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Clarity for .brands in new Guidebook

Kevin Murphy, May 31, 2011, Domain Policy

Companies planning to apply for a “.brand” top-level domain have had some of their concerns put to rest in the latest version of ICANN’s Applicant Guidebook.

Potential .brands were worried that ICANN might try to redelegate their trademarked TLDs to a third-party operator in the event that they decided to discontinue the domain.

They were also concerned that the Code of Conduct would require them to offer equitable access to all accredited registrars – a ridiculous situation for a single-registrant TLD.

Both of these problems seem to have been addressed in the new Guidebook, which enables registries to ignore the Code of Conduct and redelegation scenario if they can satisfy three criteria.

They have to show to ICANN’s satisfaction that “all domain name registrations in the TLD are registered to, and maintained by, Registry Operator for its own exclusive use”, that it does not sell to third parties, and that to redelegate the TLD or enforce the Code “is not necessary to protect the public interest”.

These changes make the .brand proposition a lot more realistic, less risky, and may put many concerns to rest.

They do stop short of requests from potential .brands such as Microsoft, which wanted a TLD operator’s express written consent to be required before a redelegation took place, however.

The Applicant Guidebook is not finished, but will it be approved?

Kevin Murphy, May 31, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has published the seventh version of its Applicant Guidebook – no longer “draft” and no longer “proposed final” – for the new generic top-level domains program.

It’s arguably unfinished in its current state, but it looks like it’s being positioned for approval in just a few weeks, at ICANN’s planned June 20 board of directors meeting in Singapore.

One of ICANN’s stated aims was to provide a gTLD evaluation process that was not only uniform but also predictable. Applicants needed to know what they’re getting into before applying.

On the latter grounds, today’s Guidebook arguably fails.

The most notable change since the April draft is, for my money, the addition of text warning that ICANN may make binding changes to the Guidebook after the application process has started.

The very last paragraph of the document (pdf), the new fourteenth entry in the Terms & Conditions, is worth quoting is in its entirety:

ICANN reserves the right to make reasonable updates and changes to this applicant guidebook and to the application process at any time by posting notice of such updates and changes to the ICANN website, including as the possible result of new policies that might be adopted or advice to ICANN from ICANN advisory committees during the course of the application process. Applicant acknowledges that ICANN may make such updates and changes and agrees that its application will be subject to any such updates and changes. In the event that Applicant has completed and submitted its application prior to such updates or changes and Applicant can demonstrate to ICANN that compliance with such updates or changes would present a material hardship to Applicant, then ICANN will work with Applicant in good faith to attempt to make reasonable accommodations in order to mitigate any negative consequences for Applicant to the extent possible consistent with ICANN’s mission to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems.

My translation: 1) this baby is probably going to get approved before it’s finished, 2) we may spring a new policy on you after you’ve already laid down your $185,000 and 3) if the new policy screws with your application, we may give you special privileges.

Not much predictability there, but ample scope for controversy.

The new version of the Guidebook makes a reasonable attempt at highlighting some areas where it’s not ready, and where new policies may emerge, with placeholder text.

For example, the Guidebook notes that “ICANN may establish a means for providing financial assistance to eligible applicants” but does not say how much, or who will be eligible.

This developing nation support mechanism is currently one of the Governmental Advisory Committee’s biggest concerns, but it looks like it’s destined to be dealt with in a parallel process, possibly after the Guidebook has been approved.

In addition, prices for evaluation procedures such as the Registry Services Review and the Community Priority Evaluation have not yet been set, because contractors have not been selected.

Those two unresolved issues mean that the Guidebook as it stands today does not even inform several categories of applicant how much they can expect to pay to apply.

There’s continued uncertainty over objections procedures, also. The process whereby the GAC can object to applications has not yet been finalized. The Guidebook notes:

The GAC has expressed the intention to create, in discussion with the ICANN Board, “a mutually agreed and understandable formulation for the communication of actionable GAC consensus advice regarding proposed new gTLD strings.”

So if you’re thinking about a potentially sensitive string (.gay, .god), or a gTLD for a regulated industry (.bank, .pharma), the Guidebook currently offers limited visibility into the extent that your fate would be in the hands of national governments.

