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US Congresspeople tell ICANN to ignore GAC “interference”

Kevin Murphy, June 12, 2015, Domain Policy

A bispartisan group of US Congresspeople have called on ICANN to stop bowing to Governmental Advisory Committee meddling.

Showing characteristic chutzpah, the governmental body advises ICANN that advice from governments should be viewed less deferentially in future, lest the GAC gain too much power.

The members wrote (pdf):

Recent reports indicate that the GAC has sought to increase its power at the expense of the multistakeholder system. Although government engagement in Internet governance is prudent, we are concerned that allowing government interference threatens to undermine the multistakeholder system, increasing the risk of government capture of the ICANN Board.

The letter was signed by 11 members of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internet, which is one of the House committees that most frequently hauls ICANN to Capitol Hill to explain itself.

Most of the signatories are from the Republican majority, but some are Democrats.

It’s not entirely clear where they draw the line between “engagement” and “interference”.

The letter highlights two specific pieces of GAC input that the signatories seem to believe constitute interference.

First, the GAC’s objection to Amazon’s application for .amazon. The letter says this objection came “without legal basis” and that ICANN “succumbed to political pressure” when it rejected the application.

In reality, the GAC’s advice was consensus advice as envisaged by the Application Guidebook rules. It was the US government that succumbed to political pressure, when it decided to keep its mouth shut and allow the rest of the GAC to reach consensus.

The one thing the GAC did wrong was filing its .amazon objection outside of the window envisaged by the Guidebook, but that’s true of almost every piece of advice it’s given about new gTLD applications.

Second, the Congresspeople are worried that the GAC has seized for its members the right to ban the two-letter code representing their country from any new gTLD of their choosing.

I’ve gone into some depth into how stupid and hypocritical this is before.

The letter says that it has “negative implications for speech and the world economy”, which probably has a grain of truth in it.

But does it cross the line from “engagement” to “interference”?

The Applicant Guidebook explicitly “initially reserved” all two-letter strings at the second level in all new gTLDs.

It goes on to say that they “may be released to the extent that Registry Operator reaches agreement with the government and country-code manager.”

While the rule is pointless and the current implementation convoluted, it comes as a result of the GAC engaging before the new gTLD program kicked off. It was something that all registries were aware of when they applied for their gTLDs.

However, the GAC’s more recent behavior on the two-letter domain subject has been incoherent and looks much more like meddling.

At the ICANN meeting in Los Angeles last October, faced with requests for two-character domains to be released, the GAC issued formal advice saying it was “not in a position to offer consensus advice on the use of two-character second level domain names”.

ICANN’s board of directors accordingly passed a resolution calling for a release mechanism to be developed by ICANN staff.

But by the time February ICANN meeting rolled around, it had emerged that registries’ release requests had been put on hold by ICANN due to letters from the GAC.

The GAC then used its Singapore communique to advise ICANN to “amend the current process… so that relevant governments can be alerted as requests are initiated.” It added that “Comments from relevant governments should be fully considered.”

ICANN interpreted “fully considered” to mean an effective veto, which has led to domains such as it.pizza and fr.domains being banned.

So it does look like thirteenth-hour interference but that’s largely because the GAC is often incapable of making its mind up, rarely talks in specifics, and doesn’t meet frequently enough to work within timelines set by the rest of the community.

However, while there’s undoubtedly harm from registries being messed around by the GAC recently, governments don’t seem to have given themselves any powers that they did not already have in the Applicant Guidebook.

.wine no longer blocked after EU drops complaint

Kevin Murphy, June 11, 2015, Domain Policy

Donuts and ICANN are currently in the process of signing new gTLD agreements for .wine and .vin, after the European Union and wine sellers dropped objections.

As of today, both gTLDs are “In Contracting” rather than “On Hold”, according to ICANN’s web site.

ICANN revealed earlier this week that the European Union and various wine trade associations have both dropped their Cooperative Engagement Process complaints.

CEP is less formal precursor to a much more expensive and lawyer-hungry Independent Review Process complaint.

With the CEPs out of the way, Donuts is now free to sign its contracts.

Donuts won the auction for .wine back in November, but its application was frozen due to ongoing arguments about the protection of “geographic indicators” representing wine-making regions.

Governments, particularly in Europe and Latin America, had protested that .wine and .vin should not be allowed to launch until areas such as Rioja and Champagne were given special privileges.

Last October, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told the French government that it was negotiating with applicants to get these protections included in the contracts.

Either Donuts has agreed to such protections, or the EU and wine-makers have gotten bored of complaining.

My feeling is the former is probably more likely, which may be controversial in itself.

