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Trademark holders think new TLD policies inadequate

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2010, Domain Policy

Less than one in ten trademark holders believes ICANN’s policies go far enough to protect their rights under new top-level domains, according to a recent survey.

World Trademark Review is reporting that 71.6% of its survey respondents believe that the current Draft Applicant Guidebook goes not far enough to “prevent trademark infringement”.

Only 9.5% said they believe the DAG does contain adequate provisions.

The full survey will be published later this month, but today a few more results can be found over at the WTR blog.

The survey was conducted prior to ICANN’s recent Trondheim resolutions, which contained a few amendments to strengthen policies such as Uniform Rapid Suspension.

New TLD competition group throws in the towel

Kevin Murphy, September 29, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN working group tasked with deciding whether registrars should be allowed to apply for new top-level domains has failed to reach agreement after over six months of talks.

This means it will be down to the ICANN board of directors to decide, possibly at its next meeting, what the rules should be on vertical integration and cross ownership in new TLDs.

It’s been pretty clear from the Vertical Integration Working Group’s recent discussions that there would be no chance of the group reaching a consensus on the headline topics in the remaining time allotted to it.

Within the last two hours, the GNSO Council has been notified that the group has failed to reach consensus.

Should ICANN-accredited registrars be allowed to apply for new TLDs? Should registries be allow to sell direct to consumers? Should registrars be able to own stakes in registries? Vice versa? How much? Whither the .brand?

All these questions will now have to be resolved by the ICANN staff and board.

Currently, the Draft Applicant Guidebook limits registry/registrar cross-ownership to 2%, effectively barring existing registrars from applying to run new TLD registries.

While the VI working group has been working on the problem since February, positions quickly became entrenched based on the commercial interests of many participants. There has been no substantial progress towards compromise or consensus in months.

But the group did manage to reach rough agreement on a number of peripheral problems that will have a lesser economic impact on the incumbent registries and registrars.

For example, the board will likely be told that “single registrant, single user” TLDs, a variant of the .brand where the registry is the only registrant, should be looked into further.

On the core issue of cross ownership, three proposals are on the table.

One, the Free Trade Proposal, would eliminate such restrictions entirely. Two others, RACK+ and JN2+, would increase the limits to 15%.

The RACK+ proposal is the closest to the status quo in terms of barring vertical integration, while JN2+ contains explicit exceptions for .brand TLDs and smaller community registries.

Given the lack of consensus, it’s quite feasible that the ICANN board may decide to cherry pick from two or more proposals, or come up with something entirely novel. We’ll have to wait and see.

New TLD guidebook could be finalized in Cartagena

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2010, Domain Policy

I’ve got the official line from ICANN — it’s possible that the final Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain applications could be approved as early as December.

I reported late last night that, following its weekend board retreat, the final version of ICANN’s new TLD rulebook would be published before its public meeting in Cartagena, Colombia.

This morning, based on some reader comments and a closer reading of the board’s latest resolutions, I concluded that there was a pretty good chance I was wrong, so I asked ICANN for clarification.

I essentially asked whether we were looking at another six months of pondering Draft Applicant Guidebook version 5, or whether the next iteration would be the final one.

This is the official ICANN spokesperson line:

The next guidebook to be posted for public comment will be called the “next version” of the applicant guidebook – depending on public comment, the Board will decide whether to approve it as final (with changes) or request another iteration.

As stated above, the Board could consider approving the next version of the Guidebook as early as the Cartagena meeting or set a timeline for approval sometime thereafter.

So, there’s the answer: it depends.

Frankly, given the number and gravity of the unresolved issues on the table, I think Cartagena may be optimistic. But it’s not impossible.

(Cheers to @mneylon and @dot_scot for the constructive criticism.)

Do uncontroversial new TLDs exist?

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wants ICANN to drastically scale back the first round of new top-level domain applications, limiting it to “uncontroversial” strings.

In a letter last Thursday, interim GAC chair Heather Dryden wrote that ICANN should consider a “road test” or “fast track first round” made up of “relatively straightforward, non-sensitive and uncontroversial gTLD proposals”.

This doesn’t make much sense to me, for a few reasons.

First, Dryden’s letter does not attempt to define what such a TLD would look like, other than noting that they should include “community, cultural and geographical applications”.

Neither does it give ICANN any ideas about how it might separate out uncontroversial applications for special treatment before any applications have actually been received.

The idea might have worked had the Expressions Of Interest plan not been canned in Nairobi, but right now I can’t see an obvious way to do it without actually asking all applicants to file their apps before they have any idea of the rules their applications will be subject to or on what timeline.

It’s a recipe for, if not disaster, then for at least months and months of more delays as ICANN tries to design a parallel pre-approval process for uncontroversial strings.

Second, there’s no category of new TLD that is exclusively “uncontroversial” in nature.

The GAC wants “an initial fast track round for a limited number of non-controversial applications which should include a representative but diverse sample of community, cultural and geographical applications”.

This would seem to suggest that community, cultural and geographical TLDs are somehow less prone to controversy than other categories of application, which is not the case.

