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.XXX domain contract could get approved next Thursday

The application for the porn-only .xxx top-level domain is on the just-published agenda for ICANN’s board meeting next Thursday.

The line item reads merely “ICM Registry Application for .XXX sTLD”, but I’m told that ICM and ICANN staff have already negotiated a new contract that the board will be asked to consider.

If the board gives it the nod, it would keep the .xxx TLD on track for possible delegation at ICANN’s Cartagena meeting in early December, meaning sales could begin as early as the first quarter 2011.

According to last month’s Brussels resolution, the board has to first decide whether the contract complies with previous Governmental Advisory Committee advice, or whether new advice is required.

If ICM jumps that hurdle, the contract will be published for public comment (fun fun fun) for three weeks to a month, before returning to the board for a vote on delegation.

Also on the agenda for the August 5 board meeting is the issue of whether to give Employ Media the right to liberalize its .jobs TLD and start accepting generic domain registrations.

In the HR industry, the .jobs debate has been just as loud as the .xxx controversy was in the porn business. Some companies think the changes would be unfair on existing jobs sites.

There are a few other intriguing items on next Thursday’s agenda.

The board will discuss the “International Dimension of ICANN”, “Data & Consumer Protection” and “UDRP Status Briefing”, all of which strike me as rather enigmatic, among other topics.

The UDRP item may refer to the ongoing debate about whether ICANN needs to have contractual relations with its UDRP providers.

Round-up of the ICANN new TLDs comment period

Today is the deadline to file comments on version four of ICANN’s Draft Applicant Guidebook for prospective new top-level domain registries.

Of the few dozen comments filed, the majority involve special pleading in one way or another – everybody has something to lose or gain from the contents of the DAG.

That said, I’ve read all the comments filed so far (so you don’t have to) and lots of good points are raised. It’s clear that whatever the final Applicant Guidebook contains, not everybody will get what they want.

Here’s a non-comprehensive round-up, organized by topic.

Trademark Protection

Trademark holders were among the first to file comments on DAG v4. As I’ve previously reported, Lego was first off the mark with an attempt to convince ICANN that the concerns of the IP lobby have not yet been resolved.

Since then, a few more of the usual suspects from the IP constituency, such as Verizon and InterContinental Hotels, have filed comments.

The concerns are very similar: the Universal Rapid Suspension process for trademark infringements is too slow and expensive, the Trademark Clearinghouse does not remove cost or prevent typosquatting, not enough is done to prevent deadbeat registries.

Verizon, a long-time opponent of the new TLD program and a rigorous enforcer of its trademarks, used its letter to raise the issue of cybercrime and hit on pressure points relating to compliance.

It brings up the KnujOn report (pdf) released in Brussels, which accused ICANN registrars of being willfully blind to customer abuses, and the fact that ICANN compliance head David Giza recently quit.

Two IP-focused registrars also weighed in on trademark protection.

Com Laude’s Nick Wood filed a very good point-by-point breakdown of why the URS process has become too bloated to be considered “rapid” in the eyes of trademark holders.

Fred Felman of MarkMonitor covers the same ground on rights protection mechanisms, but also questions more fundamentally whether ICANN has shown that the new TLD round is even economically desirable.

Felman has doubts that new gTLDs will do anything to create competition in the domain name market, writing:

the vast majority of gTLDs currently being proposed in this round are gTLDs that hide traditional domain registration models behind a veil of purported innovation and creativity

Well, I guess somebody had to say it.

Fees

There are concerns from the developing world that $185,000, along with all the associated costs of applying for a TLD, is too steep a price to pay.

The “African ICANN Community” filed a comment a month ago asking ICANN to consider reducing or waiving certain fees in order to make the program more accessible for African applicants.

Several potential TLD registries also think it’s unfair that applicants have to pay $185,000 for each TLD they want to run, even if it’s basically the same word in multiple scripts.

Constantine Roussos, who intends to apply for .music, reiterated the points he brought up during the ICANN board public forum in Brussels last month.

Roussos believes that applicants should not have to pay the full $185,000 for each non-ASCII internationalized domain name variant of their primary TLD.

He wrote that he intends to apply for about six IDN versions of .music, along with some non-English Latin-script variants such as .musique.

Antony Van Couvering of registry consultant Minds + Machines and .bayern bidder Bayern Connect both echo this point, noting that many geographical names have multiple IDN variants – Cologne//Koeln/Köln, for example.

Roussos also notes, wisely I think, that it appears to be a waste of money paying consultants to evaluate back-end registry providers for applicants who choose to go with an recognized incumbent such as VeriSign, NeuStar or Afilias.

Another request for lower fees comes from the Japan Internet Domain Name Council, which thinks geographical TLD applications from small cities should receive a discount, as well as a waiver of any fees usually required to object to a third-party application.

Contended Strings and Front-Running

Of the known proposed TLDs, there are several strings that will very likely be contended by multiple bidders. This has led to maneuvering by some applicants designed to increase their chances of winning.

Roussos suggested that applicants such as his own .music bid, which have made their plans public for years, should be awarded bonus points during evaluation.

