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Anger as governments delay two-letter domains

Kevin Murphy, February 9, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN has heard an angry response from gTLD registries after delaying the release of two-character domains in new gTLDs, apparently at the whim of a small number of governments.

ICANN has yet to approve any of the over 350 requests for the release of two-letter domains filed by registries under a process approved by its board last October and launched in December.

The reason, according to registries, is that members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee — probably a minority — have objected and ICANN staff has “unilaterally” put a halt to the process.

Some governments — Spain, Italy and Cote d’Ivoire among them — are concerned that two-letter domains, such as es.example or it.example, may cause confusion with existing ccTLDs.

But the GAC itself was unable to find a consensus against the release of two-letter domains when it discussed the issue back in October. It merely asked for comment periods to allow individual governments to object to specific domains.

So ICANN’s board asked staff to create an “efficient procedure” to have requests swiftly approved, taking some of the stress off of the regular Registry Services Evaluation Process.

Two-letter domains have a premium dollar value for open registries, while multinational dot-brands expect to find them useful to market to the territories in which they operate.

Under the streamlined approval process, each request is subject to a 30-day comment period, and would be approved or not within seven to 10 days.

Right now, the oldest requests, which were filed in early December, are almost a month overdue for a response. The Registries Stakeholder Group told ICANN, in a letter (pdf):

We write to raise serious concern about what appears to be a recent closed-door, unilateral decision by ICANN staff, which took place over a period of weeks, to defer action on pending requests for two-character labels. This action was apparently initiated as a result of recent correspondence you received from the Chair of the Governmental Advisory Committee — but which critically does not represent formal consensus advice or even purport to represent the opinion of the GAC as a whole

It’s a case of governments strong-arming ICANN staff into changing policy, the registries claim.

GAC chair Thomas Schneider’s letter (pdf) says that an unspecified number of governments have “concerns” that the approval process was launched quite quickly and without any formal consultation with the GAC.

He goes on to make a laundry list of recommendations for making the process more amenable to governments, before requesting a “stay” on approvals until the GAC has further discussed the issue.

To date, registries representing a little over 300 strings have completed their 30-day comment periods, yet there have been only four comments from governments.

Italy and Cote d’Ivoire want ICANN to deny all requests for it.example and ci.example, because they may be confused with ccTLDs.

Spain, meanwhile, filed specific objections against the release of es.bingo, es.casino and es.abogado (lawyer), saying that these are regulated industries in Spain and should only be given to registrants who “have the required credentials”.

The RySG wants ICANN staff to immediately start approving requests that have passed through the comment process. The GAC says it will discuss the matter further at the ICANN 52 meeting currently going on in Singapore.

When RySG members raised the topic at a meeting the with ICANN board yesterday, directors avoided directly addressing the specific concerns.

With Cayman deal, Uniregistry now runs ccTLDs too

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2015, Domain Registries

Uniregistry has got into the ccTLD business, taking over management of the Cayman Islands’ .ky domain this week and planning a relaunch for later this month.

Uniregistry, which is based in Cayman, has replaced a US company called SilverSky, now part of BAE Systems, as the official registry for .ky.

CEO Frank Schilling told DI that the previous custodian was running a manual registration process but that the ccTLD will now run on the same platform Uniregistry uses for its new gTLDs.

The company will act as both registry and registrar for the names, though the space will be opened up to third-party registrars.

The wholesale fee will be $29, with Uniregistry’s registrar business retailing names for $39 a year, Schilling said.

The ccTLD will be relaunched later this month with a six-month period where only people with a self-professed (check-box) “nexus” to the Cayman Islands will be able to register names, Schilling said.

There won’t be a sunrise period in the classical sense, but UDRP will apply, he said.

An official announcement about dates and eligibility rules is due some time this month, about a week before the relaunch.

Currently, .ky has about 11,000 registrations, Schilling said. That may be considered surprisingly high, given Cayman’s small population (under 60,000) and the apparent lack of automation in place previously.

But Cayman is a tax haven, and overseas companies often choose to register .ky names to help convince the tax man where they really are based that they have a true connection to the territory.

