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Surprise! More new TLDs delay likely

Kevin Murphy, March 3, 2011, Domain Policy

The launch of ICANN’s new top-level domain program looks set to encounter more delays, after international governments said they needed more time for consultation and debate.

Three days of talks between the ICANN board of directors and its Governmental Advisory Committee, which concluded yesterday, resolved many of the GAC’s concerns with new TLDs, but not enough.

Obtaining final closure of these outstanding issues during the San Francisco meeting, March 17, now seems quite unlikely, especially if the GAC gets its way.

The meeting started on an optimistic tone on Monday, degenerated into stalemate on Tuesday, and ran over into an unscheduled third day yesterday, by which point the frustration was audible.

Prior to the meeting, the GAC had provided a “scorecard” that covered 12 areas of new TLD policy where it was still unhappy with ICANN’s positions.

ICANN, in return, had provided matching summary documents that outlined the GAC advice and summarized ICANN’s current thinking on each of the issues.

It became apparent over the first two days of the meeting that the ICANN board was willing to compromise on a number of matters, but that the GAC was unable to do the same, due to its need to consult with ministers and unnamed “advisers”.

One side often seemed to have done more homework than the other, particularly on the issue of trademark protection, where the GAC entered the room as a proxy for the trademark lobby, but without the granular background knowledge needed to answer ICANN’s questions.

Talks disintegrated on Tuesday afternoon, when it became clear that GAC members could not proceed before further consultations with their respective capitals, and that ICANN could not fully address their concerns without further clarifications.

Both sides of the aisle retreated into private discussions for the rest of the day, with the ICANN board later emerging with a list of areas it was prepared to accept GAC advice.

These positions had been more fully fleshed out when the meeting reconvened yesterday morning, but hopes of resolving the discussions by San Francisco appeared to be dashed by the GAC.

The ICANN board decided in January that March 17 will host a so-called “bylaws consultation”, during which ICANN tells the GAC where it has decided to disagree and overrule its advice.

But the GAC unexpectedly revealed yesterday that it does not want the March 17 meeting to have that “bylaws” designation.

A clearly frustrated Peter Dengate Thrush, ICANN’s chairman, asked repeatedly why, in light of the substantial strides forward in Brussels, the GAC had suddenly decided it needed more time:

what we’ve done is clarify and limit the work, so the work we now need to do in San Francisco is reduced and comes in with greater clarity. I don’t understand how more work and more clarity leads to the conclusion that you come to. So you have to help me with this.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, said the GAC was “surprised” by the bylaws designation.

Actually, if we can go back to the January resolution, a sort of reaction we had at that time was some slight surprise actually that without having seen the GAC scorecard, you were already forecasting that you anticipated not being able to accept the advice contained in the scorecard.

Despite the generally civil tone of the talks, and Dengate Thrush’s opening and closing remarks – in which he said that the meeting was neither “adversarial” nor a “power struggle” – this part of the discussion came across more than most like a pissing contest.

ICANN officially rejecting GAC advice through a bylaws consultation would be unprecedented, and I get the distinct impression that it is something the GAC does not want to happen.

If you’re a government, being overruled by a bunch of DNS policy wonks in California is bad PR.

But if a mutually acceptable compromise is to be made without any advice being rejected, GAC reps need time to take ICANN’s concessions back to their superiors for input, and then to form their own consensus views. Thence the delay arises.

At the end of the meeting, it appeared that talks will be continuing in private in the run-up to the San Francisco meeting, which starts March 13. It also appears that the board and GAC will hold not one but two days of talks during the meeting.

What’s less clear to me is whether ICANN has already agreed that the “bylaws” designation will be removed from the March 17 meeting.

If it does, we’re looking at a few weeks more delays post-SF, while the GAC and board resolve their remaining differences, which could easily impact the planned April 14 publication of the next version of the Applicant Guidebook.

