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Will .xxx be approved today?

Kevin Murphy, October 28, 2010, Domain Registries

Will the adults-only .xxx top-level domain be approved today, or will the hot potato be tossed to governments for a decision?

That’s the question facing ICANN’s board of directors, which is set to discuss the controversial TLD for the umpteenth time today.

The last resolution it passed on .xxx called for a public comment period, followed by a decision on whether the registry contract is compatible with old Governmental Advisory Committee advice.

With the comment period closed, it appears that all that remains is to decide whether a new GAC consultation is required before the contract can be approved or rejected.

Some opponents of .xxx are demanding a GAC consultation.

Diane Duke, director of porn trade group the Free Speech Coalition, wrote to ICANN this week, urging it to refer the application back to the GAC.

As Duke knows, many international governments are opposed to .xxx.

A week ago, Australia’s socially conservative, pro-censorship broadband minister, Stephen Conroy, also asked ICANN for another GAC consultation, expressing his “strong opposition” to the TLD due to its “lack of identified public benefit”.

And Conroy is surely not alone. There can be few governments that would be happy to be seen to endorse pornography, regardless of its legal status in their jurisdictions.

The GAC is firmly of the view that “controversial” TLDs present a risk to the global interoperability of the internet. The fear is that strings such as .xxx could lead to blocking at national borders and ultimately fragmentation of the DNS root.

Whichever decision ICANN makes today, it is sure to cause controversy one way or another.

Former ICANN chief speaks out against new TLD morality veto

Kevin Murphy, October 26, 2010, Domain Policy

Former ICANN president and CEO Paul Twomey has expressed his support for rules curbing the ability of international governments to object to new top-level domains.

Twomey’s suggestions could be seen as going even further to limit government powers in the new TLD process than previous recommendations from the community.

The advice came during the ICANN comment period on the so-called “Rec6” recommendations, which previously sought to create an objection process based on “morality and public order” or “MOPO” concerns.

There had been a worry from some elements of the ICANN community that backwards governments could use Rec6 to arbitrarily block controversial new TLDs on national interest grounds.

But a cross-constituency working group, which included a few members of ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, instead developed recommendations that would create a much narrower objections process with a greater emphasis on free speech.

Twomey, who quit ICANN in June 2009, has now expressed broad support for the working group’s recommendations, and suggests a few tweaks to make the process less open to abuse.

He said ICANN “should be careful not to view one government alone as having veto power over any particular gTLD string which is designed to serve a global or at least international user group”.

Notably, Twomey has urged ICANN to steer clear of the phrase “national interest”, which appears in the current Rec6 recommendations, and instead use “national law”.

He reasons that giving weight to “national interests” could enable fairly junior civil servants to object to new TLDs without the full backing of their governments or legislation.

phrases such as “perceived national interest” reflect a degree of political consideration which can be more fleeting, be expressed by very junior officials without Ministerial or Parliamentary approval, and often is a matter of debate between different groups within the country and government. In some respects it is similar to the phrase “public policy”. I remember a GAC member many years ago stating that “public policy is anything I decide it is”.

Twomey then recommends that even when a government has an objection based on an actual national law, that law “should only derive from a national law which is in accordance with the principle of international law.”

A law which violated human rights treaties, for example, or which was hurriedly passed specifically in order to scupper a TLD bid, would therefore not be valid grounds for objection.

Twomey’s reasoning here is fascinating and a little bit shocking:

without such a linkage, a unique, one-off power to a government would be open to gaming by well-funded commercial interests with political influence.

I am aware of some commercial entities involved in the ICANN space in years past that quietly boasted of their ability to get laws passed in certain small jurisdictions which would suit their commercial interests in competing with other players. This is not behaviour the ICANN Board should inadvertently incent.

I’ll leave it for you to speculate about which companies Twomey is referring to here. I don’t think there are many firms in the domain name space that well-funded.

Prior to becoming ICANN’s president, Twomey chaired the GAC as the Australian representative. He’s currently president of Leagle and managing director of Argo Pacific, his own consulting firm.

His full commentary, which delves into more areas than I can get into here, can be found here. The Rec6 working group’s recommendations can be found here (pdf). My previous coverage of the Rec6/MOPO issue can be found here.

