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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.

More dirty tricks questions raised in .africa saga

Kevin Murphy, September 2, 2015, Domain Policy

DotConnectAfrica leaned on a former employee and used suspected astroturf in an unsuccessful attempt to have the Kenyan government support its .africa bid, newly published documents reveal.

Evidence to the .africa Independent Review Process case published for the first time by ICANN Monday night shows how DCA CEO Sophia Bekele attempted to secure Kenyan backing via a former chair of its own advisory board, who had gone on to be an adviser for Kenya on the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee.

Emails suggest that this adviser tried to support DCA, against the wishes of his superiors in the Kenyan government, while they were distracted by a contested presidential election result.

They also show that Bekele on at least two occasions sent “news” stories published on web sites she has links to to another senior Kenyan official.

The full story is not yet on the public record — ICANN is still refusing to un-redact anything that the GAC has deemed confidential, including discussions on the GAC mailing list — but some interesting questions have nevertheless emerged.

Kenya divided

Three sets of emails were published.

One was between Bekele and a newly appointed Kenyan GAC adviser, Sammy Buruchara, dating to the ICANN meeting in Beijing, April 2013.

That was the meeting at which the GAC decided, by consensus, to issue advice to the effect that DCA’s .africa application should be trashed.

If Kenya, or any other single government, had disagreed with that proposed GAC advice, it would not be “consensus” advice and would therefore be substantially weakened when the ICANN board came to consider it.

Until his GAC appointment, Buruchara had been chair of DCA’s Strategic Leadership Advisory Board. DCA press released his move in March 2013.

It’s significant that Buruchara was not Kenya’s GAC voting “representative” — that was Michael Katundu — rather merely an “adviser”.

When Bekele (pictured here with Buruchara, March 7, 2013) was cross-examined during the IRP hearings in May this year, she was asked:

Bekele Buruchara

Q. Are you and he friends?

A. No.

Emails show that Buruchara had forwarded the proposed text of the GAC advice to Bekele, who then suggested three paragraphs of text saying the advice was “inappropriate” because the African Union Commission, as backer of the rival ZACR .africa bid, was a GAC member.

That email was dated April 10 — the Wednesday of the Beijing meeting — as the GAC was preparing its communique for submission to the ICANN board the following day.

It’s not clear from the emails published so far what, if anything, Buruchara did in response.

However, the next day, April 11, it seems his Kenyan government superiors were on his case. Buruchara told Bekele:

The matter has been escalated to our Government in Kenya with false information that I am contradicting the AUC.

I have responded accordingly.

Due to the sensitivity of this matter, I wish to leave it at the level of my previous post to the GAC until the matter settles.

Currently I am expecting a call from the President any time.

Expecting a call from the president was a big deal — Uhuru Kenyatta had been inaugurated just two days earlier following a month-long “hanging chads”-style legal challenge to his March 9 presidential election victory.

Buruchara elaborated in a subsequent email:

Someone from AUC called Ndemo and made a lot of noise to the effect that I have contradicted the Heads of State agreement in Abuja, which is obviously lies.

So Ndemo is beside himself with madness owing to the current transition process.

Anyhow I will try and manage the situation as I have not anywhere contradicted AUC’s position.

The “transition” he refers to is Kenyatta’s transition into government, not the ICANN/IANA transition.

“Ndemo” was actually Bitange Ndemo, then the Kenyan permanent secretary for information and communications, somebody Bekele had been simultaneously lobbying for Kenyan government support.

Buruchara was not in Beijing. The actual GAC rep, Katundu, went along with the GAC consensus against DCA.

In fact, Kenya had already issued a GAC Early Warning (pdf) against DCA, so it was significant that Buruchara was expressing support for the company.

In a second email thread, dated July 8, 2013, Buruchara seems to acknowledge that he aided DCA in some way but suggests that was only possible because of political instability in Kenya:

I am glad to note that DCA application passed all the stages except the GNP [Geographic Names Panel].

