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What next for new TLDs? Part 4 – GAC Concerns

Kevin Murphy, December 15, 2010, Domain Policy

Like or loathe the decision, ICANN’s new top-level domains program appears to have been delayed again.

But for how long? And what has to happen now before ICANN starts accepting applications?

In short, what the heck happened in Cartagena last week?

In this four-part post, I will attempt an analysis of the various things I think need to happen before the Applicant Guidebook (AGB) is approved.

In this fourth post, I will look at areas of the AGB that the Governmental Advisory Committee is still concerned about.

GAC Concerns

The GAC’s laundry list of objections and concerns has grown with every official Communique it has released during an ICANN public meeting over the last few years.

While it has not yet published its official “scorecard” of demands for the home-stretch negotiations, it has released a list of 11 points (pdf) it wants to discuss with the board.

These 11 points can be grouped into a smaller number of buckets: objections and disputes procedures, trademark protection, registry-registrar separation, and the treatment of geographical names.

I wrote about the trademark issue in part one of this post.

The GAC appears to have adopted many of the arguments of the IP lobby – it thinks the AGB does not currently do enough to ensure the costs to business of new TLDs will be minimized – so we might expect that to be a major topic of discussion at the GAC-Board retreat in February.

I’ll be interested to hear what it has to say about registry-registrar separation.

The GAC has been pushing for some looser cross-ownership restrictions, in order to foster competition, since 2007, and most recently in September.

It has previously been in favor of restrictions on “insider” companies with market power, but for a more relaxed environment for new entrants (such as “community” TLDs that may largely operate under agreements with their local governments).

This position looks quite compatible with ICANN’s new vertical integration policy, to me, so I’m not sure where the GAC’s concerns currently lie.

The issue of disputes and objections may be the trickiest one.

The GAC basically wants a way for its members to block “controversial” TLD applications on public policy grounds, without having to pay fees.

The “Rec6” policy, previously known as “morality and public order objections” is one of the issues the ICANN board has specifically acknowledged is Not Closed.

This is from its Cartagena resolution:

Discussions will continue on (1) the roles of the Board, GAC, and ALAC in the objection process, (2) the incitement to discrimination criterion, and (3) fees for GAC and ALAC-instigated objections. ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC, and looks forward to receiving further input from the working group in an attempt to close this issue.

GAC members on the Rec6 working group repeatedly highlighted objection fees as a deal-breaker – governments don’t want to have to pay to object to TLD applications.

This appears to been cast as some kind of sovereignty-based matter of principle, although I suppose it could just as easily be an “in this economic climate” budgeting concern.

ICANN’s position is that the GAC as a whole can object for free, but that individual governments have to pay. Fees for some objection procedures will run into tens of thousands of dollars.

The GAC also has beef with the AGB’s treatment of geographic strings.

This is an area where ICANN says the AGB already “substantially reflects the views of the ICANN community” but intends to take GAC comments into account.

ICANN has already made substantial concessions on the geographic names issue, but there may still be a few loopholes through which territory names could slip through the net and be approved without the endorsement of their local governments.

Finally, the GAC wants to include amendments to the Registrar Accreditation Agreement, previously recommended by law enforcement agencies, in the AGB discussion.

The appears to have come completely out of the blue, without any direct relevance to the new TLD program.

It’s a long list covering a lot of issues, and it could get longer when the GAC publishes its official “scorecard”. We’ll have to wait and see.

Olympics tells ICANN to abandon new TLD launch or get sued

Kevin Murphy, November 29, 2010, Domain Registries

The International Olympic Committee has threatened to sue ICANN unless it gives IOC trademarks special protection in its new top-level domains program.

The IOC’s critique of ICANN’s new Applicant Guidebook is the first to be filed by a major organization in the current public comment period.

The organization has accused ICANN of ignoring it, preferring instead to take its policy cues from the domain name industry, and said it should “abandon its current timeline” for the launch.

ICANN currently plans to start accepting TLD applications May 30, 2011.

