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Details of ICANN’s government showdown emerge

Kevin Murphy, February 1, 2011, Domain Registries

Eight governments will face off against nine ICANN directors and an outside lawyer at the Governmental Advisory Committee showdown in Brussels at the end of the month.

That’s according to a draft agenda for the two-day bilateral meeting on new top-level domains, posted to an ICANN mailing list over the weekend.

The GAC’s 12 remaining concerns appear to have lumped together into eight thematic sessions, each of which is assigned one or more GAC reps, ICANN directors and staffers to “lead” the discussions.

The lead governments are: the US, UK, European Commission, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sri Lanka and Kenya. The US will lead or jointly lead three of the eight sessions.

Bruce Tonkin of Melbourne IT has been assigned the unenviable task of representing the ICANN board on the “morality and public order objections” issue, which the US government is currently trying to recast as a governmental right of veto over new TLDs.

Tonkin recently told ICANN’s GNSO Council that he believes Brussels will be focused on trying to understand the GAC’s current objections to new TLDs and help the GAC understand where ICANN has tried to take its previous advice into account.

If the GAC still does not believe that their advice has been heeded, the Board and GAC may discuss how the GAC advice could be taken into account in such a way that the interests of the overall ICANN community continue to be balanced.

He added that any “significant changes” proposed post-Brussels will likely be taken to the rest of the ICANN community for discussion at the San Francisco meeting, March 13.

Any changes proposed by the GAC would have to be “mutually agreeable between the GAC and the rest of the ICANN community”, he wrote.

The trademark protection discussion, likely to be one of the livelier sessions, will be led by the US, UK and Sri Lanka, with Rita Rodin Johnston, Ram Mohan and Gonzalo Navarro representing the board.

ICANN also plans to lawyer up. According to the document, the sole board lead on registry-registrar separation is Joe Sims, ICANN’s long-time outside counsel, a partner with the law firm Jones Day.

US wants veto power over new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 29, 2011, Domain Registries

The United States is backing a governmental power grab over ICANN’s new top-level domains program.

In a startling submission to the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, a copy of which I have obtained, the US says that governments should get veto power over TLDs they are uncomfortable with:

Any GAC member may raise an objection to a proposed string for any reason. If it is the consensus position of the GAC not to oppose objection raised by a GAC member or members, ICANN shall reject the application.

In other words, if Uganda objected to .gay, Iran objected to .jewish, or Egypt objected to .twitter, and no other governments opposed those objections, the TLD applications would be killed off.

The fate of TLDs representing marginal communities or controversial brands could well end up subject to back-room governmental horse-trading, rather than the objective, transparent, predictable process the ICANN community has been trying to create for the last few years.

The amendments the US is calling for would also limit the right to object to a TLD on “morality” grounds to members of the GAC, while the current Applicant Guidebook is much broader.

The rationale for these rather Draconian proposals is stability and “universal resolvability”.

The worry seems to be that if some nations start blocking TLDs, they may well also decide to start up their own rival DNS root, fragmenting the internet (and damaging the special role the US has in internet governance today).

The US also wants TLDs such as “.bank” or “.pharmacy” more closely regulated (or blocked altogether) and wants “community” applications more strictly defined.

In the current ICANN Applicant Guidebook, any applicant can designate their application “community-based”, in order to potentially strengthen its chances against rival bids.

But the US wants the Guidebook amended to contain the following provisions:

“Community-based strings” include those that purport to represent or that embody a particular group of people or interests based on historical components of identity (such as nationality, race or ethnicity, religion or religious affiliation, culture or particular social group, and/or a language or linguistic group). In addition, those strings that refer to particular sectors, in particular those subject to national regulation (such as .bank, .pharmacy) are also “community-based” strings.

In the event the proposed string is either too broad to effectively identify a single entity as the relevant authority or appropriate manager, or is sufficiently contentious that an appropriate manager cannot be identified and/or agreed, the application should be rejected.

In practice, this could potentially kill off pretty much every vertical TLD you can think of, such as .bank, .music and .hotel. How many industries have a “single entity” overseeing them globally?

While the goal appears to be noble – nobody wants a .bank or .pharma managed by hucksters – the Community Objection procedure in the Guidebook arguably already provides protection here.

The US also wants the policy allowing the vertical integration of registries and registrars reining in, for TLD applicants to justify the costs their domains will incur on others, and a dramatic overhaul of the trademark protection mechanisms in the Guidebook.

In short, the US wants the new TLDs program substantially overhauled, in ways that are certain to draw howls of protest from many in the ICANN community.

The document does not appear to be official GAC policy yet. It could well be watered down before the GAC meets the ICANN board in Brussels at the end of February.

ICANN said earlier this week that it plans to approve a Guidebook “as close as practically possible” to the current draft, and heavily hinted that it wants to do so at its San Francisco meeting in March.

But if many of the US recommendations were to make it through Brussels, that’s a deadline that could be safely kissed goodbye.

Porn set to steal the show in San Francisco

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2011, Domain Registries

ICM Registry’s .xxx top-level domain looks set to grab the headlines at ICANN’s meeting in San Francisco, due to government-forced delays.