This would help prevent last-minute con artists stepping in with “copy-paste” bids for widely publicized TLDs, in the hope of being paid off by the original applicant, he indicated.

Roussos thinks the amount of work his .music has done in raising community awareness around new TLDs has earned the company extra credit.

It’s a thought echoed by Markus Bahmann, dotBayern’s chairman, and his counterpart at dotHamburg.

The opposing view is put forward by rival .bayern bidder Bayern Connect’s Caspar von Veltheim. He reckons such a system would put “insiders” at an unfair advantage.

M+M’s Van Couvering also said he opposes any applicant getting special treatment and added that M+M wants an explicit ban on trademark front-running included in the DAG.

Front-running is the practice of registering a TLD as a trademark in order to gain some special advantage in the new TLD evaluation process or in court afterward.

(M+M’s owner, Top Level Domain Holdings, has reportedly been front-running itself – attempting to defensively register trademarks in the likes of .kids, .books and .poker, while simultaneously trying to fight off similar attempts from potential rivals.)

Roussos of .music responded directly to M+M this afternoon, presenting the opposite view and promising to use its trademarks to defend itself (I’m assuming he means in court) if another .music applicant prevails.

Rest assured that if we, as .MUSIC are faced with the possibility of being gamed and abused in a manner that we find illegal, we will use our trademarks and other means necessary to do what we have to do to protect ourselves and our respective community.

He said .music is trademarked in 20 countries.

Morality and Public Order

This was a hot topic in Brussels, after the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee agreed that it did not like the “MOPO” objection provisions of DAG v4, but could not think of a better replacement.

MOPO would give a way for governments to scupper bids if they do not like the morality implications. Anybody applying for .gay, for example, would have to deal with this kind of nonsense.

Jacob Malthouse of BigRoom, one of the would-be .eco bidders, reckons ICANN should treat the GAC the same as it treated the GNSO on the issue of vertical integration – remove MOPO from the DAG entirely in order to force the GAC to come up with something better.

The GAC had previously said it would address the MOPO issue in its comments on DAGv4, but its filing has not yet appeared on the ICANN site.

There’s a GNSO working group over here, but M+M’s Van Couvering notes that no GAC members have got involved post-Brussels.

Terrorism

Two commentators objected to the idea that an applicant could be rejected for involvement in “terrorism”, a term that DAGv4 does not define.

I reported on this a few days ago, but since then Khaled Fattal of the Multilingual Internet Group has filed a surprising rant that seems to indicate he has way more beef than really necessary.

Here’s a few quotes mined from the full comment:

it will alienate many in the international community who will choose not to take part in future ICANN processes including its New gTLDs, distrusting ICANN’s motives, or actively choosing to boycotting it, and causing many to seriously start re-considering alternatives.

as a Syrian born Arab American would I pass the IvCANN terrorism verification check as they are? After all Syria, my country of birth, is on the U.S. Government list of states sponsor of terrorism? And I admit, I do know an “Osama”, does that disqualify me? I Forgot to add, “Osama Fattal” a cousin. So would I pass or fail this check?

The arbitrary inclusion of terrorism as a measuring stick without any internationally recognized laws or standards is wrong and offensive to many around the world. If acted upon, it will be seen by millions of Muslims and Arabs as racist, prejudicial and profiling and would clearly indicate that ICANN has gone far beyond its mandate.

Vertical Integration and .brand TLDs

The issue of whether registries and registrars should be allowed to own each other is a thorny one, but there’s barely any mention at all of it in the DAGv4 comments filed so far.

The DAGv4 language on VI, which effectively bans it, is a place-holder for whatever consensus policy the GNSO comes up with (in the unlikely event that its working group ever gets its act together).

Most efforts on VI are therefore currently focused in the GNSO. Nevertheless, some commentators do mention VI in their filings.

Roussos of .music wants .music to be able to vertically integrate.

Abdulaziz Al-Zoman of SaudiNIC said VI limits should be removed to help applicants who need to turn to third-party infrastructure providers.

From the IP lobby, Celia Ullman of cigarette maker Philip Morris notes that there’s nothing in DAGv4 about single-registrant .brand TLDs. She writes:

would this mean that trademark owners owning a gTLD would need to open the registration procedure to second-level domain names applied for to third unrelated parties? In this case, what would be the incentive of actually registering and operating such a gTLD?

Clearly, the idea that a .brand would have to be open to all ICANN registrars on a non-discriminatory basis is enough to make any trademark attorney choke on their caviare.

JPNIC, the .jp ccTLD operator, also points out that DAGv4 says next to nothing about .brand TLDs and strongly suggests that the final Applicant Guidebook spells out just what a registry is allowed to do with its namespace (lawsuits are mentioned)

Disclaimer

I’ve paraphrased almost everybody in this article, and I’ve done it rather quickly. Despite my best efforts, some important nuance may have been lost in the act.

If you want to know what the commentators I’ve cited think, in their own words, I’ve linked to their comments individually throughout.

I may update this post as further comments are filed.

ICANN chair says new TLD guidebook could be final by December

Kevin Murphy, June 28, 2010, Domain Policy

Peter Dengate Thrush, chairman of the ICANN board, thinks there’s a chance that the Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains could be ready by ICANN’s next meeting, set for Cartagena in early December.