If you’re a .brand applicant, and you want to use domains such as europe.brand or usa.brand, the Guidebook currently offers no guidance on how those restricted geographic terms can be released for use. It says further policy work is needed.

Given the updated Ts&Cs quoted above, and the new section “1.2.11 Updates to the Applicant Guidebook”, which says pretty much the same thing, it looks like ICANN staff have prepared a document they expect the board to approve just three weeks from now.

The schedule for the Singapore meeting, published overnight, sets aside a 90-minute slot for the board to convene to discuss the Guidebook on June 20. It says:

In this session ICANN Board of directors will evaluate the current status of the New gTLD Program and consider the approval of the Final Applicant Guidebook.

My hunch is that we’re looking at some kind of face-saving “approval with caveats” resolution, leaving the Guidebook in a technically “approved” state but still open to significant amendments.

That’s if the GAC will let it, of course.

The new Guidebook makes a few cosmetic changes to its trademark protection mechanisms, but not much that seems to address the GAC’s specific outstanding concerns. Nor does it accept the GAC’s latest recommendations related to its objections powers.

Whether this is an indication that ICANN has given the GAC as much as it is prepared to, or an indication that changes could still be made, remains to be seen.

Trademark lobby makes final new gTLD demands

With ICANN’s latest and potentially last call for comment on its new top-level domains program just hours away from closing, the arguments are shaping up along familiar lines.

Trademark protection is unsurprisingly still center stage, with loud calls for the Applicant Guidebook’s rights protection mechanisms to be amended more favorably to brand owners

Meanwhile, many of those strongly in favor of the new gTLD program launching soon have submitted more subdued, concise comments, merely urging ICANN to get a move on.

While there are still some fringe opinions, many within the intellectual property community are on the same page when it comes to rights protection mechanisms.

URS

The Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, which enables trademark holders to relatively quickly shut down obvious cases of cybersquatting, comes in for particular attention.

In the latest draft of the URS, as well as its sister policy, the Trademark Clearinghouse, brand owners have to present “proof of use” for the trademarks which they want to enforce.

The International Trademark Association, the Intellectual Property Constituency and others want this provision eliminated, saying it is inconsistent with many national trademark laws.

The also want the burden of proof lowered from the “clear and convincing evidence” standard, and want to expand the “loser pays” model, to provide an economic disincentive to cybersquatting.

In the latest version of the Applicant Guidebook, ICANN introduced a system whereby a cybersquatter has to pay the cost of a URS they lose, but only if the case comprises over 25 domains.

INTA, the IPC and others want this reduced to something like five domains, on the grounds that 25 is too high a bar and may actually encourage larger-scale squatting.

IP Claims

They also want the Clearinghouse’s IP Claims service, which serves a warning to registrants when they try to register potentially infringing domains, expanded beyond exact-match strings.

Currently, you’ll receive a warning about possible infringement if you try to register lego.tld or foxnews.tld, but not if you try to register legostarwars.tld or foxnewssucks.tld.

Many commenters want this changed to also include brand+keyword domains (fairly easy to implement in software, I imagine), or even typos (not nearly so easy).

This makes sense if you assume that cybersquatting patterns in new TLDs mirror those in .com, where brand+keyword squatting comprise the majority of UDRP cases.

But if you look at the about 100 UDRP cases to be filed so far in .co, it seems that brand-only cybersquatting is clearly the order of the day.

Depending on how this was implemented, it could also create a “chilling effect” whereby IP Claims notices are sent to legitimate registrants.

It seems likely that with a brand+keyword approach, if someone tried to register legourmetchef.tld, they could wind up with a notice that the domain infringes the Lego trademark.

The trademark lobby also wants this IP Claims service extended beyond the first 60 days of a new TLD’s life, on the grounds that the cybersquatting risk does not disappear after a TLD launches.

According to submissions from existing TLD registries and potential applicants, this could add to the costs of running a TLD, increasing prices for registrants.

GAC

Most of these demands are not new. But in many cases, the IP lobby now has the support of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee.