Winners and losers in the next Applicant Guidebook

Kevin Murphy, February 23, 2011, Domain Registries

Who’s going to be happy, and who won’t be, after ICANN publishes the next version of its Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains in April?

We now have a rough idea of the answers to those questions, following the publication this week of ICANN’s analysis of comments received between November and January.

The 163-page document (pdf) outlines where ICANN is still open to changing its rules for applying for a TLD, and where it believes the book is firmly shut.

As you might expect, at this late stage in the game, most of the analysis is essentially “thanks, but no thanks”, reiterating the reasons why the Guidebook currently says what it says.

But there are strong indications of which changes will be made to the “next” version of the Guidebook, which is currently expected to hit the ICANN web site April 14.

Here’s a high-level analysis of the winners and losers.

Impatient Applicants

Companies and entrepreneurs that have been tapping their feet for the last couple of years, hit by delay after delay, can probably take comfort from the fact that ICANN is still making encouraging noises about its commitment to the new TLDs program.

Noting that some issues are still in need of further work, ICANN staff writes:

it is ICANN’s intention to reach resolution on these issues. It would be irresponsible to use community resources to run a process without the intention to see it through to conclusion.

ICANN continues to approach the implementation of the program with due diligence and plans to conduct a launch as soon as practicable along with the resolution of these issues

Beyond what I noted in a post earlier this afternoon, there are no clues about the timetable for actually launching the program, however.

Trademark Holders

It’s a mixed bag for the intellectual property lobby, but on balance, given the length of its wish-list, I expect the trademark crowd will be more disappointed than not.

In general, ICANN is firm that the rights protection mechanisms (RPMs) in the Guidebook are the result of community compromise, and not for changing.

This is sometimes the case even when it comes to issues ICANN plans to discuss with its Governmental Advisory Committee next week.

One of these is the Trademark Clearinghouse, the database of trademark rights to be used to reduce cybersquatting, of which ICANN says:

subject to further refinement through the GAC consultation and other comments received to date, the positions in the Clearinghouse proposals will be finalized substantially similar to as it was in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook.

On the Globally Protected Marks List, a mechanism trademark holders want included in the Guidebook, ICANN is suitably mysterious:

It is clear that the trademark interests have continued to raise the GPML as possible RPM. While this discussion may continue, no further progress or decisions have been made.

The most substantial concession ICANN appears ready to make to trademark holders concerns the Uniform Rapid Suspension mechanism, a cousin of the UDRP that will be used to address clear-cut cases of cybersquatting in new TLDs.

A major concern from the IP lobby has been that the URS is too slow and complex to meet its original goals. ICANN disagrees that it does not do the job, but plans to streamline it anyway:

Discussions are continuing and some additional implementation detail revisions will likely be made, for example, creating a form complaint that reduces the 5000-word limit to 500 words. The 500-word limit might not, however, be placed on the respondent, as the respondent will be required to describe the legitimate basis upon with the domain name is registered. The respondents word limit be decreased from 5,000 to something less, possibly 2,500 words, in order to decrease the examinations panel‘s time requirements and thereby enhance circumstances for a relatively loss cost process. (Remember that in the vast majority of cases, it is expected that the respondents will not answer.)

This will certainly be a topic of discussion at the ICANN-GAC meeting in Brussels on Monday, so I expect IP attorneys are even now briefing their governments on how these proposed changes won’t go far enough for whatever reason.

Domainers

There’s bad news if you’re a high-rolling domain investor, looking at bagging a new TLD or three, and you also have a few UDRP losses against your name.

The background check ICANN will carry out on applicants for their history of cybersquatting stays, and it will still use the three-losses-as-UDRP-respondent benchmark.

However, ICANN has recognized that UDRP decisions are not always final. If you lost a UDRP but subsequently won in court, that decision won’t count against you.

In addition, reverse domain name hijacking findings will now also count against applicants to the same degree as UDRP losses.

