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DotConnectAfrica files for ICANN independent review

Kevin Murphy, January 22, 2014, Domain Policy

Failed .africa gTLD applicant DotConnectAfrica has filed an Independent Review Process appeal against ICANN, it emerged today.

The nature of the complaint is not entirely clear, but in a press release DCA said it’s related to “ICANN Board decisions and actions taken with regard to DCA Trust’s application for the .africa new gTLD”.

It’s only the third time an IRP has been filed. The first two were related to .xxx; ICM Registry won its pioneering case in 2009 and Manwin Licensing settled its followup case last year.

DCA said that it’s an “amended” complaint. It turns out the first notice of IRP was sent October 23. ICANN published it December 12, but I missed it at the time.

I’d guess that the original needed to be amended due to a lack of detail. The “Nature of Dispute” section of the form, filed with the International Center for Dispute Resolution, is just a sentence long, whereas ICM and Manwin attached 30 to 60-page legal complaints to theirs.

The revised notice, which has not yet been published, was filed January 10, according to DCA.

DCA applied for .africa in the current new gTLD round, but lacked the government support required by the Applicant Guidebook for strings matching the names of important geographic regions.

Its rival applicant, South African ccTLD registry Uniforum, which does have government backing, looks set to wind up delegated, whereas ICANN has designated DCA’s bid as officially “Not Approved”.

DCA has been alleging a conspiracy — often involving DI — at almost every juncture of the process, even before it filed its application. Read more here, here and here.

To win an IRP, it’s going to have to show that it suffered “injury or harm that is directly and causally connected to the Board’s alleged violation of the Bylaws or the Articles of Incorporation”.

Extortion.sucks — Vox Pop CEO defends “under-priced” $25,000 sunrise fee

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry, the .sucks new gTLD applicant backed by Momentous Corp, is to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in its Sunrise period, should it win the TLD.

Not only that, but it’s become the first new gTLD applicant that I’m aware of to start taking pre-registration fees from trademark owners while it’s still in a contention set with other applicants.

At first glance, it looks like plain old trademark-owner extortion, taken to an extreme we’ve never seen before.

But after 45 minutes talking to Vox Pop CEO John Berard this evening, I’m convinced that it’s worse than that.

The company is setting itself up as the IP lobby’s poster child for everything that is wrong with the new gTLD program.

If Vox Pop wins the .sucks contention set — it’s competing against Donuts and Top Level Spectrum — it plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in Sunrise and $25,000 a year thereafter.

Registrations during general availability, whether they match a trademark or not, will cost $300 a year.

During the pre-registration period, the Sunrise fee is $2,500 and the “Priority Reservation” fee is $250.

The Sunrise fee is, I believe, higher than any sunrise fee in any TLD ever to launch.

But Berard said that he believes Vox Pop’s .sucks proposition is, if anything, “under-priced”.

“Most companies spend far more than $25,000 a month on a public relations agency, most companies spend more than $25,000 a month on a Google ad campaign,” he said.

“Companies spend millions of dollars a year on customer service. We view .sucks as an element of customer service on the part of companies,” he said.

Berard, a 40-year veteran of the public relations business, said that he believes .sucks represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their customers, gaining valuable insight that could help them improve product development or customer service.

“The last thing I view .sucks as is a domain name. That’s the last value proposition for .sucks,” he said. “The primary value proposition is as a key and innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty.”

It’s about giving companies “the ability to bring internet criticism and commentary out of the shadows and into the light” and “an opportunity to actually have a legitimate ability to correct misconceptions and engage, in much the way they’re doing now with Facebook”, he said.

It’s all about helping companies create a dialogue, in other words.

But Berard said that Vox Pop does not intend to launch any value-added services on .sucks domains.

While a domain name may be the “last value proposition” of .sucks, it is also the only thing that Vox Pop is actually planning to sell.

Asked to justify the $25,000 Sunrise fee, at first Berard pointed to policies that he said will ensure a transparent space for conversation.

“A company might not have to register its brand in .sucks, because if someone else does the policies and practices that we hope to deploy give that company a transparent opportunity to participate,” Berard said. “There’s no chasing unknown people down dark alleys for unfounded criticism. It will all be done in the light of day.”