The board resolved in Brussels on Friday to turn its September two-day retreat into a special meeting focussed on knocking the DAG into shape.

Shortly after the vote, Peter Dengate Thrush spoke at a press conference (emphasis mine).

Soon after the closing of the [DAG v4] public comment period was a regularly scheduled retreat for the board to go and do what boards do at retreats, and what we’ve decided today to do is to use that two-day retreat to see if we can’t make decisions on all the outstanding issues in relation to the new TLD program.

That’s probably reasonably ambitious, there may still be a couple left, but we want to get as many of them out of the way as we can. That means that when we come to the next ICANN meeting in Cartagena in December we hope to be very close if not actually able to hand out the Applicant Guidebook for that new process.

I asked him what outstanding issues needed to be resolved before the DAG can be finalized. Instead of a comprehensive list, he named two: IP protection and the Governmental Advisory Committee’s “morality and public order” concerns.

The IP issue is “close” to being resolved, he said, but “there may still be issues”.

On MOPO, he said there is “a potential conflict emerging” between GAC members who value free speech and those who are more concerned with their own religious and cultural sensitivities.

When I followed up to ask whether it was possible to reconcile these two positions, this is what he said:

What we’ve done is ask the GAC is how they would reconcile it… now they are saying that they can’t see how it can be done. We see that very much as a problem either for the GAC to change its advice, or to provide us with a mechanism whereby that can be reconciled.

The Brussels GAC Communique (pdf), has little to say on MOPO, delaying its advice until its official DAG v4 public comment filing.

MOPO has already created tensions between the GAC and the board. The conversation at their joint meeting on Tuesday went a little like this:

GAC: We don’t like this MOPO stuff. Please get rid of it.

BOARD: Okay. What shall we replace it with?

GAC: Erm…

BOARD: Well?

GAC: It’s not our problem. You think of something.

BOARD: Can you give us a hint?

GAC: No.

BOARD: Please? A little one?

GAC: We’ll think about it.

So can we expect the GAC to get its act together in time for Cartagena? That, too, seems ambitious.

ICANN Brussels – .xxx approved but not approved

The controversy over the .xxx top-level domain has for the last few years, at least from one point of view, centered on opposing views of whether it was already “approved”.

ICM Registry has long claimed that ICANN “approved” it in 2005, and believes the Independent Review Panel agreed with that position. ICANN said the opposite.

Regardless of what happened in Brussels yesterday, when the board grudgingly voted to reopen talks on .xxx (to a surprisingly muted audience response), the question of whether .xxx is “approved” is definitely not over yet.

ICM tweeted shortly after the ICANN’s board’s decision:

@ICMRegistry: We are delighted to announce that the #ICANN Board has approved the .xxx top-level domain.

But a couple of hours later, ICANN chair Peter Dengate Thrush told us at a press conference that it categorically was not “approved”.

In terms of getting its point across to the media, ICM’s message trumped ICANN’s, judging by the headlines currently scrolling past me on Google News.

I guess this boils down to a question of definitions.

From the ICANN perspective, a TLD is presumably not “approved” until a contract has been signed and the board has resolved to add it to the root.

The board’s decision yesterday merely sets out the track towards that eventuality, with a few hurdles scattered along the way. In conversation with ICM people, I get the impression they believe the hurdles are low and easily surmountable.

Crucially for ICM, the issue of community support, the stick with which ICANN nearly killed .xxx back in 2007, is now off the table. There will be a quick review of ICM’s books and technical capabilities, but the views of the porn industry now seem pretty much irrelevant.

The only real way I can see .xxx being derailed again now is if the Governmental Advisory Committee issues future advice that unequivocally opposes the TLD.

As Kieren McCarthy noted in some detail over on CircleID, the GAC has never had a hell of a lot of substantial advice to impart about .xxx in its official communiques, so it’s difficult to see where a clash could arise based on its previous missives.

But with the GAC currently using bogus “morality and public order” arguments to jerk everybody around with regards the next new TLD round, it’s not entirely impossible that it could lob one final grenade in ICM’s direction.

This story ain’t over yet.

ICANN Brussels – some of my coverage

Kevin Murphy, June 26, 2010, Domain Policy

As you may have noticed from my relatively light posting week, it really is a lot easier to cover ICANN meetings remotely.

The only drawback is, of course, that you don’t get to meet, greet, debate, argue and inevitably get into drunken fist-fights with any of the lovely people who show up to these things.

So, on balance, I think I prefer to be on-site rather than off.

I was not entirely lazy in Brussels this week, however. Here are links to a few pieces I filed with The Register.

Cyber cops want stronger domain rules

International police have called for stricter rules on domain name registration, to help them track down online crooks, warning the industry that if it does not self-regulate, governments could legislate.

.XXX to get ICANN nod

ICANN plans to give conditional approval to .xxx, the controversial top-level internet domain just for porn, 10 years after it was first proposed.

Governments mull net censorship grab

Governments working within ICANN are pondering asking for a right of veto on new internet top-level domains, a move that would almost certainly spell doom for politically or sexually controversial TLDs.