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OpenRegistry latest player in new TLD market

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2010, Domain Registries

OpenRegistry has become the domain name industry’s newest top-level domain registry operator.

The new company, which went by the name Sensirius while in stealth mode, announced itself officially at the ICANN meeting in Cartagena two weeks ago.

Jean-Christophe Vignes is giving up his operational role at EuroDNS to be CEO of the new company, which hopes to bring more modular, custom-tailored options to organizations that want to launch new TLDs.

For “open”, read “flexible” – OpenRegistry plans to differentiate itself by offering clients “a la carte” options, rather than the one-size-fits-all services it believes some competitors offer.

“We’ve noticed that no two clients are the same,” Vignes said. “Some of them are already pretty well taken care of when it comes to drafting applications and so on, and just need the registry solution, but others are happy to have the full suite of our services.”

The idea is that a city TLD or niche community TLD will not necessarily have the same needs as a full-blown mass-market gTLD, Vignes said.

OpenRegistry plans to make three packages available at first, according to its web site – all-inclusive, managed registry, and software-only. Prices appear to start at around 100,000 euros.

The software itself is based on the registry expertise used in the design of Belgium’s .be and EurID’s .eu, although it appears to be a fresh creation.

Vignes said that it will be able to natively handle start-up functions such as premium domain auctions and interfacing with the IP Clearinghouse.

The company does not intend to apply for its own TLDs, Vignes said, allowing it to focus on its clients.

But it does plan on being somewhat selective on which TLDs with which it works, with “feasibility studies” one of the services on offer.

Like the incumbent registry triumvirate of VeriSign, Afilias and Neustar, OpenRegistry hopes that the ICANN-accredited registrar community will be a good source of clients.

ICANN recently said it plans to lift restrictions on registrars applying for and running registries.

Possible new TLDs timeline revealed

Kevin Murphy, December 16, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s decision to delay the approval of its new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook last week in Cartagena left one big question hanging:

When will the program open for applications?

ICANN had pencilled in May 30 for the launch, but the new delay appeared to make that impossible. In the absence of an announcement from ICANN, nobody really knows what the current timetable is.

A few possible answers have now emerged with the publication this week of ICANN staff briefing documents (pdf) used by the board to make their original decision to target May 2011.

An October 28 document entitled “New gTLD Launch Scenarios”, penned by ICANN’s Kurt Pritz and Carole Cornell, explores the board’s options for approving a launch timeline.

It notes that applications cannot be solicited until ICANN has finished its mandatory four-month outreach/marketing campaign, which in turn can’t kick off until the AGB has been approved.

I’ll let the rest speak for itself:

If the Board were to approve the Guidebook after the January/February meeting, the announcement and communications campaign launch would be made shortly thereafter. The first applications could be received as early as (but not earlier than) 1 July 2011.

If the Board elects that a full comment analysis and sixth version of the Guidebook be written, with approval at the Silicon Valley meeting, the approval would be followed by an April announcement and communications campaign launch. First applications could be received as early as (but no earlier than) August 2011.

And here’s a lovely graphic illustrating the options (click to enlarge):

New gTLD Launch Scenarios

Given that we now know that the ICANN board intends to meet with the Governmental Advisory Committee to address its outstanding issues in February, the final scenario – with a San Francisco approval and August launch – now seems more likely.

Most of the rest of the briefing document is heavily redacted.

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.

ICANN chief gets bonus

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN chief executive Rod Beckstrom is to be paid a bonus potentially as high as $195,000 this year.

Did you know that there were two ICANN board meetings held in Cartagena last week?

I didn’t, but I just spotted that resolutions from a December 8 meeting have been posted on the ICANN web site.

There are only two resolutions. They grant bonuses to Beckstrom and to outgoing ombudsman Frank Fowlie.

The board approved “a proportion” of both men’s “at-risk component”, which basically means their performance-related bonuses.

The resolutions do not specify how big a proportion was approved for either, but it is known that the maximum Beckstrom could have been awarded is $195,000.