The GAC and ICANN are due to meet by teleconference this Friday, ostensibly for their “final” consultation before ICANN approves the Guidebook a little over a month from now.

But with the US and Europe now strategically aligned, it seems likely that ICANN will find itself under more pressure than ever before to concede to the demands of trademark holders.

US wants to delay new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, May 6, 2011, Domain Policy

With ICANN seemingly hell-bent on approving its new top-level domains program at its Singapore meeting, June 20, the US government wants to slam the brakes.

Congressmen from both sides of the aisle this week said the launch should be put on hold, and yesterday Lawrence Strickling, head of the NTIA, said he does not believe June 20 is realistic.

In a speech before the Global Internet Governance Academic Network, GigaNet, in Washington DC yesterday, Strickling said that ICANN needs to pay more heed to the advice of its Governmental Advisory Committee before it approves the program.

I commend ICANN for its efforts to respond to the GAC advice. Nonetheless, it is unclear to me today whether ICANN and the GAC can complete this process in a satisfactory manner for the Board to approve the guidebook on June 20, 2011, as ICANN has stated it wants to do.

While discussing the ongoing boogeyman threat of an International Telecommunications Union takeover of ICANN’s functions, he added:

Unless the GAC believes that ICANN has been sufficiently responsive to their concerns, I do not see how the Guidebook can be adopted on June 20th in Singapore in a manner that ensures continuing global governmental support of ICANN.

That’s incredibly strong stuff.

Strickling is suggesting that if ICANN rejects GAC advice about what goes into the new TLDs Applicant Guidebook, ICANN may be able to kiss international governmental support goodbye, potentially threatening the organization’s very existence.

And it wasn’t the only threat he raised.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is in the process of renewing and possibly amending ICANN’s IANA contract, which gives it the power to introduce new TLDs.

If anyone in any government is in a position to bargain directly with ICANN, it’s Strickling. He tackled this position of power head-on in his speech:

I heard from yesterday’s House hearing that some of the witnesses proposed that we use this contract as a vehicle for ensuring more accountability and transparency on the part of the company performing the IANA functions. We are seriously considering these suggestions and will be seeking further comment from the global Internet community on this issue.

I believe the only witness to raise this issue at the hearing was Josh Bourne of the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse. He wants a full audit of ICANN before the IANA contract is renewed.

The Congressional “oversight” hearing in question, before the House Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, was not much more than a kangaroo court.

The Representatives in attendance read from prepared statements and from questions they frequently seemed to barely understand, stated fringe opinions as fact, asked inane questions that demonstrated the loosest of grasps on the subject before them, then came to the (foregone) conclusion that the new gTLD program should be delayed pending further work on protecting trademark holders.

I’m not saying these politicians need to be subject matter experts, but if the words “intellectual property” and “the internet” are in your job description, you ought be embarrassed if the words “new BGLTs, or whatever they’re called” come out of your mouth in public.

The Subcommittee has no direct power over ICANN, of course, beyond the fact that it belongs to the legislature of the country where ICANN is based.

But Strickling does.

In his speech yesterday, he also made it quite obvious that the NTIA currently has no plans to push ICANN further along the road to full independence by signing a Cooperative Agreement instead of a procurement contract for the IANA function.

That proposal was made by ICANN CEO Rod Beckstrom, and supported by a small number of others in the industry, including Vint Cerf. But Strickling said:

The fact is, however, that NTIA does not have the legal authority to transition the IANA functions contract into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, nor do we have the statutory authority to enter into a Cooperative Agreement with ICANN, or any other organization, for the performance of the IANA functions.

The Beckstrom proposal always seemed like a long shot, but to have it dismissed so casually will surely be seen as a setback on the road to true ICANN independence from the US.

Registries could become registrars by summer

Kevin Murphy, April 24, 2011, Domain Registries

The big incumbent top-level domain registry operators could apply to also become registrars as early as June this year, according to a just-passed ICANN resolution.

Last November, ICANN decided to dump its longstanding policy of generally not allowing TLD registries to also own and operate registrars.

While the rule was designed primarily for TLDs won under the new gTLD program, it will also retroactively apply to operators of existing gTLDs.

