of Bob Recstrum, Twitter’s premier ICANN spoof account.

In related news, Rod Beckstrom grew a beard and fucked off on his yacht or something, two million dollars the richer, leaving ICANN with interregnum leadership awaiting his successor.

After spending six months filtering through 100 applicants (ICANN gets 100 applicants for CEO job) for the lucrative if stressful position, ICANN’s board settled on the industry outsider Fadi Chehade, whose special skill is consensus building.

Chehade impressed on his first day by cleverly hiring two of the unsuccessful CEO candidates as special advisers, as he explained in an interview with DI (Fadi Chehade starts at ICANN today, immediately shakes up senior management)

As well as wowing the ICANN community by saying all the right things in his inaugural keynote, he has also since managed to successfully win over critics of ICANN in national governments and the International Telecommunications Union (Unsnubbed? ICANN brass get tickets to ITU curtain-raiser), demonstrating his chops when it comes to big picture stuff.

But the recent outcry over two secretive meetings relating to the Trademark Clearinghouse — along with more delays to the new gTLD program — suggests that the honeymoon period for Chehade is probably already over.

Verisign gets whacked by Commerce

The US government dealt a serious blow to Verisign at the back end of the year, capping its .com registry fee at current rates — barring highly improbably eventualities — for the next six years (Verisign loses right to increase .com prices).

While ICANN took a reputational hit — having approved a .com contract (ICANN gives Verisign’s .com contract the nod_ with 7% annual price increases — it got to keep the extra fees Verisign will pay it (ICANN to get $8 million more from new .com deal).

And the rest…

ICANN staffer linked to hacked intelligence firm — ICANN’s Eastern European VP Veni Markowski was fingered as an informant for an American intelligence firm, which described him as a “billionaire oligarch” with ties to organized crime, by the Bulgarian media. The reality, in my view, was rather less exciting.

Refunds uncertain as .nxt says sorry for cancellation — Many members of the industry were left fuming when the .nxt conference on new gTLDs, scheduled for London last summer, was cancelled twice and the organizers had trouble refunding registration fees.

Company claims ownership of 482 new gTLDs — ICANN’s past returned to haunt it in the second half of the year, as two new gTLD applicants from the 2000 round emerged to sue the organization for not returning its calls for the last 12 years.

O.co loses 61% of its traffic to O.com — Overstock’s ambitious rebranding around a .co domain failed to pay off. This story is a particular favorite citation of .com domain investor Rick Schwartz.

.radio gTLD applicant joins the GAC — The European Broadcasting Union applied for .radio, competing against three other applicants, then joined the Governmental Advisory Committee to give it special lobbying access to the GAC and its special gTLD objection powers (GAC gets more power to block controversial gTLDs). Conflict of interest?

“Whistleblower” accuses Nominet of trying to dodge freedom of information law — In what has to be the biggest case of disgruntled former employee in years, Nominet’s former policy chief spilled the beans about the company’s alleged plot to sell out .uk to the UK government in order to keep it out of the hands of domainers.

Newbie domain registrant discovers Whois, has Twitter meltdown — I deleted the quoted tweets after receiving a handful of insane emails from the newbie in question, so you’ll have to use your imagination.

ICANN’s secret “penthouse-level” domain program — Because April Fools Day stories are always fun to write.

NTIA throws a bomb, cancels IANA contract RFP — The US government’s other big surprise of the year was making ICANN kneel and beg for the renewal of its critical IANA contract. This story, incidentally, was the most-trafficked of 2012.

Apart from all the porn, that is.

TLDH hires ICANN’s former new gTLDs head

Kevin Murphy, December 3, 2012, Domain Registries

Top Level Domain Holdings has hired Michael Salazar, former head of the new gTLD program at ICANN, as its chief financial officer.

The hire, which is still subject to some regulatory checks, will also see Salazar become an executive director of the company, which has applied for dozens of new gTLDs.

Salazar was at ICANN for three years, before leaving this June in the wake of the TLD Application System and Digital Archery messes.

Before ICANN, he was with KPMG for 16 years, according to TLDH.

It’s the second time TLDH has brought a former ICANNer on board to fill a senior role.

Former chair Peter Dengate Thrush controversially joined the company as executive chairman in July 2011, but recently announced that he will be leaving the company in January.

Salazer replaces David Weill, CFO as well as a founding director of the company, who is leaving. He’s the second original director, after Clark Landry, to quit in as many months.