His base salary is $750,000.

Drunk domain blogger gets mugged in Cartagena

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2010, It's Friday

ICANN people love defining things, and a few people at the meeting here in Cartagena have disputed whether this anecdote meets the strict definition of “mugging”.

Okay, I didn’t wind up with a knife in my ribs, they weren’t carrying firearms, and they didn’t get my wallet.

But they were going to beat me up (at the very least) if I didn’t give them what they wanted and it’s really just blind luck that I managed to blag my way out of it.

I often find that these kinds of stories are better related in first-person present tense.

So it’s 4am, and I’m blatantly flouting ICANN’s security advice by walking, rather than getting a taxi, back from .CO Internet’s rather nice afterparty to my considerably less-nice hotel.

But it’s only two or three short blocks, and I’m inside the walled city, so I reckon I’m safe.

Wrong.

Two thuggish-looking blokes quickly appear beside me and one of them starts mouthing off in unusually good English about how I owe him money for a coke deal I’m apparently somehow implicated in.

I’m not kidding.

I forget the details, but the gist of it is that I need to give them both an unspecified large amount of money for some drugs that I stole or something and that Bad Things will happen to my face if I refuse.

Unfortunately for the Escobar brothers, it turns out that at 4am, with half a bottle of Colombian fire-water in my belly, I’m invincible.

Or believe myself to be, anyway.

So I decide to play dumb, and just carry on walking. I figure I’ll pretend for as long as possible that I’m simple, or don’t speak English. My hotel is in sight by this point.

“Okay,” I say, confused look on my face, after he finishes his story.

“So you give us money?” he says.

“Okay,” I say, not giving him money.

“You give us money now.” he’s not asking this time.

“Okay,” I say. Walking a bit faster.

This goes on for two blocks. As dumb luck would have it, by the time he starts to loses his patience we’ve already reached my hotel.

Of course, at 4am, my two-star dive has its doors locked, and I have to ring the buzzer to get in.

Normally, the young girl on the desk buzzes me through two seconds later. Of course, normally I don’t show up in the dead of night accompanied by two burly Colombian guys yelling about drug money.

So she understandably doesn’t want to let me in.

Trying to buy time, and unsure whether this is a violent scam or a genuine case of mistaken identity, I tell the guy he can have his money in the morning. Just drop by, pick it up, no worries.

I buzz again, but she still doesn’t want to let me in.

“You give me money now.”

I usually carry a bunch of small-denomination bills in my pocket when I’m on unfamiliar turf, for precisely this kind of scenario, so I grab a wad of notes and stuff them into his hand.

“Okay, here’s your money.”

Buzz again. Still no response.

I’m trying not to notice that the money I’ve just given him amounts to about two US dollars, but he clearly has noticed and is quite angry.

I’m told I now owe him 57,000 pesos, which strikes me as unusually specific.

Fortunately, I never get to find out why he settled on that amount. The girl buzzes me through and, after a brief struggle, Scarface eats door.

End of anecdote.

To me, it sounds like a mugging. Drug guys threatened to beat me up and I gave them $2 – that fits the definition, right? It may be the lamest mugging in Colombian history, but it’s still a mugging.

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Next time, I’ll try to get stabbed or something.

ICANN new TLD launch delayed (again)

Kevin Murphy, December 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s new top-level domains program has been delayed, likely for a few months at least, after governments submitted a laundry list of issues they believe are still unresolved.

The Governmental Advisory Committee is mainly bothered that the Applicant Guidebook fails to adequately protect trademark rights and that the cost of the program could outweigh the benefits.

The ICANN board resolved at its meeting here in Cartagena earlier today to meet with the GAC for an unprecedented consultation next February.

(The meeting will also discuss the .xxx application, which I’ve reported on for The Register).

The actual board resolution is hopelessly lengthy and confusing at first reading. Take this doublethink:

ICANN considers that the solutions developed to address the overarching issues of trademark protection, mitigating malicious conduct, and root-zone scaling substantially reflect the negotiated position of the ICANN community, but ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC.