Neustar (.biz) has already publicly stated its intention to vertically integrate, and is keen for ICANN to lift its current 15% registrar ownership restriction before the new gTLD program kicks off.

According to a resolution passed by ICANN’s board of directors on Thursday, Neustar is not the only registry operator to make such a request.

The board last week…

RESOLVED (2011.04.21.13), the Board directs the CEO to develop a process for existing gTLD registry operators to transition to the new form of Registry Agreement or to request amendments to their registry agreements to remove the cross-ownership restrictions. This process would be available to existing operators upon Board approval of the new gTLD Program.

ICANN currently plans to approve the gTLD program June 20 at its meeting in Singapore.

That gives CEO Rod Beckstrom and his team just two months to come up with a process for allowing the likes of VeriSign, Neustar and Afilias to either amend their contracts or move to the standard contract outlined in the new TLD program’s Applicant Guidebook.

I see a potential source of tension here.

The registry agreement template in the Guidebook has been described by some as an “adhesion contract” due to its heavy balance in ICANN’s favor.

Existing registries will very likely prefer to simply delete the cross-ownership restrictions in their current contracts and incorporate the new proposed Code of Conduct rules.

On the other hand, some have suggested that registries should be obliged to adopt the new Guidebook agreement in full, rather than amend their existing deals, in the interests of equitable treatment.

Registrars still signed up to ICANN’s 2001 Registrar Accreditation Agreement only get the option to upgrade wholesale to the 2009 agreement, it has been noted.

New TLDs timetable tightened

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s effort to squeeze out a process for approving new top-level domains has been about as easy and painless as giving birth, so it perhaps appropriate that it now expects to take at least nine months to gestate the very easiest applications.

The new version of the Applicant Guidebook, published Saturday, makes a number of changes to the expected new TLDs timetable, including the addition of an extra month to the minimum likely processing time for non-controversial strings.

This is not, as you might think, a result of the new objection powers granted to the Governmental Advisory Committee.

(UPDATE: On closer analysis, it appears that the timetable has in fact been rejiggered in order to give more time to the GAC’s Early Warning mechanism. Thanks to Mike, in the comments, for the correction.)

The Administrative Check part – the bit where ICANN goes through the applications to make sure they’ve all been correctly filed – that has been extended, from four weeks to eight.

ICANN has also shortened the first-round application-filing window by a month, to 60 days, off-setting the extended processing time.

New TLDs may start entering the root around the same time they were previously expected.

The timetable for the launch of new TLDs now looks a little like this:

June 20 – Applicant Guidebook approved in Singapore.

July-October 2011 – four-month communication/outreach period.

November-December 2011 – first-round application window

October 2012 – first new TLDs delegated to DNS root.

The new Guidebook advises applicants to avoid waiting to the last minute to file their applications, due to the complexity of the new TLD Application System (TAS) it’s created.

Given the application period is likely to end shortly after the end of year holiday period, I expect applicants will have plenty of impetus to get their applications in early without encouragement.

ICANN brings “loser pays” to domain disputes

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has significantly strengthened brand-owner protections in new top-level domains by proposing, amongst other things, a new “loser pays” model for some cybersquatting disputes.

The Uniform Rapid Suspension process, which is designed to give trademark owners a quick, cheap way to take down obvious examples of cybersquatting, may now occasionally carry a response fee.

According to ICANN’s newly revised Applicant Guidebook, which was published early this morning:

A limited “loser pays” model has been adopted for the URS. Complaints listing twenty-six (26) or more disputed domain names will be subject to an Response Fee which will be refundable to the prevailing party. Under no circumstances shall the Response Fee exceed the fee charged to the Complainant.

In other words, if a somebody registers more than 25 domains that appear to infringe upon the trademarks of a single company, they will have to pay a few hundred dollars, refundable, if they want to defend their case. Judging from UDRP history, this will likely apply to very few people.

The number 25 comes from the May 2009 report of ICANN’s Implementation Recommendation Team, which devised many of the new gTLD program’s rights protection mechanisms.

This change is one of several made in the new Guidebook, addressing concerns raised by the Governmental Advisory Committee, which had consulted closely with the IP lobby.

