Howls of criticism about Google, Amazon and others’ plans to grab huge swathes of new gTLD real estate and keep it to themselves seem to have spurred ICANN into action.
A public comment period opened this week seeks community feedback (indirectly) on applications such as Amazon’s .music, L’Oreal’s .beauty and Google’s .blog, among many others.
These gTLDs have all been proposed with “single-registrant” business models, in which the registry controls all second-level domains and regular registrars cannot sell them to anyone else.
It’s the “dot-brand” model, but applied to generic dictionary words for which the applicants have no trademark rights.
Scores of such applications have been made, notably by Google and Amazon, but they have drawn criticism from many in the ICANN community, such as a small group of registrars and others led by Blacknight Solutions.
Members of the Governmental Advisory Committee, most vocally Australia, have also expressed serious concerns about the model, saying it could be anti-competitive.
ICANN’s board of directors is currently mulling over these complaints, and has thrown the issue open to public comment to aid in its deliberations.
What it wants from you is:
proposed objective criteria for:
- classifying certain applications as “closed generic” TLDs, i.e., how to determine whether a string is generic, and
- determining the circumstances under which a particular TLD operator should be permitted to adopt “open” or “closed” registration policies.
The way the public comment request is phrased should be quite worrying to applicants for closed generic gTLDs.
It seem to assume that ICANN should be classifying gTLDs, something it has steadfastly refused to do for all of the years these kinds of debates have been raging.
What is a “closed generic” anyway?
The DI PRO New gTLD Application Tracker classifies gTLD applications into three buckets: Open, Restricted and Single-Registrant.
We made no attempt to segregate dot-brands from other Single Registrant bids, precisely because there’s currently no such thing as a dot-brand under ICANN’s rules.
There doesn’t seem to be much community concern about the apps we have classified as “Restricted” — applications for .lawyer that propose to vet registrants for their lawyerly credentials, for example.
The concern is all directed at Single Registrant bids. We have 912 of these in our database.
Many of these are dot-brands, where the applied-for string is an exact match with a famous trademark, but many are for dictionary words for which the applicant has no preexisting rights.
In order to sanely operate a dot-brand, applicants must request an exemption to the ICANN rules that oblige them to offer their gTLDs via accredited registrars on a non-discriminatory basis.
This Code of Conduct is a part of the base Registry Agreement for new gTLDs, but it contains a carve-out for single-registrant applicants:
Registry Operator may request an exemption to this Code of Conduct, and such exemption may be granted by ICANN in ICANN’s reasonable discretion, if Registry Operator demonstrates to ICANN’s reasonable satisfaction that (i) all domain name registrations in the TLD are registered to, and maintained by, Registry Operator for its own exclusive use, (ii) Registry Operator does not sell, distribute or transfer control or use of any registrations in the TLD to any third party that is not an Affiliate of Registry Operator, and (iii) application of this Code of Conduct to the TLD is not necessary to protect the public interest.
This provision was added specifically in order to enable “dot-brands” to exist.
It would be pretty weird if, for example, L’Oreal was forced to make .loreal domains available via hundreds of registrars. By requesting an exception, L’Oreal has the chance to keep .loreal in-house.
However, because ICANN deliberately has made no distinction between commonly used words and brands (.amazon could be both), L’Oreal was also able to apply for .beauty as a single-registrant gTLD.
It’s not really a loophole — the possibility of companies applying for closed generics was envisaged by ICANN and the policy-making community long before the application window even opened.
Make no mistake, this is well-trodden ground. ICANN had plenty of opportunities to address the issue before the new gTLD application window opened a year ago and it quite consciously decided not to.
The feeling over the last couple of years has been that objection mechanisms such as the Community Objection, as well as GAC Advice, would be sufficient to close down these problematic gTLDs bids.
During the year-long community discussion about registry-registrar vertical integration, the possibility of closed generics was acknowledged and heavily debated.
The GNSO’s Vertical Integration Working Group failed to reach consensus on almost everything, but most of the recommendations emerging from it included some Code of Conduct exemptions for dot-brands.
Some in the WG suggested that the exemptions should only apply to true dot-brands (ie, those back up by a trademark) but ICANN decided against referring to trademarks when it wrote the Code of Conduct due to the very real possibility that it would encourage gaming by speculators.
That problem has not disappeared. While there’s no such gaming in the current batch of applications, there will be second and third and fourth application rounds that the rules being hastily debated at the last minute right now will also (presumably) apply to.
What do closed generic applicants want?