US and Russia face off over ICANN veto power

Kevin Murphy, October 6, 2010, Domain Policy

The ruling body of the International Telecommunications Union this week kicked off a major policy-making meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico, and has already seen the US and Russia taking opposing stances over the future control of ICANN.

A group of former Soviet nations, chaired by the Russian Federation’s Minister of Communications, seems to have proposed that the ITU should give itself veto power over ICANN decisions.

A proposal filed by the Regional Commonwealth in the field of Communications (RCC) calls for the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee to be scrapped and replaced by an ITU group.

Consideration should be given to the expediency of having the functions of GAC carried out by a specially-constituted group within ITU with the authority to veto decisions adopted by the ICANN Board of Directors. If it is so decided, the ITU Secretary-General should be instructed to consult ICANN on the matter.

The proposal was first noted by Gregory Francis at CircleID.

It says that the GAC is currently the only avenue open to governments to “defend their interests” but that it has “no decision-making authority and can do no more than express its wishes”.

It also notes that fewer than 50% of nations are members of the GAC, and that only 20% or fewer actually participate in GAC meetings.

The proposal was apparently submitted to the ongoing ITU Plenipotentiary Conference but, in contrast to ICANN’s policy of transparency, many ITU documents are only accessible to its members.

A reader was kind enough to send me text extracted from the document. I’ve been unable to verify its authenticity, but I’ve no particular reason to believe it’s bogus.

The RCC was set up in 1991 to increase cooperation between telecommunications and postal operators in the post-Soviet era. Its board is comprised of communications ministers from a dozen nations.

Its position on ICANN appears to be also held by the Russian government. Igor Shchegolev, its communications minister, is chair of the RCC board.

At the Plenipotentiary on Tuesday, Shechegolev said (via Google Translate):

We believe that the ITU is capable of such tasks to international public policy, Internet governance, its development and finally, protection of interests of countries in ICANN.

Philip Verveer told the conference:

the ITU should be a place where the development of the Internet is fostered. The Internet has progressed and evolved in a remarkably successful way under the existing multi-stakeholder arrangements. Changes, especially changes involving inter-governmental controls, are likely to impair the dynamism of the Internet—something we all have an interest in avoiding.

ICANN itself has no formal presence at the Plenipotentiary, after ITU secretary-general Hamadoun Toure turned down a request by ICANN president Rod Beckstrom for observer status.

The conference carries on until October 22. It’s likely that we haven’t heard the last of the anti-ICANN rhetoric.

Do uncontroversial new TLDs exist?

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2010, Domain Policy

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee wants ICANN to drastically scale back the first round of new top-level domain applications, limiting it to “uncontroversial” strings.

In a letter last Thursday, interim GAC chair Heather Dryden wrote that ICANN should consider a “road test” or “fast track first round” made up of “relatively straightforward, non-sensitive and uncontroversial gTLD proposals”.

This doesn’t make much sense to me, for a few reasons.

First, Dryden’s letter does not attempt to define what such a TLD would look like, other than noting that they should include “community, cultural and geographical applications”.

Neither does it give ICANN any ideas about how it might separate out uncontroversial applications for special treatment before any applications have actually been received.

The idea might have worked had the Expressions Of Interest plan not been canned in Nairobi, but right now I can’t see an obvious way to do it without actually asking all applicants to file their apps before they have any idea of the rules their applications will be subject to or on what timeline.

It’s a recipe for, if not disaster, then for at least months and months of more delays as ICANN tries to design a parallel pre-approval process for uncontroversial strings.

Second, there’s no category of new TLD that is exclusively “uncontroversial” in nature.

The GAC wants “an initial fast track round for a limited number of non-controversial applications which should include a representative but diverse sample of community, cultural and geographical applications”.

This would seem to suggest that community, cultural and geographical TLDs are somehow less prone to controversy than other categories of application, which is not the case.

On the geoTLD front, you only need look at the large number of contested regional/city domains that we already know about – Berlin, Barcelona and Bayern, without leaving the B’s – to see that controversy is likely.

Even uncontested cityTLDs have potential for conflicts. Take .london, for example. Last time I checked, the one .london applicant we know of made it clear that .london would exclusively represent London in the UK.

If you’re a business in London, Ontario, or any other London, and nobody contests the .london bid, you’re forever excluded from the namespace. That, I would argue, could be controversial.