The GAC didn’t get everything it wanted, however. It had asked for repeat cybersquatters to lose their right to respond under the URS, but ICANN declined, citing the need for due process.

But the Guidebook does now also require new TLD registry operators to offer two types of rights protection mechanism during their launch phase, as the GAC had requested.

Whereas earlier drafts mandated either a Trademark Claims service or a Sunrise period, now registries will have no choice: they have to offer both at a minimum.

The Trademark Claims services notifies registrants if they try to register a domain name that matches a trademark registered in a central Trademark Clearinghouse.

The registrant will have to certify that they’re not infringing any rights before they get the domain. If they do register it, the affected trademark holder will receive a notification that the domain has been registered and can choose to take action such as filing a URS claim.

The idea behind the service is to deter cybersquatters, possibly reducing brand owners’ costs from having to defensively register their names in all new TLDs.

The Sunrise period, which is now also mandatory, is not entirely dissimilar to the sunrise periods we’ve come to expect from new TLD launches over recent years.

The new Guidebook states that the Trademark Claims service must be offered for at least 60 days after a new TLD enters general availability and the Sunrise must be at least 30 days before.

The fact that both services are now mandatory has helped ICANN address the thorny question of what should constitute a valid trademark.

Earlier drafts of the Guidebook required trademarks to have been subject to “substantive review” – a check by a national authority that the trademark is for real and in use.

The worry was that speculators could game the system by picking up large numbers of trademarks in countries that give them away like candy. It’s happened before.

But the review requirement was criticized by the GAC and others as it excluded trademarks in much of the world outside of the US.

In response to these criticisms, ICANN has removed the reference to substantive review. Instead, the yet-to-be-decided manager of the Trademark Clearinghouse will be given the task of validating that each trademark submitted is legit.

Companies need only submit a declaration and a single piece of evidence of use in order to get into the Clearinghouse, thus enabling them to partake of the Sunrise.

No such validation will be required in order to participate in the Trademark Claims service, though brand owners will need to be listed in the Clearinghouse for both mechanisms.

Evidence of use will also be needed to file URS complaints, but that can be done separately at the time of filing, with no need for a Clearinghouse registration.

ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, himself an IP lawyer, once stated, possibly in jest, that no matter what you do, you can be certain that IP lawyers will demand more protections.

Whether the rights protections mechanisms included in the Guidebook are now sufficient to calm trademark interests’ nerves remains to be seen.

ICANN gives governments powers over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, April 16, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has made some significant concessions to government demands in the newly published revision of its new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook.

After lengthy consultations with its Governmental Advisory Committee over the last few months, ICANN has updated the rulebook to address the vast majority of GAC concerns.

We’ve gone from the “proposed final Applicant Guidebook” published in November to the “April 2011 Discussion Draft” that appeared on the ICANN web site in the wee hours of this morning.

On first perusal, it appears that ICANN has walked the fine lines between GAC advice, hard-fought community consensus and common sense more or less successfully.

While the new Guidebook gives plenty of ground to the GAC, making it a more integral part of the new TLDs approval process, it avoids adopting some of its more problematic requests.

In this post, I’ll look at the powers ICANN has given to governments to object to TLDs.

Early Warning System

While ICANN has sensibly not given individual governments the right to veto TLDs they are not happy with, they do get substantially more input into the approval process than in previous drafts.

The major update to the Guidebook is a new Early Warning system that will allow governments to pre-object to TLDs they don’t like.

An Early Warning, which can only be filed by the GAC chair, is “an indication that the application is seen as potentially problematic by one or more governments.”

Applicants in receipt of such a warning will have 21 days to decide whether to drop out of the process, receiving a $148,000 refund, 80% of their $185,000 application fee.

But they won’t have to. The warning is just a heads-up that the GAC or some of its members may formally object at a later stage. A warning does not represent a GAC consensus position.

The Early Warning process will run for 60 days, at the same time as the public comment period that begins the day the applications are published.

Advice of Doom

Any applicants that decide to ignore such a warning face the possibility of receiving a formal GAC objection, which could come at any point in the first seven months after the applications are published.