While ICANN is hoping to approve its new top-level domains program in March, that decision may wind up receiving less media attention than the final approval of the porn-only domain.

ICANN last month said that it wanted to hold a final consultation to resolve its differences with the Governmental Advisory Committee – which broadly objects to .xxx – in February 2011.

This referred to a proposed meeting between the GAC and the board, which has now been officially scheduled for February 28 in Brussels.

But a resolution carried by ICANN this week has pushed the consultation back to “no later than Thursday 17 March, 2011”, the day before its San Francisco meeting.

That would put the sign-off of ICM’s contract on the same billing as the planned final approval of the new top-level domains Applicant Guidebook and the launch of the new TLDs program.

San Francisco is set to be the focus of unprecedented media attention, due to its location and the likely presence of Bill Clinton. We’re probably looking at tighter stage management than usual.

With that in mind, I expect ICANN bosses won’t be too happy that porn-friendly .xxx is likely to steal away many column inches they would prefer devoted to new TLDs.

Porn in headlines gets clicks. Readers understand it, and you generally don’t need to explain to an editor what a TLD is. I know which story would be easier for me to sell.

Had ICANN put .xxx on the agenda for Brussels – which does not appear to have been ruled out yet – it could have wrapped up the ICM saga with a resolution quite quickly afterward.

That would have given ICM a week or so of undiluted media coverage, and the new TLDs program would not have had to share the spotlight with porn come San Francisco.

The question is: why is .xxx apparently not on the agenda for Brussels? Given ICANN’s previous decision to hold the meeting in February, responsibility seems to lie with the GAC.

Rumor has it that there’s a bit of a power struggle going on behind the scenes, with some elements of the GAC resistant to make Brussels the official final .xxx consultation.

Time will tell whether this position is firm or flexible.

ICANN sets March deadline for new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 28, 2011, Domain Registries

ICANN appears determined to put debates about its new top-level domains program to bed at its San Francisco meeting in March.

The resolutions from Tuesday’s ICANN board meeting, published this evening, give every indication that ICANN wants an end to the delays.

This seems to mean it will take a hard line with its Governmental Advisory Committee, with which it is due to meet in Brussels at the end of February.

The board resolved that it “intends to progress toward launching the New gTLD Program, as close as practically possible to the form as set out in the Proposed Final Applicant Guidebook.”

It remains open, however, to take action on the GAC’s concerns, which include trademark protection and the treatment of geographic strings.

It wants the final GAC consultation, which is mandated by its bylaws, to take place March 17, the day before the board meets in San Francisco.

This is encouraging news for anybody who wants to apply for a new TLD, as it means ICANN would be able to launch the program shortly thereafter.

If that happens, it could be able to start accepting applications possibly as early as mid-July (although a late-August/early September window may be more likely).

More on this tomorrow.

.XXX demands approval in Brussels

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2011, Domain Registrars

ICM Registry has called on ICANN to quickly give final approval to its .xxx top-level domain contract after its meeting with governments next month.

Company president Stuart Lawley, in a letter to ICANN (pdf), said ICM has “invested extraordinary resources” in its TLD proposal and has waited almost seven years to get into the DNS root.

Its hopes of getting the nod from ICANN’s board of directors in Cartagena last month were dashed, when it was decided that a final consultation with the Governmental Advisory Committee was required.

That consultation is set to take place in Brussels at the end of February (although ICANN’s announcement of the meeting last Friday conspicuously made no mention of .xxx).

Lawley writes:

ICM Registry urges the ICANN Board to fulfill its explicit commitments to ICM Registry and to the ICANN community, and to uphold the integrity of the ICANN process by conducting and completing its consultations with the GAC

Neither ICM Registry nor the ICANN community can be expected to stand by while ICANN allows yet another self-imposed deadline on this matter to come and go without a plausible explanation.

The letter notes that it’s almost a year since ICANN’s Independent Review Panel told the organization that, despite its protestations to the contrary, .xxx had already been approved.

Lawley tells me ICM is spending, on average, $100,000 a month to keep the company ticking over. He believes that the proposed registry contract has dealt with all of the GAC’s concerns.

The one concern it will never be able to avoid, of course, is that .xxx is for porn, and there are plenty of governments (be they Middle Eastern theocracies, communist Asian states or conservative Western democracies) opposed to porn in principle.

The GAC said in an official Communique in 2006 that “several members of the GAC are emphatically opposed from a public policy perspective to the introduction of a .xxx sTLD.”

As far as I can tell, that’s pretty much the only major stumbling block remaining before ICM can sign a registry contract.

UK GAC rep Mark Carvell told me yesterday that the GAC believes the 2006 statement constitutes “advice” that ICANN is duty-bound to take into account, even though it was not a consensus GAC position.

In my opinion, ICANN has no choice but to disregard this advice.

If we suddenly start living in a world where the public policies of a handful of backward nations are sufficient to veto a TLD, then we may as well pack up the whole internet and move it to Saudi Arabia or Utah.