As for the cultural/ethnic TLDs, are the proposed .kurd, .eus (Basque) and .sic (Székely) TLDs really totally uncontroversial?

I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know they are designed to represent peoples largely originating from (relatively recently at least, if not currently) contested territories.

And what of “community” TLDs? It’s almost impossible to argue that this category is by definition less controversial, given that essentially any applicant is eligible to designate itself a “community” TLD.

There’s a pretty decent chance that one or more .gay bids will be a community-backed application. And I strongly suspect that the GAC doesn’t like the prospect of that TLD one little bit.

Third, ICANN has already executed two limited new TLD rounds.

The whole point of the 2000 round of new TLDs was to create a “test-bed”. Similarly, a key reason the 2003 round was limited to “sponsored” TLDs was to increase the TLD pool in an orderly fashion.

The reason the GAC says wants a limited launch this time is to help ICANN in “collecting relevant information” relating to the “economic impacts of a large number of new gTLD strings”.

There’s an assumption here that the behavior of registrants, such as trademark holders, will be the same when a small number of TLDs are released as when a large number are released, or that one can extrapolate the latter from the former, which may not be the case.

If ICANN wants a limited launch in order to measure the economic impact, it has two previous such rounds to study already. But if it wants empirical data on a large number of TLDs being launched, there’s unfortunately only one way to get it.

Personally, I think the GAC’s talk of “economic analysis” and “uncontroversial strings” is more likely a smokescreen for its real concerns about nations unilaterally blocking strings they don’t like at their borders, potentially leading to root fragmentation.

ICANN to publish final new TLD rulebook before December

Kevin Murphy, September 26, 2010, Domain Registries

The ICANN board of directors said it will publish the final Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domains before the public meeting in Cartagena this December.

(UPDATE: that statement is not 100% accurate. See this post for an update.)

The decision came at the end of its two-day retreat in Trondheim, Norway yesterday, which seems to have left a number of important issues as yet unresolved.

The matters of registry-registrar cross ownership and morality and public order objections are both still unfinished business, while the intellectual property lobby has at least one bone thrown its way.

On the morality or “MOPO” problem, now known as the “Rec6” problem, the board had this to say:

The Board will accept the Rec6 CWG recommendations that are not inconsistent with the existing process, as this can be achieved before the opening of the first gTLD application round, and will work to resolve any inconsistencies.

The Rec6 working group had recommended a re-framing of the issue that would eliminate the possibility of any one government blocking a new TLD application based on its own laws and interests.

So the board resolution sounds like progress, until you realize that every decision on new TLDs made at the retreat is going to be re-evaluated in light of a shamefully eleventh hour wish-list submitted by the Governmental Advisory Committee on Thursday.

Having failed to get what it wanted through cooperation with the Rec6 working group, the GAC essentially went over the heads of the GNSO, taking its demands directly to the board.

So much for bottom-up policy making.

Resolved (2010.09.25.02), staff is directed to determine if the directions indicated by the Board below are consistent with GAC comments, and recommend any appropriate further action in light of the GAC’s comments.

In other words, the board may only accept the parts of the Rec6 recommendations that the GAC agrees with, and the GAC, judging from its latest missive, wants the first round of applications limited to purely “non-controversial” strings, whatever those may be.

The board also made no firm decision of the issue of registry vertical integration and cross-ownership. This is the entirety of what it said on VI:

The Board will send a letter to the GNSO requesting that the GNSO send to the Board, by no later than 8 October 2010, a letter (a) indicating that no consensus on vertical integration issues has been reached to date, or (b) indicating its documented consensus position. If no response is received by 8 October 2010, then the Board will deem lack of consensus and make determinations around these issues as necessary. At the time a policy conclusion is reached by the GNSO, it can be included in the applicant guidebook for future application rounds.

That’s actually borderline amusing, given that the GNSO working group on VI has recently been waiting for hints from the board about what it intends to do, rather than actually getting on with the job of attempting to create a consensus policy.

The bone I mentioned for the trademark crowd amounts to knocking a week off the length of time it takes to resolve a complaint under the Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

The Trondheim resolutions also make it clear that the ICANN board will only be required to vote on a new TLD application in limited circumstances, such as when an objection is filed.

For all other applications, a staff mechanism for rapidly signing contracts and adding TLDs to the root will be created.