This is now being called “GAC Advice on New gTLDs”. It could be quite a powerful tool:

GAC Advice on New gTLDs that includes a consensus statement from the GAC that an application should not proceed as submitted, and that includes a thorough explanation of the public policy basis for such advice, will create a strong presumption for the Board that the application should not be approved.

This is pretty close to a GAC veto, but it crucially requires GAC consensus. The Guidebook explains:

GAC Advice on New gTLDs should identify objecting countries, the public policy basis for the objection, and the process by which consensus was reached.

Even if the GAC reaches consensus, the ICANN board will be able to overrule its objections in accordance with its bylaws, in much the same way it just did with .xxx (in practice, I suspect .xxx may ultimately prove a fairly unique exception to the rule).

The Guidebook indicates that any wishy-washy, non-consensus, politician-speak advice given by the GAC will not be considered grounds for rejecting an application. The objection must be specific, grounded, and it must have support.

Importantly, ICANN has not conceded to the GAC’s request to allow applicants to amend their applications to remedy the GAC’s concerns.

As I noted earlier in the week, this could have led to companies gaming the system, and ICANN has ruled out amendments for precisely that reason.

Freebies

Individual governments will of course be allowed to object to any application using any of the other procedures that the Guidebook allows, such as the Community Objection.

ICANN’s problem is that these processes carry third-party fees, and governments don’t think they should have to pay these fees (for some reason that’s never been adequately explained).

Addressing this concern, the new Guidebook says that ICANN will cover each national government to the tune of $50,000 to fund a single objection.

That’s a total of potentially well over $1 million, funded from ICANN’s reserves. ICANN expects that governments will coordinate their objections to limit its costs.

Overall, it appears that ICANN has addressed pretty much everything the GAC wanted in terms of objections procedures. With a couple of reasonable exceptions, the GAC has received what it asked for.

Members may not be completely happy with ICANN’s decrees on what form GAC advice must take in order to have a useful impact, but in general it seems that this could well now be a closed issue.

In my next post, I’ll look at how intellectual property protection changes in the new Guidebook.

Governments dig in over new TLD objections

Kevin Murphy, April 13, 2011, Domain Registries

World governments have offered to compromise with ICANN on several disagreements relating to the new top-level domains program, but have dug their heels in on others.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee has finally published its updated “scorecard”, which states its position on the current state of negotiations, some 18 days after it was expected.

The document (pdf) provides the GAC’s response to the ICANN board of directors’ response to the GAC’s original list of objections to the program’s Applicant Guidebook.

Yeah, it’s getting a bit complex.

In the interests of wordcount, I’m going to focus here mainly on the issues where there still appears to be notable conflict.

This is a preliminary analysis.

Controversial TLDs

The GAC doesn’t want any “controversial” strings to be approved as new TLDs. As such, it wants governments to be able to object to any TLD application, for any reason, and without paying to have their objections evaluated by third parties.

ICANN attempted to compromise by saying that it would enable the GAC to provide advice to the board about specific applications within the 45-day comment window after the applications are published.

The GAC doesn’t appear to be satisfied by this, however. While it said it will try to provide advice during that window, it points out that the ICANN bylaws do not put any time limits on GAC advice.

The GAC also wants a separate “early warning system”, whereby the GAC would get at least 60 days, “finishing prior to the Initial Evaluation period”, to submit objections.

The idea is that applicants could withdraw from the process with a substantial refund if they received notice that governments were likely to object to their choice of TLD.

Assuming the GAC expects the warning system to finish before Initial Evaluation begins (rather than ends), this could add two months to the time needed to process applications, currently estimated at eight months for the simplest applications.

Under the current plan in the Applicant Guidebook, after the application window closes, ICANN spends a month privately checking the submissions for completeness. The five-month Initial Evaluation, which encompasses the 45-day open public comment period, immediately follows.

Perhaps aware of the delays its idea could cause, the GAC suggests that “ICANN should pass details of applications to the GAC as soon as they are lodged.”

This seems unworkable.

Most potential applicants have been playing their cards very close to their chests when it comes to the strings they plan to apply for.

