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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.

Governments still want new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee still wants to block “controversial” new top-level domains on morality grounds.

In a letter to ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, a copy of which I have obtained, the GAC makes it clearer than ever that it wants national laws to play a part in approving new TLDs.

It also suggests that national governments should be able to pre-screen strings before applications are filed, to give applicants “early warning” that they are stepping into controversial waters.

The letter draws the battle lines for what could be some heated debate at ICANN’s meeting in Cartagena next month.

Given that the letter does not appear to have been published by ICANN yet, I will quote liberally.

Under the heading “Universal Resolvability of the DNS”, GAC interim chair Heather Dryden, the Canadian representative on the committee, wrote:

Due to uncertainties regarding the effectiveness of ICANN’s review and objections procedures, a country may feel compelled to block a new gTLD at the national level that it considers either objectionable or that raises national sensitivities.

To date, there do not appear to be controversial top level domains that have resulted in significant or sustained blocking by countries.

The GAC believes it is imperative that the impact on the continued security, stability and universal resolvability of the domain name systems of the potential blocking at the national level of the new gTLD strings that are considered to be objectionable or that raise national sensitivities be assessed prior to introducing new gTLDs.

The letter carries on to say that the GAC will “seek advice from the technical community” on the issue.

Dryden wrote that there should be a “prior review” process that would be able to identify strings that are “contrary to national law, policy or regulation” or “refer to religions, ethnicity, languages or other cultural identifiers that might raise national sensitivities”.

It sounds like the GAC envisions a pre-screening process, before new TLD applications are officially filed, similar to the “expressions of interest” concept that ICANN abandoned in March.

What TLDs this process would capture is unclear. The GAC letter notes by way of example that “several governments restrict the registration of certain terms in their ccTLDs”.

In practical terms, this would raise question marks over TLDs such as “.gay”, which would quite clearly run contrary to the policies of many national governments.

(As I reported earlier this month, the recently relaunched .so registry currently bans “gay”, “lesbian” and related terms at the second level.)

There’s more to be reported on the the implications of this letter, particularly with regards the work of ICANN’s “morality and public order” policy working group and the GAC’s relationship with ICANN in general.

Watch this space.

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?

Could vertical integration kill registrar parking?

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registries

Will ICANN’s decision to allow registrars and registries to own each other help reduce the practice of registrars parking unused or expiring domain names?

A reading of the new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook in light of the recent “vertical integration” ruling it incorporates certainly raises this kind of question.

The AGB includes a policy called the Trademark Post-Delegation Dispute Resolution Procedure, or PDDRP, which allows trademark owners to seek remedies against cybersquatting registries.

The policy is quite clear that registries cannot be held accountable for cybersquatting by third parties in their TLD, unless they have, for example, actively encouraged the squatters.

But another example of infringement is given thus:

where a registry operator has a pattern or practice of acting as the registrant or beneficial user of infringing registrations, to monetize and profit in bad faith.

Now, this wouldn’t be a cause for concern in the current vertically separated market.

Most registries are only generally able to register domain names in their own TLD by going through an accredited registrar. Proving bad faith intent in that situation would be trivial.

But what of an integrated registry/registrar that also automatically parks recently registered or expiring domains in order to profit from pay-per-click advertising?

This is common practice nowadays. It’s been used to prove a registrant’s bad faith during many recent UDRP proceedings and one registrar is even being sued by Verizon for doing it.

Would a registrar parking an expired, trademark-infringing domain constitute it acting as a “beneficial user” of the domain “to monetize and profit in bad faith”?

Text added to the PDDRP section of the AGB in its most recent revision strongly suggests that “the registrar did it” would not be a defence for a vertically integrated company:

For purposes of these standards, “registry operator” shall include entities directly or indirectly controlling, controlled by or under common control with a registry operator

The PDDRP allows complainants to seek remedies such as injunctions, as well as the suspension of new registrations in a TLD and, exceptionally, the full revocation of their registry contract.

With that in mind, would an integrated registry/registrar want to risk any practice that puts their TLD at risk?

What does ICANN say about terrorism?

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2010, Domain Registries

While it’s true that ICANN has excised specific references to terrorism from its new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook, don’t expect any such groups to be awarded TLDs.

As I reported in September, the AGB no longer contains the explicit mention of “terrorism”, which had caused complaints to be filed by a few members of the community.

But it does contain text that makes it abundantly clear that any group or nation the US considers a supporter of terrorism will have an extremely hard time finding approval.

Under a new section entitled “Legal Compliance”, ICANN notes that it “must comply with all U.S. Laws, rules, and regulations” including the sanctions program overseen by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control.

OFAC administers a List of Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons. If you’re on the SDN list, American companies cannot do business with you without a license.

While ICANN has applied for exemption licenses in the past, in order to be able to deal with organizations in US-unfriendly nations (on ccTLD matters, presumably), the AGB now states:

ICANN generally will not seek a license to provide goods or services to an individual or entity on the SDN List. In the past, when ICANN has been requested to provide services to individuals or entities that are not SDNs, but are residents of sanctioned countries, ICANN has sought and been granted licenses as required. In any given case, however, OFAC could decide not to issue a requested license.