I believe both of those concessions capture so few entities as to be more or less irrelevant for most potential applicants.

“.brand” Applicants

ICANN is in favor of companies applying to run “innovative” TLDs, such as “.brands”, but it is reluctant to carve out exceptions to the rules for these applicants.

The organization does not plan to give .brands a pass when it comes to protecting geographic names, nor when it comes to the requirement to register domains through an accredited registrar.

This seems to mean, for example, that if Microsoft successfully obtains .microsoft and wants to register usa.microsoft to itself, it will have to ask the US government for permission.

It also means .brands will still have to seek ICANN accreditation, or work with an existing registrar, in order to sell domains to themselves. It’s an added cost, but not an unworkable one.

Would-be .brand applicants did, however, win one huge concession: If they decide to turn off their TLD, it will not be redelegated to a third-party. ICANN wrote, with my emphasis:

In the limited case of .brand and other TLDs that operate as single-registrant/single-user TLDs it would probably make sense to not force an outgoing operator to transition second-level registration data (since presumably the operator could just delete all the names as the registrant anyway and then there would be nothing to transition), and therefore ICANN will put forward proposed language for community review and feedback that would provide for alternative transition arrangements for single-registrant/single-user gTLDs.

If .microsoft was unsuccessful and Microsoft decided to stop running it, Google would not be able to take over the ICANN registry contract, for example.

Poor People/Cheapskates

Some commenters wanted ICANN to reduce application fees in cases where the applicant is from a poorer nation, a non-governmental organization, or when they intend to apply for multiple versions of the same TLD.

They’re all out of luck.

The $185,000 baseline application fee is to stay, at least for the first round. ICANN thinks it could be reduced in future rounds, once more uncertainty has been removed from the process.

Currently, $60,000 of each fee is set aside for a “risk” (read: litigation) war-chest, which will be presumably less of an issue after the first round is completed.

Special Interests

The International Olympic Committee and the Red Cross, as well as financial services organizations, may receive the special concessions they asked for in the next Guidebook.

The IOC and Red Cross may be given the same protections as afforded to ICANN, regional internet registries, and generic terms such as “example” and “test”.

ICANN is considering the nature of these protections, and if appropriate, might augment the reserved names lists in special cases such as requested by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Red Cross, both of which are globally invested in representing the public interest.

It also emerged that ICANN is working with the financial services industry to clarify some of the security-related language in the Guidebook.

Community Applicants

Sorry guys, ICANN intends to keep the threshold score for the Community Priority Evaluation at 14 out of 16. Nor will you get a bonus point for already showing your cards by starting community outreach two years ago. Winning a CPE is going to be as tough as ever.

*

This is just a brief, non-exhaustive overview of the changes that are likely to come in the next Applicant Guidebook, setting the stage for the GAC talks next week and the San Francisco ICANN meeting next month.

One thing seems pretty clear though: this is end-game talk.

ICANN prepares for trademark fight with GAC

Kevin Murphy, February 22, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN thinks the benefits of new top-level domains will outweigh the costs, and it preparing for a scrap when it meets its Governmental Advisory Committee in Brussels next week.

In a number of briefing documents published yesterday, ICANN makes it clear that it does not think the new TLD program will create a huge economic burden on trademark holders.

Brussels is possibly the final major hoop ICANN has to jump through before its board of directors will be able to sign off the Applicant Guidebook and start accepting new TLD applications.

There are a number of areas where the GAC and ICANN disagree. Next week’s meeting is intended to identify those differences, and to try to find ways to resolve them.

The GAC’s biggest problem with the new TLD program, as its members made clear in Cartagena and subsequently, is that it’s not convinced new TLDs won’t cost brand holders a bundle.

What will be the damage caused by cybersquatting? How much money will big business be forced to spend on defensive registrations?

Nobody knows for sure, and none of the independent third-party economic reports commissioned by ICANN ventures anywhere near a comprehensive empirical study.