Some delegates here tell me they think this means the book has been closed on the portions of the guidebook dealing with IP protection mechanisms, for example.

(J Scott Evans, head of the IP constituency, stormed out of the room in a huff when this part of the resolution was read aloud.)

But the text of the resolution pretty clearly states that IP protections and the other overarching issues are still open for negotiation with the GAC and could be amended based on comments filed this week.

The resolution is open to interpretation with regards these three “overarching issues”.

It does, however, refer to other issues that are explicitly unresolved in ICANN’s view, namely the treatment of geographic names and the handling of “morality and public order” objections.

Both are singled out as needing more work before they can be finalized.

What does all this mean for the launch timetable? I think it means there isn’t one. Again.

[The ICANN board] Directs staff to synthesize the results of these consultations and comments, and to prepare revisions to the guidebook to enable the Board to make a decision on the launch of the new gTLD program as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” is either meaningless or, taken literally, means the board’s next meeting. That’s likely to be late January, if previous years are any guide.

Calls for “fast-track” for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

Some would-be top-level domain registries have started to call for ICANN to gradually phase in the launch of its new TLD program, so they can get their feet in the door early.

ECLID, a group of six “cultural and linguistic” TLD applicants, is among a number of organizations saying that ICANN could introduce a small number of non-controversial TLDs before opening the floodgates to hundreds of new extensions.

Judging that IP concerns may continue to hold up the first round of applications and that cybersquatting risks may not be as significant in domains such as .scot or .eus, ECLID’s Davie Hutchison wrote:

We ask that ICANN move forward at speed and with determination and prevent further delay causing damage to the clTLDs and other community TLDs that will enhance the richness and diversity of the Internet. Failing the courage or resolve to do that, we ask ICANN to create a fast-track process for the “safe” community TLDs which would be an excellent testing ground for the process before opening it up to the non-community based TLDs.

Calls for a “fast track” for non-controversial TLDs have also been made by members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee this week.

It’s been the GAC’s position for a few months now that “uncontroversial” community TLDs, including those with cultural and linguistic ties, should be dealt with first.

The idea doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense to me. A phased launch would require the development of a new objective process to categorize applicants into “controversial” and “non-controversial” buckets.

For the amount of time and effort that would take, ICANN may as well just sort out the problems with the Applicant Guidebook as a whole.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s veep in charge of the new TLD program, addressed the feasibility of a phased launch during a press conference here in Cartagena today, noting that “it’s very difficult to have a round in which just a certain type of TLD allowed to apply”.

ICANN tried to restrict TLDs to limited communities with the 2003 round of “sponsored” TLDs, causing problems and controversies that continue to be felt seven years on.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that any rulebook that limited what TLDs could be applied for or who could apply for them would be soundly gamed by the domain name industry (cf .jobs, .xxx, .travel, etc).

ICANN sees “crescendo” of new TLD comment

Kevin Murphy, December 9, 2010, Domain Registries

With less than 24 hours to go before ICANN’s board of directors decides the fate of the new top-level domains program, the comments and criticisms are rapidly accumulating, split along predictable lines.

In short: pretty much everybody in the domain name industry wants the TLD process to kick off ASAP, and pretty much everybody else who has an interest thinks it should not.

Kurt Pritz, ICANN’s senior vice president of stakeholder relations, said at a press conference this morning that “rather than comment diminishing towards the end to a whimper and the Guidebook being launched, we’re seeing it raising to a crescendo”.

Publicly filed comments can be found here.

“Crescendo” may be an over-statement, but verbal comments here at the ICANN meeting have been flying thick and fast and the rhetoric dial will certainly get turned up to 11 during the public forum this afternoon.

Many opponents of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook are objecting to the fact that the deadline for filing comments is tomorrow, just a couple of hours before the board convenes.

