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New TLDs have a timetable again

Kevin Murphy, March 20, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN has approved a timeline for the introduction of new top-level domains again. Barring surprises, it looks like this could be the final one.

These are the key dates in the timetable passed by the ICANN board of directors at its meeting here in San Francisco on Friday:

March 25 – Governmental Advisory Committee feedback on the San Francisco consultation due to be provided to ICANN for consideration.

April 15 – ICANN will publish the relevant edited extracts of the final Applicant Guidebook for 30 days of public comment.

May 20 – ICANN’s final consultation with the GAC. This will be held via teleconference and it’s not clear yet if observers will be allowed on the call.

May 30 – ICANN publishes the final Applicant Guidebook.

June 20 – The ICANN board of directors will meet on the first day of the Singapore public meeting to (presumably) approve the Guidebook.

June 22 – Large quantities of free alcohol consumed at the Singapore meeting’s Gala event.

This timetable seems to give plenty of time for the Guidebook’s remaining kinks to be worked out, and there seems to be considerable resolve in ICANN’s leadership to get this thing put to bed by Singapore, which will be Peter Dengate Thrush’s last as ICANN chair.

New TLDs timeline to launch

There are still a couple of questions remaining, however. It’s not yet clear when the first-round application window will open and therefore when the first new TLDs will be available.

ICANN has always said that the 60 to 90-day window would open after ICANN has concluded four months of marketing and global outreach – it wants to be certain that nobody can complain that they lost their brand because didn’t know the new gTLD program existed.

It’s been stated that the plan was to kick the outreach program off shortly after the Guidebook is approved, but there was some speculation in the halls at the San Francisco meeting last week suggesting that it could actually coincide with its publication.

If that happens, that would knock just a few weeks off the wait before applications open, so it’s nothing to get particularly excited about.

It seems we’re looking at the application window opening in early November at the latest, which suggests to me ICANN may opt for a 90-day window, in order to avoid having the deadline for applying falling during or just after the holiday period.

With the least-controversial applications expected to take at least eight months to process, we’re looking at October 2012 before the first new TLDs are delegated to the root.

With sunrise periods, landrush periods, marketing and so on, I doubt any new TLDs will be generally available before the first quarter of 2013. Single-user “.brands” could go into use sooner.

And of course, if somebody takes ICANN to court and successfully enjoins it, this may all wind up looking woefully optimistic.

How ICANN overruled governments on .xxx

Kevin Murphy, March 19, 2011, Domain Registries

In approving the .xxx top-level domain, ICANN has for the first time explicitly overruled the wishes of international governments, as represented by its Governmental Advisory Committee.

In its rationale (pdf) for the decision, ICANN explains why it chose to disregard the GAC’s views.

There are two pieces of GAC advice that have been quite important. One was delivered in Wellington in 2007, the other was delivered yesterday

The Wellington GAC Communique noted that “several members of the GAC are emphatically opposed from a public policy perspective to the introduction of a .xxx sTLD.”

That was repeated during a terse, 10-minute “bylaws consultation” on .xxx yesterday, during which the the GAC also said “there is no active support of the GAC for the introduction of a .xxx TLD”.

ICANN chose to reject (kinda) both of those pieces of advice, on the basis of a quite literal interpretation — that GAC support was unnecessary and the advice was not specific enough:

There is no contradiction with GAC advice on this item. Active support of the GAC is not a required criteria in the 2004 sTLD round. Further, this is not advice from the GAC either to delegate .XXX or to not delegate .XXX, and therefore the decision to delegate .XXX is not inconsistent with this advice.

Unfortunately, this gives pretty much no clue to how the board will treat minority GAC positions in future, such as when some governments object to new gTLDs.

But companies planning to apply for potentially controversial TLDs can take heart from other parts of the rationale.

For example, the board did not buy the notion that .xxx should be rejected because some countries are likely to block it.

Saudi Arabia has already said it intends to filter out .xxx domains.