Calling the guidebook “inherently flawed”, the IOC’s director general Urs Lacotte wrote:

If these critical issues are not fully resolved and ICANN chooses not to place the Olympic trademarks on the reserved names list, then the IOC and its National Olympic Committees are prepared to employ all available legislative, regulatory, administrative and judicial mechanisms to hold ICANN accountable for damage caused to the Olympic movement.

(That language looks like it could have been cut-n-paste from a separate letter from the financial services industry, which I reported on last week).

The IOC said that it has opposed the new TLD program 11 times – asking for its trademarks to be placed on the AGB’s reserved strings lists, but received no response.

Special pleading? Perhaps, but the IOC’s trademarks are already specifically protected by legislation in numerous countries, including the US, UK, Canada and China.

The IOC also wants stronger trademark protection mechanisms, such as mandatory typosquatting protections in sunrise periods and extending dispute proceedings to registrars.

Expect many more such missives to start showing up on the ICANN web site over the next 11 days before the ICANN board of directors meets to approve the AGB in Cartagena.

This may be the last chance many organizations get to ask for the changes they want in the AGB before the first round of new TLD applications opens, and I expect them to seize it with both hands.

How “final” is the new TLD guidebook?

Kevin Murphy, November 19, 2010, Domain Registries

Many would-be new top-level domain registries were pleasantly surprised a week ago when ICANN published the latest Applicant Guidebook and referred to it as the “proposed final” version.

But it was pretty clear, even on a cursory reading, that the AGB is far from complete; in some cases, text is explicitly referred to as being subject to further revision.

There’s also a public comment period ongoing, providing feedback some of which will presumably be taken on board by ICANN at its Cartagena meeting next month.

But ICANN has now provided a little bit more clarity on how “final” the “proposed final” AGB really is.

Senior veep Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s point man on the new TLD program, had this to say on Thursday’s teleconference of the GNSO Council:

There are always going to be changes to the guidebook. And so, even though this is the proposed final guidebook, we’re doing some final work on trying to find areas of accommodation with the Recommendation 6 working group and making some changes there, and working through perhaps a registry code of conduct; there are perhaps some issues with data protection there.

If folks want to consider this as final it will have to be with the understanding that the guidebook will always be changing, but having an understanding that those changes really don’t materially change the positions of applicants or the decisions of whether or not to go ahead and apply or the resources necessary to apply or sustain registry operations.

I reported on some of the issues with the Rec 6 working group, which is dealing with the “morality an public order objections” process, earlier this week.

The registry code of conduct, which sets limits on what data can be shared in co-owned registries/registrars, was new in the latest AGB draft. It looks to me like the kind of thing you’d normally expect to be debated for many months before being accepted.

But apparently future changes to these parts of the guidebook will not be substantive enough to change potential applicants’ plans.

Pritz said on the GNSO call that the current public comment period, which ends on the day of the Cartagena board meeting, could be thought of as similar to the comment periods that precede votes on ICANN’s budget.

In those cases, the board votes to approve the budget subject to changes based on public comments in advance of those changes being made.

It seems to me that the board’s options in Cartagena are to a) approve the AGB, b) approve it subject to directed changes (the “budget” scenario), or c) delay approval pending further community work.

I’m guessing option b) is the preferred outcome, but there’s no predicting what surprises could emerge over the next few weeks.

Is ICANN too scared of lawsuits?

Kevin Murphy, November 17, 2010, Domain Registries

Arguments about the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook kicked off with a jolt this week, when ICANN was accused of abdicating its responsibilities and being too risk-averse.

In what I think was the first case of a top ICANN staff member publicly discussing the AGB, senior veep Kurt Pritz fielded questions about “morality and public order objections” on a packed and occasionally passionate conference call (mp3).

On the call, Robin Gross of IPJustice accused ICANN’s of shirking its duties by proposing to “fob off” decisions on whether to reject controversial TLDs onto third-party experts.

She said:

I’m concerned that there’s a new policy goal – a new primary policy goal – which is the risk mitigation strategy for ICANN. I don’t remember us ever deciding that that was going to be a policy goal. But it seems that now what is in the best interest for the Internet is irrelevant. The policy goal that rules is what is in the best interest for ICANN the corporation

A cross-constituency working group (CWG) had said that controversial TLDs should be rejected only after a final nod from the ICANN board, rather than leaving the decision entirely in the hands of outside dispute resolution providers.