Microsoft associate general counsel Russell Pangborn, for instance, wrote:

Approval of the PAG on December 10 conveys the message that the Board deems public comment irrelevant. The possibility that ICANN staff will have read all public comment and provided a public comment summary to the Board with sufficient time for full consideration and discussion by the Board is slim at best.

Microsoft is one of many companies worried that new TLD registries’ business models will essentially be subsidized by defensive registrations paid for by big trademark holders.

The US Chamber of Commerce put it fairly succinctly:

the current plan still requires businesses to pay for defensive registrations in hundreds of new gTLDs, at prices that are unconstrained by ICANN or other bodies… Moreover, the legal expenses and domain acquisition costs of defensive registrations will not be offset by potential economic or informational value to either registrants or Internet users.

But the most comprehensively detailed objection filed by IP stakeholders over the last day or so seems to have come from INTA, the International Trademark Association.

Weighing in at 15 pages, the INTA filing says the AGB “raises significant new issues”, such as the lifting of the vertical integration ban and the new registry code of conduct.

One of its biggest issues, which I’ve heard from several other people here in Cartagena this week, is that the AGB’s rights protection mechanisms, such as Uniform Rapid Suspension and the Trademark Clearinghouse, seem to specifically exclude non-US trademarks.

That’s a pretty big issue for Europeans – the German representative on the Governmental Advisory Committee indicated on Tuesday that he thinks it’s a deal-breaker.

As I blogged yesterday, the GAC has aligned itself with the trademark lobby in its objections to ICANN, which may well delay the launch of the new TLD program somewhat.

The key issue for the GAC is the balance between cost (to trademark owners) and benefit (to everyone else).

Elliot Noss of Tucows expressed in his comment how difficult it is to predict what economic value could be created by new TLDs.

When the new round proceeds we will see a marked change in the way people will use domain names. The ability to find resources of all kinds more easily on the Internet will provide a small, but clear incremental benefit to users. But that benefit will be felt trillions of times! Every time someone finds something on the Internet more easily there will be a benefit.

There has been a lot of discussion of competition for .com. What we need to think about is NOT will any single domain become a competitor for .com, but instead will a large number of domains in aggregate provide competition for .com. This issue cannot possibly be understood by studying the extremely limited TLD introductions of the past.

Some other likely TLD applicants kept their statements short and sweet, perhaps for fear of inadvertently causing delay through verbosity.

Statton Hammock of Network Solutions wrote:

A document of this complexity and importance can never be “perfect,” or “complete” in the eyes of everyone. Though further refinements to the language could be made, we believe that the DAG, in its current form, is robust enough to support the launch of the new gTLD application process.

Pritz said that the ICANN board is “actively monitoring” the comments and will continue to do so up until its meeting tomorrow.

New TLDs “not at risk”, but delay not ruled out

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s program to introduce new top-level domains has not been put at risk by the US government’s recent request for delay, according to both its chairman and chief executive.

Chairman Peter Dengate Thrush and CEO Rod Beckstrom sought to play down the significance of the Department of Commerce letter during a press conference here in Cartagena this afternoon.

Dengate Thrush said the sudden involvement of the US in the new TLD policy was not a surprise, but was “one more factor to take into account” that did not put the program as a whole at risk.

Beckstrom noted that the Commerce letter was submitted to the ongoing public comment period, and would be treated as such, saying “obviously along with other inputs received we will duly consider it”.

Dengate Thrush elaborated, saying ICANN was still considering how to formally respond to the letter.

Because it deals with both Affirmation of Commitments and AGB concerns, it appears that the two threads may be unpicked and dealt with separately.

Both men were obviously more coy about whether the US intervention could delay final approval of the Applicant Guidebook, which the ICANN board will vote on this Friday.

Currently, the plan is to open the first round of applications May 30. But it seems that’s a target, not a promise.

Observing that the AGB continues to stir up passions on both sides of the debate, Dengate Thrush said that it is unlikely that the board will be swayed either way by passion alone.

But if “getting it right” means adding a month or two of delay to the launch date of the program, then that’s what the board will have to do, he said.