So the GAC wants another economic study done, to quantify the costs and benefits of new TLDs, and to figure out how voluminous defensive registrations is likely to be.

ICANN disagrees, saying essentially that more studies are pointless, and that demand for defensive registrations in new TLDs are likely to be low.

The Board position is that defensive registrations will increase but not in numbers projected by some trademark holders

Estimates from the Coalition Against Domain Name Abuse, CADNA, last year put the cost to brands of the new TLD program at $746 million. But ICANN isn’t buying that:

The Board also believes that economic studies do not provide evidence that new TLDs will result in demand for defensive registrations. Existing independent studies, that the Board is seeking to validate, indicate that defensive registrations occur only in the very largest, well-established registries only.

the Board is seeking (and will publish) independent corroboration that:

• trademark holders generally do not register their trademarks in all the current generic TLDs.

• Therefore, it is not expected that trademark owners, in general, register their trademarks in new gTLDs, and

• due to the expected costs to run a registry and the expected low number of defensive domain name registrations, there is no economic incentive for an applicant to obtain a TLD for the sole purpose of making money from defensive trademark registrations.

ICANN does not identify these “independent studies”, but the data points cited in the document (pdf) point to a February 2009 article published on CircleID by Paul Stahura, and a comment made on that article by Richard Tindal that cites third-party data.

The Stahura report is arguably the most comprehensive carried out on defensive registrations in existing open gTLDs, concluding that the current cost to trademark holders is very low indeed, and that the bulk of typosquatting and trademark enforcement goes on in .com.

The research suggested that each new TLD would create costs in the tens of thousands of dollars per year, across the whole universe of trademark interests. It used baseline registrar fees in its calculations, unlike the CADNA report, which used sunrise fees about a hundred times greater.

But the Stahura study is “independent” only in the respect that it was not commissioned by ICANN or carried out with its blessing or participation.

At the time it was published, Stahura was president of eNom owner Demand Media, which is expected to be a new TLD applicant. Tindal, apparently also cited in ICANN’s latest report, was senior vice president, registry, for Demand Media.

Independently validating the report’s conclusions will be important, if only to avoid accusations that ICANN is making its decisions based on the views of those who would benefit from new TLDs.

Another of ICANN’s newly published briefing documents (pdf) also address the specific trademark protection mechanisms called for in the Applicant Guidebook.

The GAC has not yet published, or provided ICANN with, its specific recommendations relating to these mechanisms (I understand that will come in the next day or two) but they are expected to call for a tightening of the rules governing the Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

Unlike several parts of yesterday’s briefing papers, ICANN’s language when discussing these two mechanisms does not suggest to me that it is preparing to substantially compromise.

With trademarks just one of many issues under discussion, Brussels is shaping up to becoming very interesting indeed.

UDRP reform effort begins

Kevin Murphy, February 5, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN has kicked off a review of its Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy, the occasionally controversial process used to adjudicate cybersquatting complaints.

The GNSO Council on Thursday voted to ask ICANN staff for a so-called “Issues Report” on UDRP, indicating that reform of the process is likely.

This is the relevant portion of the resolution, passed unanimously:

RESOLVED #2, the GNSO Council requests an Issues Report on the current state of the UDRP. This effort should consider:

* How the UDRP has addressed the problem of cybersquatting to date, and any insufficiencies/inequalities associated with the process.

* Whether the definition of cybersquatting inherent within the existing UDRP language needs to be reviewed or updated. The Issue Report should include suggestions for how a possible PDP on this issue might be managed.

Issues Reports commissioned by the Council are expected within 15 days, and 15 days after that the Council is expected to vote on whether to kick off a Policy Development Process.

A PDP could lead to changes to the UDRP that would be binding on all ICANN-accredited registrars and their customers.

While the UDRP has proven very effective at dealing with clear-cut cases of cybersquatting over the last 12 years, critics claim that it is often interpreted too broadly in favor of trademark interests.