The application window is expected to run for 60 to 90 days. If a company’s application were revealed to the GAC towards the beginning of that period, there would be a real risk of that information being leaked to potential competitors in other countries.

If you’re applying for “.baseball” in a selection of foreign languages, do you want competitors in those countries potentially being tipped off about your application while they still have time to prepare a rival bid?

If applicants knew the GAC was to be told about applications and applicants before the window closed, the vast majority of applications would very likely be filed on the very last possible day, defeating the object of early GAC notice.

Another probably unworkable GAC proposition it continues to stand by is the idea that applicants should be allowed to amend their application if they receive notice of a government objection.

This obviously creates a big loophole for gaming, allowing crafty applicants to scope out the competitive landscape before committing to a TLD – you could get dozens of placeholder applications for .porn, to be amended to .puppies or whatever when the inevitable GAC objection arrived.

Trademark Protection

Surprisingly, there’s nothing in the new GAC scorecard that addresses trademark protection concerns. Zip.

Does this mean the GAC and board have settled their differences and reached a consensus? Or does it mean that the most recent discussions have been so lacking in substance that the GAC has nothing to add beyond what it said before San Francisco?

From the new GAC paper, it’s impossible to tell for sure either way, but I will note that it’s refrerred to as a “draft” account of “proposed” responses, which suggests it’s not yet complete.

Registrar-Registry Cross Ownership

ICANN wants to start allowing registries and registrars to “vertically integrate” by executing both functions under the same corporate umbrella.

Concerns about market power and possible anti-competitive behavior would be referred to national competition regulators under some circumstances.

But some GAC members have heard back from their competition ministries, and they’re not buying it:

The Board response is considered insufficient by the colleagues of some GAC members who are responsible for Competition and anti-Trust issues. They have requested that ICANN provide a more reasoned argument as to why they have rejected the GAC’s proposal and why the Board feels that ex-ante measures are less preferable to ex-post measures for minimising problems associated with anti-competitive behavior.

Community TLDs

Currently, the Guidebook allows applicants to voluntarily self-designate as a “community” TLD, which requires community support to be documented.

But it would currently still be possible for a company to, for example, apply for a “.bank” as a regular TLD, showing no support from banks. The onus would be then on banks to object.

The GAC wants to change this, and continues to request that any string purporting to represent a certain set of users should be required to show support for that community:

The GAC’s domestic constituents have a reasonable expectation that applicants for new gTLD strings that clearly suggest they represent specific communities should be required to so indicate in their application and should demonstrate that they have the support of that community or the relevant authorities/entities responsible for that community.

In the absence of such changes, the GAC wants governments to be able to object on behalf of those communities without having to pay for a third-party panel to handle the objection.

The GAC does appear to have given some ground here, responding to ICANN’s concern that introducing a subjective categorization process for TLDs is “inherently problematic”.

The GAC now says that in the absence of special treatment for regulated industries, there should be more stringent vetting for applicants across the board, to prevent crooks getting their hands on a TLD.

Law Enforcement

The GAC wants new TLD registries to be obligated to cooperate with law enforcement agencies, criminal and civil, no matter what the jurisdiction. It wants this text inserted into the Guidebook:

A registry operator must respond in a timely manner to a request concerning any name registered in the TLD from any government agency that is conducting a lawful investigation or official proceeding inquiring into a violation of or failure to comply with any criminal or civil statute or any regulation, rule, or order legally issued pursuant thereto.

The proposal would only require the operator to “respond” to the law enforcement inquiry.

This could imply that, a registry based in the US would have to cooperate with, for example, a German investigation into a domain hosting Nazi memorabilia or a Saudi probe into pornography, and that a Canadian registry would have to cooperate with US authorities investigating sites selling prescription medicine across their mutual border.

Geographic Names

If you’re applying for a TLD representing a geographic region, the GAC would like you to be beholden forever to the governmental entity which backed your bid.

The GAC “insists” that this text be included in new TLD registry contracts:

In the event that the TLD was delegated to Registry Operator pursuant to the consent of a governmental entity to use a geographic name related to the jurisdiction of such governmental entity, the parties agree that, notwithstanding any provision contained in this Agreement, in the event of a dispute between such governmental entity and Registry Operator, ICANN will comply with a legally binding decision in such jurisdiction in favor of such governmental entity related to the TLD.