A similar sentiment on the constructiveness of comments was put forward by outgoing director Harald Alvestrand during a session yesterday.

He indicated that comments that merely reiterate long-held and previously considered disagreements are unlikely to cause delays, but changed minds based on new information could carry weight.

With the comments of all three directors in mind, it’s probably a bit early to second-guess the board’s Friday decision.

Apparently they are being fed updates on new AGB comments as they are received, so they can be as informed as possible before convening.

My feeling is that a full picture of the decision the board faces is unlikely to emerge for a few days.

Beckstrom: ICANN accountable to world, not just US

Kevin Murphy, December 6, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN chief Rod Beckstrom opened the organization’s 39th public meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, with a speech that touched on many of the organization’s recent controversies and appeared to take a strong stance against US government interference.

Everything from its political tangles with the International Telecommunications Union, to the recent calls for high-security top-level domains for financial services, to Beckstrom’s own controversial pet project, the proposed DNS-CERT, got a mention.

But probably Beckstrom’s strongest statement was the one which indirectly addressed recent moves by the US government to slam the brakes on ICANN’s new top-level domains program:

We are accountable to the world, not to any one country, and everything we do must reflect that.

Beckstrom acknowledged the controversies in the new TLDs policy, given last week’s strongly worded letter from the US Department of Commerce, which was highly critical of the program.

Commerce assistant secretary Lawrence Strickling has called on ICANN to delay the program until it has justified its decision under the Affirmation of Commitments.

But this morning, Beckstrom echoed sentiments expressed on the ICANN blog last week (my emphasis):

As is often the case with policy decisions in that multi-stakeholder model, not everyone is pleased, and this diversity of opinion contributes to the policy process. For example, last week we received a critical letter from the US Department of Commerce. As with all contributions, ICANN will give these comments careful consideration as part of the implementation of the GNSO policy. We welcome the transparent way that Commerce provided their comments through the public comment process.

How ICANN chooses to deal with the demands of its former master, the US government, is one of the Cartagena meeting’s Big Questions.

Another such question is how ICANN plans to deal with ongoing threats to its legitimacy from international bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union.

Addressing ITU secretary general Hamadoun Toure directly, Beckstrom said:

We have always sought to build our relationships based on mutual respect and integrity, taking into account the unique and distinct mandates entrusted to our organizations. The strengthening of communication between us is a personal priority for me.

Security

Security is one of ICANN’s watchwords, and Beckstrom is a security guy by trade. His speeches typically address the topic to a greater or lesser extent and Cartagena was no exception.

Security policies inherently create tensions. Take, for example, controversies about the strength and enforceability of of Whois policies, or Beckstrom’s own call for a DNS-CERT to oversee DNS risk.

This morning, he said:

The staff under my leadership is willing to go as far on security as the community is willing. And whatever security effort this community decides, we will do our utmost to implement and support, given sufficient resources. Because when it comes to security, how can we ever say we’ve done enough?

And now you need to tell us: where do you want us to go?

Of course, I am sure we can agree that when it comes to security, the question is not what do we want to do? Or what is popular or easy? It’s what do we owe the world? Because all of us care about the global public interest.

He took, in my view, a subtle swing at the Governmental Advisory Committee for putting security at the heart of its ongoing policy demands, while largely failing to cooperate with ICANN’s requests for information on security issues in their own jurisdictions. Beckstrom said:

We have asked GAC members to provide information about security activities in their countries. We appreciate the information some have shared but there have been few responses. As governments urge us to remain committed to security efforts, we in turn request that they help us by responding and working with the ICANN community on this vital mission.

I know there are some European ccTLD registries a bit miffed that ICANN has in recent months gone over their heads, direct to their governments, for this information, highlighting what a tricky political situation it is.

The speech also touched on internationalized domain names, with a shout-out to the recent launch of Russia’s Cyrillic ccTLD, and general global inclusion activities. I expect the text and audio to be published on the ICANN web site to be published shortly.