The GAC was worried that this kind of TLD blocking would lead to a fragmented root and competing national naming systems, but ICANN wasn’t so sure. The rationale reads:

The issue of governments (or any other entity) blocking or filtering access to a specific TLD is not unique to the issue of the .XXX sTLD. Such blocking and filtering exists today. While we agree that blocking of TLDs is generally undesirable, if some blocking of the .XXX sTLD does occur there’s no evidence the result will be different from the blocking that already occurs.

It’s been noted that some Muslim countries, for example, block access to Israel’s .il domain.

One director, George Sadowsky, dissented from the majority view, as is his wont. In a lengthy statement, he named stability as one reason he voted against .xxx.

He said “the future of the unified DNS could be at stake” and “could encourage moves to break the cohesiveness and uniqueness of the DNS”.

He drew a distinction between the filtering that goes on already and filtering that would come about as a direct result of an ICANN board action.

He was, however, in the minority, which makes proposed TLDs such a .gay seem likely to get less of a rough ride in future.

ICANN staff grilled over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, March 13, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN’s San Francisco meeting kicked off this morning with staff members responsible for the new top-level domains program answering – and trying to answer – stakeholder questions.

The short version: it’s still not clear what the end result of San Francisco will be when it comes to new TLDs.

The big deal this week is ICANN’s ongoing consultation with its Governmental Advisory Committee, which remains the biggest hurdle before ICANN can approve the program.

GNSO stakeholders wanted to know the current state of play with this consultation, and how close ICANN is to wrapping up policy development and launching the new TLD program.

A key question is whether the two days of talks the board has scheduled for this week count as the final GAC consultation called for in ICANN’s bylaws.

If they are, the board and the GAC could wrap up their negotiations before the board meets on Friday, and the program is one step closer to approval. ICANN wants this.

If they’re not, we could be looking at further GAC talks stretching on into the weeks or months between now and the Singapore meeting in June. The GAC seems to want this.

ICANN senior vice president Kurt Pritz said that the board and GAC met for one hour yesterday, but that they still have not agreed on the “bylaws” designation.

He said that the board “has a sense of urgency” about approving the program as soon as possible, and that the GAC is newly “energized”.

Staff were asked, by VeriSign’s Chuck Gomes and Minds + Machines’ Antony Van Couvering, whether such a consultation is needed at all.

After all, as has been discussed in articles on CircleID and .nxt recently, there’s no mention in the ICANN bylaws of a “consultation” per se.

Deputy general counsel Dan Halloran said that this is an area still open for discussion, but indicated that reaching common ground on the substantive issues is currently the priority.

There seems to be a feeling that the current talks represent not only a necessary step in approving new TLDs, but also a landmark piece of cooperation in the sphere of internet governance.

On the substantive issues, ICANN has currently marked each of the 80 points the GAC has made with the designation 1a, 1b or 2, depending on whether agreement has been reached, only reached in principle, or has not been reached at all.

The focus this week is going to be on the 23 “2s”. These are the issues, Pritz said, where ICANN has determined that to agree with the GAC would run contrary to the GNSO’s consensus positions.

Philip Corwin of the Internet Commerce Association, which represents domain investors, wanted to know whether “1a” topics are currently locked – the ICA is unhappy with a 1a concession ICANN has made regarding the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

The answer from staff was basically yes — a 1a is where ICANN’s board and staff think “we’re done”, Pritz said.

The plan for the rest of the week is to hold open discussions on the new TLD process on Monday and Wednesday, with corresponding bilateral GAC-board sessions on Tuesday and Thursday.

Stakeholder groups have been invited to make statements before and to inform these sessions.

ICANN to skip stakeholders for more GAC talks

Kevin Murphy, March 11, 2011, Domain Policy

ICANN stakeholder groups will miss out on their usual formal sit-down with the board of directors at the San Francisco meeting next week, due to talks between the board and governments.

ICANN has confirmed the touted second day of Governmental Advisory Committee consultations, centering on new top-level domains and .xxx, for next Tuesday.

Tuesdays at ICANN meetings are informally referred to as Constituency Day, where the various interest groups that make up the “bottom” of ICANN’s policy-making process meet up.