On the geoTLD front, you only need look at the large number of contested regional/city domains that we already know about – Berlin, Barcelona and Bayern, without leaving the B’s – to see that controversy is likely.

Even uncontested cityTLDs have potential for conflicts. Take .london, for example. Last time I checked, the one .london applicant we know of made it clear that .london would exclusively represent London in the UK.

If you’re a business in London, Ontario, or any other London, and nobody contests the .london bid, you’re forever excluded from the namespace. That, I would argue, could be controversial.

As for the cultural/ethnic TLDs, are the proposed .kurd, .eus (Basque) and .sic (Székely) TLDs really totally uncontroversial?

I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know they are designed to represent peoples largely originating from (relatively recently at least, if not currently) contested territories.

And what of “community” TLDs? It’s almost impossible to argue that this category is by definition less controversial, given that essentially any applicant is eligible to designate itself a “community” TLD.

There’s a pretty decent chance that one or more .gay bids will be a community-backed application. And I strongly suspect that the GAC doesn’t like the prospect of that TLD one little bit.

Third, ICANN has already executed two limited new TLD rounds.

The whole point of the 2000 round of new TLDs was to create a “test-bed”. Similarly, a key reason the 2003 round was limited to “sponsored” TLDs was to increase the TLD pool in an orderly fashion.

The reason the GAC says wants a limited launch this time is to help ICANN in “collecting relevant information” relating to the “economic impacts of a large number of new gTLD strings”.

There’s an assumption here that the behavior of registrants, such as trademark holders, will be the same when a small number of TLDs are released as when a large number are released, or that one can extrapolate the latter from the former, which may not be the case.

If ICANN wants a limited launch in order to measure the economic impact, it has two previous such rounds to study already. But if it wants empirical data on a large number of TLDs being launched, there’s unfortunately only one way to get it.

Personally, I think the GAC’s talk of “economic analysis” and “uncontroversial strings” is more likely a smokescreen for its real concerns about nations unilaterally blocking strings they don’t like at their borders, potentially leading to root fragmentation.

Crunch day for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN board has kicked off a two-day retreat during which it will attempt to finalize the rules for applying for new top-level domains.

The big question for many is this: are more delays or the cards, or will ICANN finally put a firm timeline on the first new TLD application round?

One constituency that seems bent on more delays is the intellectual property community.

Dozens of organizations, including Microsoft, AT&T, Time Warner, Adobe and Coca-Cola, told ICANN in late July that the current IP protections in version 4 of the Draft Applicant Guidebook are not good enough.

The proposed Uniform Rapid Suspension process has become bloated and burdensome and the Trademark Clearinghouse does not go far enough to proactively protect trademarks, they say.

Just this week, it emerged that the International Trademark Association has called for further studies into the potential economic harms of new TLDs, which could easily add a couple of quarters of delay.

But there are good reasons to believe ICANN is done with being pushed around by IP interests.

As I reported earlier this week, chairman Peter Dengate Thrush has recently publicly stated that the current state of intellectual property protection in the DAG is a compromise position reflecting the views of all stakeholders and that IP lawyers “have had their chance”.

It’s not just IP interests that will be affected by the ICANN board’s discussions this weekend. The board’s decisions on “vertical integration” will make or break business models.

The VI issue, which governs whether registrars can apply for new TLDs and whether registrars can act as registrars, is perhaps the most difficult problem in the DAG. The working group tasked with sorting it out failed to reach consensus after six months of debate.

The DAGv4 currently says, as an explicit placeholder, that there can be no more than 2% cross-ownership of a registry by a registrar and vice versa.

This would mean that registrars that want to get into the TLD game, such as Demand Media’s eNom, would not be allowed to apply.

It may also cause problems for publicly listed registries such as VeriSign and Neustar, or registries that already have registrar shareholders, such as Afilias.

The proposals on the table include raising the ownership cap to 15% to eliminating it altogether.

A move by ICANN to restrict ownership will certainly attract allegations of anti-competitive behavior by those companies excluded, while a move too far in the opposite direction could lead to accusations that the rules do not go far enough to protect registrants.

There are no correct answers to this problem. ICANN needs to find a balance that does the least harm.

Also up for debate will be the rules on how governments and others can object to new TLD applications on “morality and public order” grounds.

Following the report of a working group, which I blogged about here, it seems likely that the term “morality and public order” will be replaced entirely, probably by “Objections Based on General Principles of International Law”.

If the board adopts the recommendations of this “Rec6” working group, there will be no special provision in the Guidebook for governments to make objections based on their own national laws.

There’s also the suggestion that ICANN’s board should have to vote with a two-thirds super-majority in order to deny a TLD application based on Rec6 objections.

It’s another almost impossible problem. Some say the Rec6 recommendations as they currently stand are unlikely to appease members of the Governmental Advisory Committee.

In summary, ICANN’s board has just two days to define the competitive parameters of a market that could be worth billions, figure out how to politely tell some of the world’s largest IP rights holders to back off, and write the rule-book on international governmental influence in the new TLD process.

I predict a small boom in sales of coffee and pizza in the Trondheim region.