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ICANN faces first post-transition test of UN power (for real this time)

Kevin Murphy, October 7, 2016, Domain Policy

The ICANN community and United Nations agencies are heading for a clash, with governments accused this morning of trying to bypass the ICANN policy-making process.

According to the leader of an ICANN volunteer working group, governments and UN-affilated intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have circumvented the usual ICANN consensus-building process in order to extract the policies they want directly from the ICANN board of directors and staff.

It’s the first time since the IANA transition, which happened less than a week ago, that governments have been accused of exploiting their special access to the board, and it may become a hot topic at next month’s ICANN 57 meeting in India.

Governments and UN agencies now stand accused of “bypassing the ICANN community” in order to achieve their policy goals.

But the policy being debated is not directly linked to the IANA transition, nor to the thoroughly debunked notion that the UN has taken over ICANN.

Indeed, the issue in question — the permanent protection of IGO acronyms in gTLDs — is almost embarrassingly narrow and predates the announcement of the IANA transition by at least three years, going back to at least 2011.

Basically, the policy questions that look set to cause even more conflict between governments and others are: should IGO acronyms be protected, and if so, how?

IGO acronyms are strings such as WIPO, UNESCO and OECD.

The ICANN board punted this question in May 2014, when it received conflicting advice from the Governmental Advisory Committee and Generic Names Supporting Organization.

Since then, a GNSO Policy Development Process working group has been working on recommendations. It has not yet issued its initial findings, but is close.

Simultaneously and separately, members of ICANN’s board and staff have been quietly talking to a handful of GAC members and IGOs about the same issue in what has become known as the “small group”.

Because it’s small. And a group.

Yesterday, ICANN divulged the consensus of the small group in a letter (pdf) to the leaders of the GNSO Council.

Its recommendations conflict in almost every respect with what the GNSO working group intends to recommend.

The small group wants ICANN to create IGOs-acronyms-only versions of the Trademark Clearinghouse database, Trademark Claims service and UDRP and URS dispute resolution mechanisms — basically “functionally equivalent” mirrors of almost all of the rights protection mechanisms currently only available to trademark owners.

They would be administered at least partially by the GAC and at no cost to the IGOs themselves (presumably meaning ICANN would pick up the tab).

It seems like a disproportionate amount of faff considering the problem ICANN is trying to solve is the vanishingly small possibility that somebody attempts to cybersquat the United Nations Entity For Gender Equality And The Empowerment Of Women (UNWOMEN) or the Postal Union Of The Americas Spain And Portugal (PUASP).

A lot of it is also in direct opposition to what the GNSO WG plans to recommend, according to chair Phil Corwin and the current draft of the WG’s recommendations.

The WG currently plans to recommend that IGOs should be allowed to use the existing URS and UDRP mechanisms to take down or take over domains that use their acronyms in bad faith. It does not currently seem to recommend anything related to Trademark Claims.

A foundational disagreement relates to the status of IGOs under the law. While IGOs in the small group seem to think they are in a special category of entity that is not subject to regular trademark law, the WG hired expert legal counsel that determined the contrary.

Corwin, in his initial response to the small group letter, said that the implications of the debate go beyond how IGO acronyms should be protected.

IGOs carried out a “near boycott” of the GNSO PDP discussions, he wrote, preferring instead to talk to the small group “behind closed doors”. He wrote:

we continually urged members of the GAC, and IGOs, to participate in our WG. That participation was so sporadic that it amounted to a near-boycott, and when IGO representatives did provide any input they stressed that they were speaking solely as individuals and were not providing the official views of the organizations that employed them.

Of course, why should they participate in the GNSO policy processes when they are permitted to pursue their goals in extended closed door discussions with the Board, and when the Board seeks no input from the GNSO in the course of those talks?

He directly linked the timing of the small group report to the expiration last Friday of ICANN’s IANA functions contract with the US Department of Commerce, and suggested that the IGO acronym issue could be a litmus test for how ICANN and governments function together under the new oversight regime.

I note that transmission of the letter has been delayed until after the completion of the IANA transition, and that the post-transition role of governments within ICANN was a central controversy surrounding the transition.

What is at stake in this matter goes far beyond the relatively rare instance in which a domain registrant infringes upon the name or acronym of an IGO and the IGO seeks relief through a CRP [Curative Rights Protection mechanism]. The larger issue is whether, in a post-transition ICANN, the GAC and the UN agencies that comprise a large portion of IGOs, will participate meaningfully in GNSO policy activities, or will seek their policy aims by bypassing the ICANN community and engaging in direct, closed door discussions with the Board.

The financial effects of this seemingly interminable debate on the gTLD industry are probably pretty minor.

Currently, all new gTLDs have temporarily blocked, from launch, all of the IGO acronyms in question. That’s roughly 200 domains per gTLD that could otherwise be sold.

Many of the strings are three, four and five-letter acronyms that could fetch “premium” prices in the open market (though, in my judgement, not much more than a couple hundreds bucks in most cases).

A small number of the acronyms, such as WHO and IDEA, are potentially more valuable.

Off the top of my head and the back of an envelope, I’d put the cost to the industry as a whole of the IGO acronym blocks probably somewhere in the very low millions.

The harms being prevented are also very minor, in my view. With a small handful of exceptions, the IGOs in question are not attractive cybersquatting targets.

But, as is so often the case in ICANN matters, the arguments in this case boil down to matters of law, principle and process much more than practical impact.