Usually, the board moves between these meetings, gathering feedback on policy issues from stakeholders such as registrars, registries, ISPs, IP owners and non-commercial users.

According to some attendees, that won’t happen in San Francisco.

ICANN staff will still attend the constituency sessions, but the GAC consultation will take up the board’s undivided attention.

It make perfect sense, of course. There are only so many hours in the day, only so many days in the week, and ICANN is eager to put work on the new TLD program to bed as soon as possible.

But that logic is unlikely to prevent grumblings from some stakeholders.

Is .gay now safe from government blocking?

Kevin Murphy, March 6, 2011, Domain Policy

What are the chances of a .gay top-level domain being added to the internet, given the current state of play in the talks between ICANN and governments?

I think they’re looking pretty good.

While the details have yet to be ironed out, it’s looking like ICANN’s favored method for handling government objections to so-called “sensitive strings” would probably let a .gay slip through.

As you may recall, the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee had proposed a mechanism for objecting to TLD strings that said in part:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. The GAC will consider any objection raised by a GAC member or members, and agree on advice to forward to the ICANN Board.

The ICANN board would then be able to treat this advice in the same way its bylaws allow it to treat any GAC advice – it would be free to disregard it, if it had a good reason.

ICANN has seemingly agreed that this process is fair, but has added its own caveats. This is what chair Peter Dengate Thrush just forwarded to GAC chair Heather Dryden (pdf):

A procedure for GAC review will be incorporated into the new gTLD process. The GAC may review the posted applications and provide advice to the ICANN Board. As discussed with the GAC, such advice would be provided within the 45-day period after posting of applications, with documentation according to accountability and transparency principles including whether the advice from the GAC is supported by a consensus of GAC members (which should include identification of the governments raising/supporting the objection).

While it’s certainly a concession to the GAC’s request to be allowed to provide advice about potentially objectionable strings, I think the addition of “transparency principles” is important.

The GAC’s original proposal would have maintained the black-box approach to advice-making that currently characterizes its role in ICANN. It reaches consensus in private.

For example, all we know about the GAC’s opposition to the .xxx TLD application is that “several governments” object to it. We don’t (officially, at least) know which governments.

Complicating matters, the GAC believes that referring to this minority position in one of its official Communiques makes it consensus “advice” on .xxx that ICANN must consider.

If ICANN’s new transparency requirements had been applied to the .xxx application, it would make the call it has to make next week – whether to reject the GAC advice and approve .xxx – much more well-informed.

Returning to .gay, if the GAC is going to be obliged to name (and, depending on your perspective, shame) the governments that officially object to the string, it leaves a lot less room for back-room horse-trading leading to amorphous “consensus” positions.

Let’s say, for example, that Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates (three countries where the death penalty still applies to active homosexuals) were to object to the string.

How much support would that move receive from governments in less repressive parts of the world?

Which relatively liberal Western governments would be willing to put their names to a document that essentially implements homophobia in the DNS? Very few, I would imagine.

For such an objection to gather broader support there would have to be a real risk of “root fragmentation” – the threat that the Saudis et al could decide that, rather than blocking .gay, it would be easier to divorce themselves from ICANN entirely and set up their own competing DNS root.

But let’s remember that by the time .gay is live and available to block, there’s a good chance that .xxx – equally opposed by several nations – will have been in the root for a couple of years. The practice of gTLD blocking at the national level may well be the norm by that point.

So, let’s now say that the GAC’s advice, stating an objection to .gay and naming the limited number of objectors, is forwarded to the ICANN board. What happens then?

Absent some kind of objective scoring system, directors would each have to make a subjective decision. Do I want to give TLD veto power to a narrow, homogeneous subset of nations? Do I want lowest common denominator morality to dictate global internet policy?

I’d like to think that, faced with such a choice, most ICANN directors would vote with their consciences. I hope I’m not being naïve.

This is a scenario I’m exploring hypothetically here, of course, but these are the kinds of decisions that may have to be made for real over the coming few years.