Some ICANN community members assumed that it would be the big domainer-backed companies (later emerging as Donuts, Uniregistry et al) that would attempt these kinds of land-grabs.
But that (so far) hasn’t turned out to be the case. The domainers have generally proposed registration policies that are super, super liberal in comparison to Google, Amazon and other closed-generic applicants.
I believe it’s partly because it’s these massively powerful e-commerce companies that are the ones making the land-grabs, and the scale of the grabs, that the issue of closed generics has reemerged now.
There are two broad use cases of concern here.
First, the .beauty scenario: L’Oreal keeps all the second-level .beauty domains to itself, essentially converting the word “beauty” into a brand name as far as the DNS is concerned.
Second, the .blog scenario: Google implements a policy that all .blog domains must use its Blogger service, potentially to the detriment of competitors such as WordPress or Tumblr.
In both scenarios, the bids could be rejected in their entirety as a result of formal objections, ICANN board action or Governmental Advisory Committee advice.
If the applications were approved, ICANN could also subjectively apply the ill-defined “public interest” test outlined above to force compliance with the Code of Conduct.
But that would merely lead to the bizarre scenario where 1,700 accredited registrars all qualify to sell .music domain names, but the only potential customer is Amazon.com’s intellectual property management department (which wants to run .music as a single-registrant gTLD).
As ICANN points out in its public comments request, the Code of Conduct regulates who can sell domain names in new gTLDs, not who they can sell them to.
The .blog scenario is a little different.
This is what Google, which has applied via its Charleston Road Registry subsidiary, has proposed (with my emphasis):
Should ICANN grant Charleston Road Registry’s exemption to the Code of Conduct, and the proposed gTLD operate with Google as the sole registrar and registrant, members of the public will not be able to directly register domain names in this new gTLD. Users will, however, be given the opportunity to make use of a vanity second-level domain as a memorable identifier linked to content in Blogger.
In other words, Google will “own” all the second-level .blog domains, but will allow Blogger customers to “use” them.
It looks like what it is: a transparently bogus attempted workaround of the Code of Conduct, designed to let Google exclude rival blogging services and independent, self-managed bloggers from .blog.
(Disclosure: DI is an independent, self-managed blog.)
However, I can’t see how what Google has proposed could possibly qualify for an exemption, which is only supposed to be granted provided the registry does not “transfer control or use of any registrations in the TLD to any third party”.
If sanity prevails, Google probably won’t qualify for an exemption.
But that won’t stop it tying .blog to Blogger.
The Code of Conduct, remember, is only concerned with equal, non-discriminatory access for accredited registrars. It does not speak to registry services or registry policies.
Google could possibly still have a registry policy stating that all .blog domains must point to Blogger.
In addition, Google could make the registration fee $0, making it unattractive for most registrars to carry (though I guess registrars could use it as a loss-leader, they wouldn’t be able to up-sell hosting and other services if all .blog domains have to use Blogger).
Applicants for closed generics paid millions of dollars to apply, using the rules set down in the Applicant Guidebook at the time, and I can’t see them being too happy about this eleventh hour surprise.
However, there can be little doubt that ICANN, if its role is to protect the public interest and consumer trust, has to seriously tackle the issue of closed generics.
But it has to address it in 2011.
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.
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.
ICANN’s newly published Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain operators contains a draft Code of Conduct for registries that, among other things, bans “front-running”.
The code, which I think is probably going to be one of the most talked-about parts of the AGB in the run-up to ICANN’s Cartagena meeting next month, is designed to address problems that could arise when registrars are allowed to run registries and vice versa.
Front-running is the name given to a scenario in which registrars use insider information – their customers’ domain availability lookups – to determine which high-value domains to register to themselves.
While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that such practices have occurred in the past, a study carried out last year by researcher Ben Edelman found no evidence that it still goes on.
Front-running was however held up as one reason why registrars and registries should not be allowed to vertically integrate, so the AGB’s code of conduct explicitly bans it.
It also bans registries accessing data generated by affiliated registrars, or from buying any domains for its own use, unless they’re needed for the management of the TLD.
Integrated registries will have to keep separate accounts for their registrar arms, and there will have to be a technological Chinese wall stopping registry and registrar data from cross-pollinating.
Registries will also have to submit a self-audit to ICANN, certifying their compliance with the code of conduct, before January 20 every year.
The code is currently a six-point plan, which, given the past “ingenuity” of domain name companies, may prove a little on the light side.
There’s lots more discussion to be had on this count, no doubt.