As you know I stuck my neck out for DCA inspite of lack of Govt support by Ndemo.

Going forward, I would certainly be ready to support DCA so long as the Kenya Govt is behind me as I do not think I will have the same chances as I had last time which was because the govt was in transition

In these July emails, which came less than a week after DCA’s application was rejected by the ICANN board, Bekele encourages Buruchara to file a challenge on behalf of Kenya, and to try to recruit other friendly governments to its cause.

Nothing ever came of that.

Buruchara’s alleged actions were one of the controversial points argued over in the DCA Independent Review Process case.

Many pages of the relevant evidence and argument related to Buruchara’s actions (or lack thereof) are still redacted by ICANN as “GAC Confidential”, so we don’t have all the facts.

However, the IRP proceedings revealed that Buruchara had emailed the GAC mailing list just before Beijing kicked off with reference to .africa.

According to DCA, Buruchara “explained that Kenya supported the AUC’s application for .AFRICA but did not think it was appropriate for the AUC to utilize the GAC to eliminate competition”.

Complicating matters further, there was a third Kenyan GAC “representative” in the mix, Alice Munyua.

She had been the Kenyan GAC rep, but according to DCA had left the position prior to Beijing. She was also involved in the ZACR application and the AUC .africa project.

The record shows that she spoke strongly against DCA’s application, as Kenyan GAC rep, during a meeting between the ICANN board and GAC in Beijing, April 9.

Buruchara, according to DCA, had told the GAC mailing list that Munyua was no longer a GAC rep and that the Kenyan government did not agree with her position. He was then evidently talked out of his position by other GAC members.

It’s not clear from the record whether Munyua was an authorized Kenyan GAC rep in Beijing or not. Archive.org shows her listed on the GAC’s member list in January 2013 but not May 2013.

It’s all very confusing, in other words.

What we seem to have in Beijing, at the least, is a Kenyan GAC delegation deeply divided and the possibility that one or more delegates tried to capitalize on political distractions back home.

With a partial record, it’s difficult to tell for sure.

.africa belongs to America

What’s more clear from the emails published by ICANN this week is that despite her claims to represent the African people, Bekele on at least two occasions told Kenyan officials that African governments had no right to .africa.

In one email to Ndemo, Bekele asserts that the US, rather than African governments, “owns” .africa. She wrote:

we do not believe that it is the place of African Presidents to give AU any sort of mandate for custodianship over a .africa resource that is owned by ICANN or US… the AU cannot do an RFP that is parallel to the ICANN process to appoint a registry on behalf of Africa as if they “own the resource”, which belongs to ICANN

This is in tune with Bekele’s repeated outreach to the US Congress to intervene in the .africa controversy.

While DCA is based in Mauritius, Bekele has stated in interviews that she’s lived in California for the better part of two decades.

More astroturf?

The newly published emails also show Bekele unsuccessfully lobbying Ndemo for Kenyan government support, in part by sending him links to purportedly independent domain “news” blogs that are widely believed to be under her own control.

In February 2013, Bekele sent Ndemo links to articles published on domainnewsafrica.com and domainingafrica.com.

These two domains were originally registered by Bekele, at her California business address, on November 21, 2011.

The Whois details for both domains disappeared behind Go Daddy’s privacy service on May 12, 2012, records archived by DomainTools show.

Both web sites take strongly pro-DCA views in matters relating to .africa and ICANN. Neither covers African domain name news except to the extent it relates to DCA or .africa.

Given that Bekele has a admitted history of using bogus identities to fake support for DCA, it’s my view that the sites are nothing more than astroturf/sock-puppetry.

domainingafrica.com is the site that accused me of being part of a racial conspiracy.

It’s worrying that this site was also being used to lobby government officials.

It’s perhaps fitting that Bekele’s email signature, in the newly unredacted emails, is “Nobody believes the official spokesman… but everybody trusts an unidentified source.”

All documents in the IRP case of DCA v ICANN, many still significantly redacted, can be found here.