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know I frequently report on unfathomable UDRP decisions, but these are generally the exception rather than the rule.

Unrelated to UDRP, the GNSO Council has also voted against asking ICANN for an Issues Report on registry/registrar best practices for mitigating domain abuse.

Business interests wanted registrars to take more measures (voluntarily) to curb activities such as phishing, but registrars think this kind of rule-making is beyond the scope of the GNSO.

After a lot of heated debate and arcane procedural wrangling, the Council decided instead to ask for a “discussion paper”, a term that has no meaning under ICANN’s rules, meaning a PDP is less likely.

Noel Gallagher buys domain name with gig tickets

Kevin Murphy, January 31, 2011, Domain Sales

Former Oasis lead guitarist Noel Gallagher reportedly bought the domain name noelgallagher.com from a squatter in exchange for band memorabilia and free gig tickets.

According to British tabloid The Sun:

The former OASIS star found out recently that a cunning punter in Barcelona had snapped up the domain name noelgallagher.com ten years ago.

And The Chief’s plans to get things in order for his solo career were being held up by the Barca Bandit – because he was demanding a small fortune to hand it back.

Noel took matters into his own hands last week. He paid for the Spaniard to fly to London, put him up in a plush hotel and met him in person to thunder out a deal.

And after some serious haggling, and a few Oasis anecdotes, the chancer changed his demands from tens of thousands of pounds – to some signed memorabilia and guest list action at Noel’s next solo gigs.

I’m not sure how much success Oasis ever had outside of the UK. If you’ve never heard of them: briefly here in the 1990s they were regarded by some (mainly themselves) as the second coming of The Beatles.

I’ve never before seen a domain name story reported in The Sun, a notoriously unreliable but hugely popular Murdoch-owned daily rag, so I did a bit of fact-checking.

Whois history shows that the original registrant was from Madrid, not Barcelona, and that the domain was initially registered in 2002.

While the report claims Gallagher flew the squattter to London to negotiate the deal “last week”, the domain actually seems to have been owned by someone at Oasis’s record label since March 2010.

So either the cybersquatter got a free city break, or The Sun is — shockingly — reporting unreliable celebrity news.

The domain name does not currently resolve.

The Top Ten Hottest Posts of 2010

Kevin Murphy, December 29, 2010, Gossip

Tumbleweeds are blowing through the domain name industry this week, which makes it an excellent time to take a look back at 2010, in the form of a list of this blog’s most widely read posts.

In descending order, here are the top ten DomainIncite stories of 2010:

ICANN had no role in seizing torrent domains
When ICANN stood accused by the blogosphere of helping the US government shut down dozens of .com domains in November, it took the organization a full week to officially deny it. In the meantime, it kicked off a Twitter campaign encouraging people to visit this post, making it the year’s most-read by some margin.

dotFree’s “free” domain names explained
Everyone wants something for nothing, so when I provided the first interview with the chief executive of the recently launched dotFree Group in August, it gathered a lot of attention. It turned out .free domains may not be as “free” as some had hoped.

WordPress.com becomes a domain name registrar
When I spotted that WordPress.com owner Automattic had received an ICANN registrar accreditation, company CEO Matt Mullenweg was good enough to link back to this post when he subsequently announced the move to his readers in October.

First reactions to ICANN’s VI bombshell
It was the biggest shake-up in the domain name industry in a decade – ICANN announced in November that it would start letting registrars and registries own each other. The full repercussions have yet to be felt, but this post summarized some of the early reactions.

ICANN will not attend White House drugs meeting

When and how governments and law enforcement should be able to block domain names is an ongoing hot topic for the industry. This September post broke the news that ICANN would not participate in US talks about blocking “fake pharmaceuticals” web sites.