If you’ve never seen this list before, it can be downloaded here. It’s currently 475 pages long, and while it’s certainly a globally inclusive document, parts of it do read like the Baghdad phone book.

(Interestingly, many of the listed a.k.a’s are actually domain names)

Anybody who wanted ICANN to replace the amorphous term “terrorism” with something a little more specific have had their wishes granted.

No more hypothetical debate is required about whether Hamas, for example, is a terrorist group or a movement of freedom fighters. It’s in the book, so it’s probably not getting a TLD.

ICANN’s new TLD rulebook is out

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN posted its proposed final Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains a couple hours ago.

The document is now subject to public comment until noon UTC, December 10, just before the ICANN board convenes in Cartagena.

As I speculated earlier in the week, ICANN has reduced the length of the feedback window from 30 days in order to hit its launch deadlines.

Here’s a review of some changes, based on a quick scan of the 360-page redlined document (pdf).

One change that will certainly be of interest of applicants:

If the volume of applications received significantly exceeds 500, applications will be processed in batches and the 5-month timeline will not be met. The first batch will be limited to 500 applications and subsequent batches will be limited to 400 to account for capacity limitations due to managing extended evaluation, string contention, and other processes associated with each previous batch.

A process external to the application submission process will be employed to establish evaluation priority. This process will be based on an online ticketing system or other objective criteria.

Does this mean “get your applications in early” is a winning strategy? I’ll try to find out.

One of the most sensitive outstanding issues, the right of governments to object to TLDs on “morality and public order” grounds, is now called a “Limited Public Interest Objection”:

Governments may provide a notification using the public comment forum to communicate concerns relating to national laws. However, a government’s notification of concern will not in itself be deemed to be a formal objection. A notification by a government does not constitute grounds for rejection of a gTLD application.

The AGB now specifies that such objections must be based on principles of international law, as codified in various international agreements. The string, and the proposed usage, will be subject to these objections.

The section on applicant background checks has also been overhauled. It now makes reference to child sex offenses, and focuses more on intellectual property infringements, but eschews references to terrorism.

However, if any group considered Evil by the United States applies for a TLD, they may be out of luck. The new AGB points out that ICANN has to abide by sanctions imposed by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control.

There are a couple of little oddities in the AGB too. For example, strings relating to the contested geographic term “Macedonia” are singled out as verboten.

Intergovernmental organizations that meet the criteria to register a .int are now also granted special objection privileges.

Contested geographical terms will no longer be subject to the auction process — applicants will have to fight it out between themselves.

The vertical integration issue, resolved by the ICANN board last week, also makes an appearance. Registrars are now able to apply for new TLDs, but ICANN reserves the right to refer such applications to governmental competition authorities.

More later.

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.

New TLD applications to open May 2011

Kevin Murphy, October 30, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN has named the date for its planned launch of the new top-level domain application process.

According to a resolution passed at its board of directors meeting Thursday, ICANN is targeting May 30, 2011 for the opening of applications.

The proposed final version of the Applicant Guidebook is set to be published November 9, and is expected to be approved by the board at its meeting in Cartagena, December 10.

A four-month marketing and outreach period is expected to kick off January 10.

If you’re looking for the specifics of what the Applicant Guidebook will contain, you’re out of luck.

# Vertical Integration – No resolution

# GNSO New gTLD Recommendation 6 Objection Process – No resolution

# GAC Issues Letter including Geographic Names – No resolution

# Affirmation of Commitment Considerations – No resolution

Looks like we’ll have to wait until November 9 to find out what has been agreed on each of these issues.

ICANN could fast-track final new TLD guidebook

Kevin Murphy, October 29, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN is considering a fast-track process for the final version of its new top-level domain Applicant Guidebook that could see it approved this December, documents have revealed.

Minutes and board briefing materials from ICANN’s August 5 board meeting, published yesterday, seem to demonstrate an eagerness to get the policy finalized by its Cartagena meeting.

Staff and board members favor a limited public comment period prior to the guidebook’s finalization, which could see it approved sooner rather than later.

Briefing documents (pdf, page 111 and on) say:

It is recommended that the Board consider the Final version of the Guidebook for approval at the Cartagena meeting. The final version will be posted for limited comment prior to the meeting.

The minutes of the meeting reveal a preference among staff and some directors, including chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, for this limited comment window.

The comments would be “limited” to new issues, for various reasons, including this:

A full process will bring forth every last attempt for parties to repeat positions to modify the process to be in line with their pecuniary or other interest. The optics might falsely indicate that there is no consensus around the model

ICANN’s obligation to consult its Governmental Advisory Committee would be carried out face-to-face at the Cartagena meeting, further speeding this up.

Tantalizingly, a flow-chart setting out the board’s options contains the possible launch dates for the first-round application window, but they’ve been redacted.

These documents date from August and the ICANN board has met twice since then, so things may have changed.

We’re likely to find out more about the timeline when the board resolutions from its meeting yesterday are published. I’m expecting this later today, so stay tuned.