Schilling said that the Cayman government’s registrar of companies will promote .ky domains to businesses that set up a presence there.

He added that its shipping register will plug the names to those who moor their “super yachts” in Cayman.

The deal with the Cayman government, which remains the “owner” of .ky as far as IANA is concerned, is the first of what Schilling said he hopes will be many ccTLD relationships.

Uniregistry has also bid to run Bermuda’s .bm, which is currently managed in-house by the country’s government, and is talking to other ccTLDs as well, Schilling said.

New ccTLDs may have to block name collisions

Kevin Murphy, January 26, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN is thinking about expanding its controversial policy on name collisions from new gTLDs to new ccTLDs.

The country code Names Supporting Organization has been put on notice (pdf) that ICANN’s board of directors plans to pass a resolution on the matter shortly.

The resolution would call on the ccNSO to “undertake a study to understand the implications of name collisions associated with the launch of new ccTLDs” including internationalized domain name ccTLDs, and would “recommend” that ccTLD managers implement the same risk mitigation plan as new gTLDs.

Because ICANN does not contract with ccTLDs, a recommendation and polite pressure is about as far as it can go.

Name collisions are domains in currently undelegated TLDs that nevertheless receive DNS root traffic. In some cases, that may be because the TLDs are in use on internal networks, raising the potential of data leakage or breakages if the TLDs are then delegated.

ICANN contracts require new gTLDs to block such names or wildcard their zones for 90 days after launch.

Some new gTLD registry executives have mockingly pointed to the name collisions issue whenever a new ccTLD has been delegated over the last year or so, asking why, if collisions are so important, the mitigation plan does not apply to ccTLDs.

If the intent was to persuade ICANN that the collisions management framework was unnecessary, the opposite result has been achieved.

Judge blocks seizure of Iran’s ccTLD

Kevin Murphy, November 13, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN has won a court battle, and avoided a major political incident, over an attempt by terrorism victims to seize ccTLDs belonging to Iran, Korea and Syria.

A District of Columbia judge ruled this week that while ccTLDs may be a form of “property” under the law, they’re not “attachable” property.

Attachment is a legal concept used when creditors attempt to seize assets belonging to debtors.

The ruling overturns a request by a group of terrorism survivors, led by attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, to have .ir, .sy, .kp, سور, and ايران. transferred to them in lieu of payment of previous court rulings.

Darshan-Leitner has previously secured US court judgments amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars against the three nations. Because the nations have not paid these penalties, she’s been using the courts to seize state-owned assets in the US instead.

But US District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled (pdf) earlier this week:

the country code Top Level Domain names at issue may not be attached in satisfaction of plaintiffs’ judgments because they are not property subject to attachment under District of Columbia law.

However, he added in a footnote:

But the conclusion that ccTLDs may not be attached in satisfaction of a judgment under District of Columbia law does not mean that they cannot be property. It simply means that they are not attachable property within this statutory scheme.

Drawing on “sparse” case law, Lamberth’s rationale appears to be that domain names are not a product, they’re a service. He wrote:

The ccTLDs exist only as they are made operational by the ccTLD managers that administer the registries of second level domains within them and by the parties that cause the ccTLDs to be listed on the root zone file. A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs’ insertion into this arrangement.

The ruling, which may of course be challenged by the plaintiffs, helps ICANN and the US government avoid a huge political embarrassment at a time when the links between the two are being dissolved and relations with Iran are defrosting.

Terror victims try to seize five ccTLDs

Kevin Murphy, July 30, 2014, Domain Policy

ICANN is fighting a US court action that could see the ccTLDs of Iran, Syria and Korea being seized by victims of terrorism.

While ICANN has not been sued as such, it’s been named in three “writs of attachment”, which seek to force the organization to hand over control of .ir, .sy, .kp, سور, and ايران.

This audacious attempt to take over three nations’ domains is being attempted by lawyers representing victims of state-sponsored terrorism, reportedly led by Nitsana Darshan-Leitner.

Darshan-Leitner has secured billions of dollars worth of judgments against these states in US courts over the last decade.

But because the states won’t pay up, she’s been getting US courts to seize state-owned US-based assets, such as valuable real estate, instead.