Porn group starts anti-XXX campaign
The ongoing .xxx drama continues to be one of the key domain name industry stories that plays just as well with a mainstream readership. In addition, including the keywords “xxx”, “group” and “porn” in the same headline has proven disturbingly useful for acquiring search engine traffic.

Gaming scandal hits Russian domain launch
Internationalized domain names finally arrived on the internet in 2010, and the launch of Russia’s .РФ (.rf) IDN ccTLD was easily the biggest success story. It has racked up almost 700,000 registrations in the last two months, but was hit by allegations of registrar gaming, which I reported on here.

ICANN told to ban .bank or get sued
The road to the approval of ICANN’s new gTLD program was widely anticipated to have wrapped up by the end of the year. It didn’t, but that didn’t stop some eleventh-hour special pleading by organizations such as the Financial Services Roundtable.

Whistleblower alleged shenanigans at DirectNIC
DirectNIC has had its fair share of legal troubles in 2010. First it was sued for cybersquatting by Verizon (which it denied) and then, as I reported in this December post, a former employee alleged a complex scheme to make money through fraudulent domain arbitrage (which it denied, then settled).

Survey reveals demand for .brand TLDs
A World Trademark Review survey revealed mixed reactions from trademark lawyers and corporate marketing departments to new TLDs, but it did reveal that most companies would use their “.brand” TLD, if they had one, as their primary online address.

Let’s hope 2011 brings such a diverse range of interesting topics to write about. I’m certain it will.

What next for new TLDs? Part 1 – Unresolved Issues

Kevin Murphy, December 14, 2010, Domain Services

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 first post I will look at the issues that ICANN has explicitly tagged as unresolved, with special reference to trademarks.

Unresolved Issues

ICANN chairman Peter Dengate Thrush, explaining the board’s resolution on new TLDs on Friday, said:

The intention has been, as much as possible, to indicate those areas where the board feels that the work that has been done is sufficient to move to closure… What we’ve also tried to do is indicate which areas are still clearly open for consideration.

The resolution names only two issues that are explicitly still open for further policy development: geographic strings and “morality and public order” objections. I’ll discuss these in a future post.

Issues considered already reflecting “the negotiated position of the ICANN community” include “trademark protection, mitigating malicious conduct, and root-zone scaling”.

But does this mean that the trademark issue, easily the most contentious of these three “overarching issues” is really sufficiently “closed” that we’ll see no more changes to those parts of the AGB?

I don’t think so. While the Cartagena resolutions say trademark protection has been addressed, it also says “ICANN will take into account public comment including the advice of the GAC.”

It may be too late for the IP community to affect changes directly, beyond the comments they’ve already filed, but the GAC, which has already aligned itself with the trademark lobby, may be able to.

Beyond the text of the resolution, ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush said in an interview with ICANN head of media relations Brad White:

We’ve spent a lot of time with the trademark community and come up with three new independent mechanisms for protecting trademark rights on the internet. So the sense of board and the sense of the community is that that’s probably a sufficient effort in developing mechanisms. What we now might look at is how we might enhance, tweak and improve those processes, but we’re not going to convene another process to look at yet another kind of solution for intellectual property rights.

In other words, according to Dengate Thrush, ICANN isn’t planning to create any new IP rights protection mechanisms in the AGB, but these mechanisms, such as Uniform Rapid Suspension and the Trademark Clearinghouse, could be still be modified based on comments received from the trademark lobby over the last week or so.

Most of the outcry from the IP lobby recently has called for the specifics of these two mechanisms to be tilted more in favor of trademark interests; there’s been little call for any new mechanisms.

Trademark rights protections also account for two of the 11 issues that the Governmental Advisory Committee has tagged “outstanding” which “require additional discussion”, by my reading.

More on the GAC bottleneck in part two of this post.

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.

Trademarks may delay new TLD approval

Kevin Murphy, December 8, 2010, Domain Registries

The intellectual property lobby won a notable victory this week, after governments told ICANN they want it to delay approval of the new top-level domains program until it has more cybersquatting protections.

