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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.

Buy it or lose it? Governments could get first dibs on two-letter domains

Governments and ccTLD registries would get new rights to own two-letter domains in new gTLDs under a proposed ICANN policy.

These highly-prized domains, many of which are likely worth thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, would be subject to a mini sunrise period, under the proposal.

The so-called Exclusive Availability Pre-registration Period would be limited to those companies or government entities in charge of matching ccTLDs.

The measures are outlined in “Proposed Measures for Letter/Letter Two-Character ASCII Labels to Avoid Confusion with Corresponding Country Codes” (pdf), published by ICANN late last week.

The surprisingly succinct document outlines three things new gTLD registries must do if they want to start selling two-letter domains matching ccTLDs, which are currently restricted.

The key measure is:

Registry Operator must implement a 30-day period in which registration of letter/letter two-character ASCII labels that are country codes, as specified in the ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 standard, will be made exclusively available to the applicable country-code manager or government.

In other words, if you’re a government or company listed as the ccTLD manager here, you get 30 days of exclusive opportunity to buy the LL.example matching your ccTLD.

Until now, governments have been able to block the release of LL new gTLD domains matching their ccTLDs.

The new proposal, introduced in an attempt to settle a long-running debate about the most appropriate way to enable the release of two-character strings, appears to add a “buy it or lose it” component to existing policy.

Under the base New gTLD Registry Agreement, all two-character domains were initially reserved.

Then, in late 2014, ICANN said registries could release all letter-number, number-letter and number-number combinations.

Many registries have already released such names, some selling for thousands at auction. When Rightside released its LN/NL/NN names, some carried price tags as high as $50,000.

Letter-letter domains could also be released following a formal registry request to ICANN, but were subject to a 60-day period during which governments could object.

Almost 1,000 new gTLDs have submitted such requests, and almost all have been “partially approved”.

That means some governments objected to the release of ccTLD-matching domains. Over 16,000 unique domain names have been objected to and therefore blocked over the last year or so.

The new proposal would add an extra process under which these blocked domains could be released, with ccTLD concerns getting first rights.

Interestingly, it appears to bring ccTLD managers into the mix, rather than restricting the names simply to governments.

The Governmental Advisory Committee has been the main driving force behind demands for restrictions on LL domains, but the proposed policy appears to also extend rights to private entities.

Remember, many ccTLDs are operated independently by private companies, without local government oversight.

For example, .uk is managed by Nominet, a non-governmental entity. The UK government has blocked many uk.example domains from being registered. The new policy appears to allow either Nominet or the government to register these names.

The one-page proposal is light on some details. It does not say, for example, what happens when the government and the ccTLD manager both want the name.

In keeping with ICANN’s habit of staying out of pricing, it does not specify price caps either.

It does, however, oblige registries to ban registrants from pretending to be affiliated with the relevant government when they are not.

Governments also get to complain, and registries have to investigate, if the relevant domains are causing “confusion”, though registries do not appear to be under a strict obligation to delete or suspend domains.

The policy is open for public comment until August here.

Donuts wins .doctor

Donuts has emerged the victor of the .doctor gTLD contention set.

Competing applicants Radix and The Medical Registry both withdrew their applications last week.

The string wasn’t due to head to its ICANN last-resort auction until May 25, indicating that the contention set was settled privately.

.doctor has been the subject of some controversy.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee had insisted that .doctor should be reserved purely for licensed medical doctors.

Donuts had complained that this would rule out use by any of the myriad other types of doctor, as well as registrants using “doctor” in a fanciful sense (like “rug doctor” or “PC doctor”).

ICANN initially accepted the GAC advice, but changed its mind this February, declining to impose such restrictive language on .doctor’s contractual Public Interest Commitments.

So it seems that .doctor will be generally unrestricted.

Donuts will have to sign up to the standard “Category 1” PICs, which require the registry to work with relevant regulatory bodies, however.

Governments split on IANA transition

Kevin Murphy, March 7, 2016, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee is unlikely to provide its full backing to accountability proposals supporting the IANA transition.

In meetings at ICANN 55 in Marrkech over the weekend, a handful of GAC delegates publicly stated that they would block consensus over concerns the proposals reduce government power in ICANN.