Now her attention has turned to domain names.

The writs against ICANN, issued by a District of Columbia court a month ago, would force ICANN to hand over any assets belonging to Iran, Syria and Korea.

But ICANN says it cannot and should not be made to do so, filing hundreds of pages of court documents yesterday explaining why ccTLDs are not property that can be “attached”.

“Attachment” is a legal term used in the process of transferring assets from debtors to creditors.

In its defense, ICANN argues that allowing the seizure would do nothing less than jeopardize the globally interoperable internet:

First, a ccTLD simply is not “property” subject to attachment. Second, although operating for the benefit of the people of Iran, Syria and North Korea, respectively, the relevant ccTLDs are not “owned” by the defendants or anyone else, for that matter. Third, the .IR, .SY and .KP ccTLDs are not “located” in the District of Columbia or even the United States, and therefore are beyond the reach of Plaintiffs’ Writs of Attachment. Fourth, even if these ccTLDs could be characterized as “property in the United States of the defendants,” this Court would lack jurisdiction over these proceedings, according to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Fifth, ICANN does not unilaterally have the capability or authority to transfer the .IR, .SY or .KP ccTLDs to Plaintiffs. Finally, a forced transfer of the .IR, .SY and .KP ccTLDs would destroy whatever value may exist in these ccTLDs, would wipe out the hundreds of thousands of second-level domain names registered therein by various individuals, businesses and charitable organizations, and could jeopardize the single, global, interoperable structure the Internet.

“While we sympathize with what plaintiffs may have endured, ICANN’s role in the domain name system has nothing to do with any property of the countries involved,” ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey said in a statement.

In its motions to quash the writs, ICANN describes how it has no contractual relationship and few dealings with the three ccTLD managers in question and how it has received no money from them.

It goes on to describe its relationship to the DNS root zone and the US Department of Commerce

The motion then compares domain names to street addresses and not “property”:

a ccTLD can be thought of as a zip code. That zip code may encompass many different addresses, and those addresses in turn may correspond to certain places on the Internet that people can access, such as websites. But the street address itself is not property, nor is the zip code in which the street address exists…To the extent a ccTLD is capable of a legal definition, it is a collection of technical and administrative services, rather than property

There’s a bunch of US case law that states second-level domain names are not property, which ICANN draws on heavily in its motion.

I’m not going to dwell on the legal issues at stake here too much, but the case is politically, to use an inappropriate word, explosive.

If ICANN were to receive a court order, instructing it to transfer ownership of .ir to Darshan-Leitner’s group, and had no option but to comply, we’re looking at a major international political incident.

Under ICANN’s current IANA arrangement, ICANN-recommended changes to ccTLD management are handled by Verisign, but only with the consent of the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The US Department of Commerce, of which NTIA is a part, would have to give its approval to the transfer of Iran’s ccTLD from an Iranian institution to an Israeli entity.

That, at a time when US-Iranian relations are softening, in light of the new ISIS crisis in Iraq.

It’s a recipe for putting the IANA contract at the center of what can mildly be described as a “political incident” unlike anything the internet has seen to date.

While the US government has a role in ccTLD redelegations today, due to its membership of the DNS root zone triumvirate, it has announced its intent to step away from IANA stewardship.

The NTIA will be replaced, possibly as early as September 2015, by a mechanism that the ICANN community has started to develop.

If we can assume that the US government’s current role may prove to be a buffer between the US courts and potentially devastating forced ccTLD redelegations, it’s not at all clear that the NTIA-replacement mechanism would hold the same kind of political clout.

Would an IANA without US stewardship be more susceptible to crazy US court rulings?

If the US court asserts its authority over the DNS root zone, by ordering the transfer of a ccTLD to a private entity, all ccTLD registries would have a right to be very nervous indeed.

The case also highlights the fact that ICANN is subject to US court jurisdiction — something likely to remain after the IANA stewardship transition — which also makes some nations very nervous.

Rumors have been floating around for a while that ICANN would like to move its headquarters and primary legal structure to Switzerland — it already has an office and a legal presence there — and this case will certainly provide ammunition for those who would like to see such a move happen.