“We have built-in policies that prevent sites from being parked pages,” he said. “The site must be put to that use — of customer service — whether you are the company that owns [the brand] or a customer that wants to complain about it.”

There was some confusion during our conversation about what the policies are going to be.

At first it sounded like companies would be obliged to run criticism/conversation sites targeting their own brands or risk losing their domains, but Berard later called to clarify that while pages cannot be parked under the policy, they can be left inactive.

It will be possible, in other words, for a company to register its brand.sucks and leave the associated site dark.

The registry would also have an “authenticated Whois database”, he said, though it would allow registrants to use privacy services.

There would also be prohibitions on cyber-bullying and porn in .sucks, if Vox Pop wins it. It has committed to these policies in its Public Interest Commitments (pdf)

But the company does not appear to be doing anything that ICM Registry did not already do when it launched .xxx a couple of years ago, when it comes to making brand owners’ lives easier.

In fact, it’s planning to do a lot less, while being literally a hundred times more expensive.

By contrast, if Donuts wins .sucks, brand owners will be able to defensively block their marks using the Domain Protected Marks List for $3,000 over five years, which would cover all of Donuts 200-300 new gTLDs.

There doesn’t appear to be any good reason Vox Pop is charging prices well above the market rate, in my view, other than the fact that the company reckons it can get away with it.

In what may well be a deliberate move to put pressure on trademark owners, Vox Pop is also the first registry I’ve encountered to say it will do a 30-day, as opposed to a 60-day, Sunrise period.

Under ICANN rules, registries have to give at least 30 days warning before a 30-day Sunrise starts, but once it’s underway they are allowed to allocate domains on a first-come-first-served basis.

All of the 30-odd registries currently in Sunrise have opted for the traditional 60-day option instead, where no domains are allocated until the end of the period.

There’s also the question of accepting Sunrise pre-registrations before Vox Pop even knows whether it will get to run .sucks.

There are two other applicants and Berard said that he reckons the contention set is likely to go to an ICANN last-resort auction.

Judging by ICANN’s preliminary timetable, the .sucks auction wouldn’t happen until roughly September next year, by my reckoning.

Anyone who pre-registers today will have to wait a year before they can use (or not) their domain, if they even get to register it at all.

Any money that is taken during the pre-reg period will be refunded if Vox Pop fails to launch.

In the meantime, it will be sitting in Momentous’ bank account where the company, presumably, will be able to use it to try to win the .sucks auction.

Trademark owners, in my view, should vote with their wallets and stay the hell away from Vox Pop’s pre-registration service.

I’m not usually in the business of endorsing one new gTLD applicant over another, but I think Vox Pop’s Sunrise pricing is going to make the whole new gTLD program — and probably also ICANN and the domain name industry itself — look bad.

It’s a horrible reminder of a time when domain name companies were often little better than spammers, operating at the margins and beyond of acceptable conduct, and it makes me sad.

The new gTLD program is about increasing choice and competition in the TLD space, it’s not supposed to be about applicants bilking trademark owners for whatever they think they can get away with.

ICANN will have to make a call on .islam

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN is going to have to decide whether to approve the new gTLDs .islam and .halal, after the Governmental Advisory Committee punted the issue.

GAC chair Heather Dryden told ICANN chair Steve Crocker last week (pdf) that the GAC will not provide ICANN with the clarity it so wanted on the two controversial gTLDs.

“[T]he GAC concluded its discussions on these applications with the advice provided in the Beijing Communiqué,” Dryden said. “Accordingly, no further GAC input on this matter can be expected.”

ICANN is therefore left with the following advice:

The GAC recognizes that Religious terms are sensitive issues. Some GAC members have raised sensitivities on the applications that relate to Islamic terms, specifically .islam and .halal. The GAC members concerned have noted that the applications for .islam and .halal lack community involvement and support. It is the view of these GAC members that these applications should not proceed.

My take on this is that the GAC has provided what is often called a “non-consensus” objection, which I believe triggers one of the vaguest parts of the Applicant Guidebook.

One of the three types of GAC Advice on New gTLDs reads:

The GAC advises ICANN that there are concerns about a particular application “dot-example.” The ICANN Board is expected to enter into dialogue with the GAC to understand the scope of concerns. The ICANN Board is also expected to provide a rationale for its decision.

It seems pretty obvious now that ICANN’s board — nowadays its New gTLD Program Committee — is expected to make a decision whether to accept or reject .islam and .halal.