The most vocal opposition came from Brazil, but it was backed up by the countries including Peru and Russia.

The proposals currently up for debate would make it harder for the ICANN board to disagree with consensus GAC advice, but it clarifies that non-consensus advice does not carry the same weight.

Currently, the ICANN board can reject GAC advice by a simple majority vote, but doing so kick-starts a bilateral negotiation process where the board and GAC have to try to resolve their differences.

The new accountability proposals would raise the threshold to 60% of the board, and the negotiations would only have to take place if the advice carried the full consensus of the GAC.

Under the GAC’s current operating rules, consensus means no one government formally objected to the advice. The accountability proposals would enshrine that definition in the ICANN bylaws.

The proposal was drafted like this to handle what is known as “Stress Test 18” — a scenario in which the GAC switched its decision-making mechanism to a simple majority vote, enabling it to more easily issue potentially more extreme advice.

Brazil finds the whole idea of Stress Test 18 “insulting”. Its delegate told the GAC yesterday:

We consider Stress Test 18 unacceptable. We have said this from the beginning. We think this contaminates the full proposal. I think there are many positive aspects in the proposal coming forward that we could accept, that we could support… I think this compounds a very ugly picture in which it is very clear that the real intent was to circumvent the possibility of governments having meaningful participation unless there is full consensus among its members.

Brazil was one of nine governments to put its name to a letter (pdf) last month criticizing the post-transition accountability proposals.

The letter points out that the current definition of GAC consensus would allow a single government to block consensus, even in the face of overwhelming support from other governments, simply by formally objecting.

This could lead to GAC “paralysis”, the letter stated.

Indeed, we saw something like this a couple of years ago when the US blocked GAC advice against the .amazon gTLD, before eventually withdrawing its objection.

Once it became clear yesterday that the GAC might not be able to provide full consensus on the accountability proposals, some GAC delegates worried aloud about what kind of message that would send to the rest of the world.

The proposals are inextricably linked to the IANA transition, which would see ICANN management of the DNS root zone become independent from US government oversight for the first time.

Some on the hard right of US politics, such as presidential hopeful Ted Cruz, are convinced that the transition will allow China to start censoring the internet.

.phone will be restricted after Dish gTLD auction win

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Registries

The new gTLD .phone is going to be tightly restricted, after Dish DBS won the contested string at auction.

The American satellite communications firm beat Donuts to the gTLD, judging by Donuts’ withdrawal from the two-horse on Friday.

This means that if you’re not a licensed telecoms or voice-over-IP service provider, you won’t be able to register a .phone domain, at least at first.

Dish originally applied for .phone as what became known as a “closed generic” — a non-trademark, dictionary word that would nevertheless be operated as a dot-brand, with a single eligible registrant.

Due to Governmental Advisory Committee advice against such business models, Dish changed its application this September to describe .phone instead as a “controlled” gTLD.

Its application states that only Dish, its affiliates and “Qualified Applicants” will at first be able to register .phone domains.

“Qualified Applicants” basically means any company licensed to run a telecommunications service anywhere in the world. The eligibility gate appears to be the “license”.

The application says Dish will reserve the right to open up the gTLD to further classes of registrants at a later date.

While it also says that Dish will not give itself or friendly registrars any “undue preference”, the telecoms industry is suspicious.

USTelecom, the industry body representing large and small US-based telecoms companies, wrote to ICANN in November to say Dish’s volte face was “unconvincing” and its proposals “simply fail to satisfy” ICANN’s rules banning closed generics.

It said in its letter (pdf):

While Dish purports in its amended application that the .phone gTLD will be operated as a “controlled gTLD,” it is in reality an exclusive generic TLD, prone to discriminatory and subjective determinations on which entities are “Qualified Applicants,” and a discretionary reservation “to open this TLD to additional classes of registrants in the future,” who “will not be considered members.”

USTelecom says it negotiated with Dish, in an attempt to resolve its earlier formal objection against the bid, to have Dish include some reassuring Public Interest Commitments in its application, but Dish refused.

ICANN, responding to USTelecom, said that any Registry Agreement Dish signs for .phone will include the clauses that prevent it operating as a closed generic.

Now that the contention set has been settled, Dish’s next step is to proceed to contract negotiations with ICANN.