Some members of the Governmental Advisory Committee appear to have been lobbied hard by the IP community, and have taken its concerns on board more or less wholesale.

The UK representative, Mark Carvell of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was most vocal during a meeting of the GAC and ICANN board here in Cartagena, Colombia yesterday.

He said of the proposed final Applicant Guidebook for new TLDs (which the GAC still pointedly refers to as the “DAG”, for Draft Applicant Guidebook):

Most representations we received came from brand owners, rights holders, they’re the ones being most agitated by this. I think they also recognized the potential opportunities, but the big issue for them was the costs…

The rights protection mechanisms are still not effective enough, that’s what’s coming to us in the Ministry… If you’re really hoping to sign off the guidebook this week, I think that’s something you really ought to reconsider.

Carvell pointed in particular to the proposed Trademark Clearinghouse and Uniform Rapid Suspension policies as needing work – this is essentially the IP lobby’s position also.

His views were supported by Germany, Norway and the Canadian GAC chair, among others.

A repeated refrain was “we’re not there yet”, which prompted ICANN vice-chair Dennis Jennings to push for a definition of “there”. What, in other words, would make the GAC happy enough to go ahead?

The GAC isn’t great when it comes to providing straight answers to those kinds of questions, but Carvell gave it a shot.

He said that currently the GAC does not believe that the benefits of new TLDs outweigh the costs. When it does, that would be the “key turning point”:

When we get to that position, that the benefits for businesses, for the global economy, for opportunities for business, are going to be greater, scaled-up, greater than the costs to brand owners and those who are going to have shell out big-time in order to effectively subsidize, in their view, perhaps subsidize the process.

The US representative, Suzanne Sene, added that “the whole issue is of feeling confident that benefits will outweigh the costs”.

That’s still worryingly free of a measurable benchmark, if you’re an impatient new TLD applicant.

In a further open meeting today, it became clear that the GAC is still putting forth the idea that there could be a “fast-track” or “trial” style TLD application round for “non-controversial” TLDs – presumably meaning TLDs of little interest to defensive trademark holders.

GAC chair Heather Dryden said today that “introducing a conservative first round is the best way to manage risk in the unknown”, an idea that was promptly challenged by TLD applicants including Minds + Machines CEO Antony Van Couvering.

I don’t get the feeling that the GAC has thought the idea through a great deal. In order to be half-way objective, it would presumably require the created of a second, parallel AGB for pre-approving applications. I don’t think the idea has legs.

But do the GAC’s objections mean that new TLD program, currently pencilled in to open the first application round May 30, 2011, will be delayed?

The GAC has not yet submitted its formal Cartagena advice (it should be published tomorrow), but it will presumably reflect the concerns raised over the last few days.

Under ICANN’s bylaws, the organization has to justify any decision to reject GAC advice and then “try, in good faith and in a timely and efficient manner, to find a mutually acceptable solution.”

European Commission representative Bill Dee invoked that part of the bylaws during yesterday’s meeting, and ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush agreed that talks were needed.

Dengate Thrush said he was in favor of a GAC-board meeting over one or two days at some point between now and the San Francisco ICANN meeting next March, to thrash out their differences and Dryden seemed to agree.

If that meeting was held fairly soon, it would not necessarily mean ICANN misses the May 30 deadline.

The current proposed timeline contains a 30-day window between Friday and January 11 in which ICANN staff update the “approved” AGB according to the board’s directions.

There follows an obligatory four-month ICANN outreach and marketing campaign.

Conceivably, although scheduling may be a challenge, if the GAC and board meet and resolve their differences over the next 30 days or so, the May 30 deadline could be workable.

I think it might be quite unlikely that’s going to happen, however.

The ICANN board convenes to discuss and vote on the AGB this Friday. It will be very interesting to see how its resolution is worded, and whether it can both save face and serve the GAC.

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.