So if you successfully apply for .alabama, having obtained the support of the Alabama governor, but a subsequent administration wants to hand the TLD to another company for whatever reason, ICANN would have to comply.

If ICANN does not make this a condition of the Guidebook, the GAC expects many governments will not give their consent to any geo-TLD applications under their jurisdiction.

More Delays?

The new GAC advice carries the dateline April 12, which is 18 days later than the ICANN board was expecting it, according to the resolution it passed in San Francisco last month.

If ICANN wishes to strictly stick to the timetable it approved in SF, its staff now have just three days to incorporate the latest advice into the next Guidebook, which is scheduled to be published this Friday.

It’s also pretty clear that the GAC still requires clarification from ICANN on some of the outstanding issues. As well as some areas of agreement, there are several other points of conflict I’ve not explored in this piece.

But this all may not spell doom for the timeline just yet, however. By my reckoning, there’s at least a couple of weeks’ worth of flexibility baked into the schedule.

The Guidebook could, feasibly, still be approved June 20 in Singapore, as ICANN’s leadership hopes.

ICANN takes firm stance on new TLD delays

ICANN wants to draw a line under its talks with its Governmental Advisory Committee on new top-level domains at the San Francisco meeting next week.

In a letter to his GAC counterpart (pdf), ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush said that he thinks the San Francisco talks should be “final”.

He said that ICANN has agreed to compromise with the GAC wholly or partially on all but 23 of its 80 recommendations for the program.

He also said that these remaining issues should be the focus of the two days the board has set aside to consult with the GAC in San Francisco.

a narrowed focus in San Francisco on the issues that are still in contention would be a best use of the Board and GAC’s time during the two days of consultations, and should represent the final stages in our required consultation.

That appears to contrast with the GAC’s position, expressed in Brussels last week, that the SF talks should not be given the final “bylaws consultation” designation.

Nobody, possibly not even ICANN and the GAC, knows what a “bylaws consultation” consists of, but everybody knows that it is the last thing that needs to happen before the ICANN board can adopt a policy that overrules the formal advice of governments.

ICANN has already officially resolved that the consultation should happen March 17, but GAC chair Heather Dryden objected to that date in an email sent during Brussels.

According to Kieren McCarthy, who has apparently seen the email or parts of it, Dryden wrote:

We believe there is now insufficient time to receive a final written response to our advice from the Board – as well as then analyse and prepare an adequate consensus response from GAC members – to reach resolution of enough outstanding issues such that we could reasonably enter any meaningful bylaws consultation on 17 March in San Francisco.

To delay the consultation would very likely delay the next draft of the Applicant Guidebook, currently set for April 14, and thus the launch of the program itself.

It was not clear from Brussels, but ICANN’s position that March 17 is the date now appears to be firm. The just-published agenda for the March 18 board meeting carries this line item:

Outcome of Bylaw Consultation with the GAC on the new gTLD Program

Things that have not happened generally do not have an “outcome”.

Cybersquatting is the major issue still unresolved. Fifteen of the the 23 areas where the board still disagrees with the GAC deal with trademark protection in new TLDs.

ICANN has agreed to balance the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy – which comes into play following clear-cut cases of cybersquatting – somewhat more in favor of trademark holders.

The amount of money, time and effort required to make a URS case will be reduced, and it’s likely that registrants will have their domains locked by default if they do not respond to the complaint.

Complainants will also get first right of refusal to take over a domain whose registration has been suspended due to a URS proceeding.

But ICANN plans to deny the GAC’s requests for a “loser pays” model and a number of other URS-related tweaks.

The GAC had also advised that the Trademark Clearinghouse database should be expanded to include trademark+keyword registrations. This would allow Kodak, to use the GAC’s example, to prevent cybersquatters from registering not only kodak.tld but also kodakcameras.tld.

Dengate Thrush’s letter says that this “remains an area for discussion”, but ICANN still currently plans to diverge from GAC advice.