It would be the first time that ICANN has had to decide whether to reject a gTLD for public policy reasons without the full backing of the GAC in this application round.

It faced a similar conundrum in the 2003 round — albeit using different rules of engagement — when it had to decide the fate of .xxx (which it obviously chose to approve).

The applicant for .islam and .halal is Turkey-based Asia Green IT System.

The Organization for Islamic Cooperation, which claims to represent 1.6 billion Muslims, does not support the bids. It backed two formal Community Objections to the applications, which both failed.

The OIC’s Council of Ministers is meeting this week in Conakry, Guinea, and is expected to come out with some kind of formal statement opposing Islamic-oriented gTLDs that lack support.

The strength of that statement may prove decisive when ICANN comes to consider the issue.

Live new gTLDs this month? First four pass to delegation

Kevin Murphy, October 22, 2013, Domain Registries

New gTLDs are on the home stretch, after ICANN sent the first four applications to the final delegation stage of the process.

The four are: .сайт (Russian “.site”) and .онлайн (Russian “.online”) from Core Association, شبكة. (Arabic “.web”) from dotShabaka Registry and .游戏 (Chinese “.games”) from Donuts.

These were also the first four to sign their registry contracts with ICANN — over three months ago — and the first to be given their name collisions mitigation plan, just a few days ago.

Proceeding to delegation means the applications are now in the hands of IANA, the ICANN department with responsibility over changes to the DNS root system.

IANA has its own set of procedures to follow before delegating, which have historically taken a couple of weeks to process. If I recall correctly, .xxx was with IANA for about 10 days before it went live.

It seems possible that the first new gTLDs could be live this month, meaning the first sunrise periods could kick off in early December, with general availability following a month later.

However, the Christmas and New Year holiday period may wind up forcing some registrars to stagger their dates in order to benefit from the best publicity window when they finally go on sale.

What does Neelie Kroes know about multistakeholderism?

Kevin Murphy, October 15, 2013, Domain Policy

European Commission vice president Neelie Kroes wants “your ideas on how the Internet should be governed and what Europe’s role should be.”

In a survey launched last week, Kroes, who has special responsibility for the “digital agenda” in Europe, criticized ICANN’s “multi-stakeholder” process.

She solicited suggestions on how governments should be treated within ICANN, and asked “How can a move from unilateral to multilateral accountability be realised?”

Kroes said on her blog (link in original):

we also must have a clearer view of what we mean when we speak of “multi-stakeholder processes”. I worry that without a clear definition, everyone will claim that their decision processes are inclusive and transparent, when in practice they are not – as was shown recently, when the Governmental Advisory Committee of ICANN pressed on regardless – in spite of the EU’s legitimate concerns on new domain names.

Let’s parse this.

On the one hand, Kroes is stating that ICANN’s process is not “inclusive and transparent”.

On the other, she’s linking to her own demands for special privileges for the European Commission in the debate over whether wine producers need special protections in the new gTLDs .wine and .vin.

I reported on Kroes letter a month ago.

As the letter and the public record makes plain, the GAC had originally asked ICANN for more time in order to consider whether the .wine protections were warranted.

In the end, the GAC was unable to reach a consensus on the matter and advised ICANN accordingly.

With no GAC consensus, ICANN has no mandate to act.

But Kroes wants ICANN to delay the .wine and .vin applications anyway, based on little more than the European Commission’s unilateral demands.

Is her definition of a “multi-stakeholder” process one in which individual governments get to override the consensus of dozens of governments? It certainly looks that way.

And it wouldn’t be the first time Kroes has tried to usurp the multi-stakeholder process in order to get what she wants.

Back in June 2011, she called for ICANN to be reformed because she didn’t like the fact that ICANN did not accept all the GAC’s advice when it approved the new gTLD program.

A month earlier, she privately wrote to the US Department of Commerce — which controls the DNS root server — to ask that it refuse to delegate the recently approved .xxx gTLD.

That would have been an unprecedented and worrying move by Commerce, and naturally it declined.

But the fact that Kroes even asked makes me wonder how serious she is about “multistakeholderism”.

It’s a newish term, poorly defined, but reason dictates that it means you can’t always get what you want.

Kroes blog post is available here. More information about her call for comments can be found here.

:)