There was a concern that third parties would be less accountable than the ICANN board, and possibly more open to abuse or capture.

But ICANN rejected that recommendation, and others, on “risk mitigation” grounds. Explanatory notes accompanying the new AGB (pdf) say:

Independent dispute resolution is a cornerstone of the risk mitigation strategy. Without outside dispute resolution, ICANN would have to re-evaluate risks and program costs overall.

Almost a third of every new TLD application fee – $60,000 of every $185,000 – will go into a pool set aside for ICANN’s “risk costs”.

These costs were based on an estimate that there will be 500 applications, and that ICANN will need $30 million to cover risks.

These are often thought to be primarily risks relating to litigation.

There’s a fear, I suspect, that ICANN could become embroiled in more interminable .xxx-style disputes if it allows the board to make subjective calls on TLD applications, rather than hiring independent experts to make decisions based on uniform criteria.

On Monday’s conference call, Gross said that ICANN’s treatment of the CWG’s recommendations was a “really big shock”. She added:

clearly here this is just a fobbing off of that responsibility, trying to again avoid litigation, avoid responsibility rather than take responsibility and take accountability

But ICANN says that the risk mitigation strategy benefits TLD applicants by removing uncertainty from the program, as well making ICANN more credible.

Pritz said on the call:

the risk to the program is in creating a process or procedure that isn’t transparent and predictable for applicants. By what standard can a TLD be kicked out? It’s got to be: here’s the standards, here’s the decision maker and here’s the process.

When I talk about risk, it’s risk to this process.

If this process attracts a lot of litigation, and ICANN published the process and then did not follow it, or that the process wasn’t clear so that the applicant had no way of predicting what was going to happen to its application, the risk is then litigation would halt the process and undermine the ICANN model.

So it doesn’t really have anything to do with the people that are the directors or the people that are the staff; it has to do with the credibility of ICANN as a model for Internet governance.

In other words, if TLD applicants pay their fees and go into the process knowing what the rules are, and knowing that there’s little chance of being jerked around by the ICANN board, there’s less chance of the program as whole being disrupted by lawsuits.

Seems fair enough, no?

New TLD firms to ICANN: “Get on with it”

Kevin Murphy, November 8, 2010, Domain Registries

A number of prospective domain name registries have called on ICANN to shorten the window for its first round of new top-level domain applications.

While we now know that ICANN is working towards a May 30, 2011 opening date for applications, its recently published timeline does not specify how long the application period will last.

However, last month’s draft document “Delegation Rate Scenarios For New gTLDs” (pdf) states that the window of opportunity for TLD applicants will last 90 days.

Now, many of the companies and organizations that have been waiting the longest to apply have asked ICANN to narrow that period to 30 days.

Jon Nevett, president of Domain Dimensions, in a comment on the delegation rate report, wrote:

In prior presentations and discussions with ICANN staff, a 30-day application window had been discussed. I’m not sure how the 30 days turned into a 90-day window in this report. Tacking a 90-day window on after a four-month communications period does not make sense and is extremely unfair to applicants.

After the publication of the final Applicant Guidebook (AGB), ICANN plans to conduct a four-month outreach and marketing effort before accepting applications. The current draft AGB predicts an eight-month processing period for the very simplest applications.

Nevett, and others that subsequently echoed his views, believe that the longer window punishes companies that have invested resources in new TLD applications over the last few years.

There have already been a number of delays to the program’s launch, which was originally scheduled to kick off in 2009, and then mid-2010.

Nevett wrote:

Let’s stop punishing applicants by sucking them dry of all of their working capital by creating a seven-month communications/application period followed by a minimum eight-month review period piled on the years that they already have been waiting. We could do better.

His views were supported in separate comments by commercial operators including of Minds + Machines and .MUSIC, along with geo-TLD efforts including dotBERLIN and dotAfrica.

While the comment period has seen no opposing views, one criticism previously offered by opponents of the new TLD program is that it will unfairly benefit “insiders” – those people who participate regularly in ICANN for their own business purposes.