There is no international agreement on GI protection — the US and Australia opposed the EU’s position on .wine — so this may be seen as a case of ICANN creating new rights where none previously existed.

Governments go on a kill-crazy rampage with new two-letter domain veto

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2015, Domain Registries

ICANN has confirmed to new gTLD registries that governments now get to unilaterally block two-letter domains that match their home ccTLDs.

The organization has essentially given nations a veto — already enthusiastically exercised — over domains including il.army, it.pizza and fr.domains.

I’m not making this up. The Italian government has banned anyone from registering it.pizza.

Governments have already started invoking their new-found right, with dozens of domains already heading to the block-list.

The veto was revealed in a letter from Akram Atallah, president of ICANN’s Global Domains Division, to the Registries Stakeholder Group yesterday.

It has not been published yet, but I’ve had its contents confirmed by a few registries and I understand the RySG mailing list is buzzing about it today.

In it, Atallah says that two-letter strings that do not receive objections from the government with the matching ccTLD will be released within seven to 10 days of comment periods closing.

However, strings that do receive objections will remain blocked.

For labels that receive objections from relevant governments, the labels will remain reserved. Should the registry operator and the objecting government reach an agreement regarding the release of the label, the registry operator shall notify ICANN that it has reached agreement, and ICANN will approve the release request and issue an authorization. The label will no longer be a reserved name.

until there is Consensus Policy or a Board Resolution on this matter, ICANN can only follow the process outlined above. ICANN encourages further community discussions to resolve this matter, and until then, negotiation between the objector and the registry operator as a means to release this class of labels from the reserved names list.

New gTLD registries believe, as they explained in a recent letter (pdf), that neither ccTLD operators nor their governments own these two-character strings. They believe ICANN is creating new rights.

So far, two-character domains have been banned by default in all new gTLDs. It was kind of a placeholder policy in order to get the new gTLD program launched a few years ago.

ICANN did enable the release of letter-number, number-letter and number-number strings in December, but made letter-letter combinations subject to government comments.

Following a GAC outcry last month, the comment periods were extended.

All comments were to be “fully considered”, but it wasn’t clear what that meant until the RySG asked and Atallah replied yesterday.

Some governments are already using the comment period to exercise their new veto.

The European Commission, for example, has objected to eu.credit, eu.creditcard, eu.auction, eu.casino, eu.bingo and eu.law.

The basis for the EU objections is in most of the cases: “The new TLD at hand corresponds to a regulated market in many EU countries. Its release might generate confusion and possible abuses at the end users level.”

It’s a wonder that the EU doesn’t seem to care about those strings in its own .eu ccTLD, where they’re all registered by people that I suspect may lack credentials.

Does credit.eu look to you like the registrant is a credentialed member of a regulated financial services industry? If he was, he may be able to afford a better web site.

The Commission also objects to eu.community, because:

the terms “EU Community” or “European Community” are widely used

That is true, which makes me wonder why the EU is allowing community.eu to languish parked at Sedo. You’d have to ask the Commission.

Israel, meanwhile, objects to il.casino, il.bingo, il.law, il.chat, il.bible, il.country, il.airforce, il.navy and il.army

The Vietnamese ccTLD registry has objected to several vn. domains, but it’s not clear to me whether it has veto authority.

Italy has objected to it.pizza, it.bingo and it.casino. Really, Italy? You’re objecting to “it.pizza”?

Côte d’Ivoire objects to all ci. domains.

Spain objects to es.casino, es.bingo and es.abogado.

Again, I invite you to check out bingo.es and casino.es and make a judgement as to whether the registrants are licensed gambling establishments.

Taiwan has vetoed the release of .tw in all city gTLDs (such as tw.london, tw.berlin etc) over a “concern that the release of above-mentioned domain names may cause the degradation of statehood”.

France has objected to “fr” in .archi, .army, .airforce, .bank, .bet, .bio, .casino, .cloud, .dentist, .doctor, .domains, .finance, .lawyer, .navy and .sarl.

Again again, several of these domains are just parked if you flip the words to the other side of the dot.

As a reminder, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade said recently:

Come on guys, do not apply rules that you’re not using today to these new folks simply because it’s easy, because you can come and raise flags here at ICANN. Let’s be fair.

Does Chehade agree with Donuts on .doctor?

Kevin Murphy, March 24, 2015, Domain Policy

Should governments have the right to force business-limiting restrictions on new gTLD operators, even though they don’t have the same rules in their own ccTLDs?

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade evidently believes the answer to that question is “No”, but it’s what ICANN is controversially imposing on Donuts and two other .doctor applicants anyway.

Donuts recently filed a Request for Reconsideration appeal with ICANN over its decision to make the .doctor gTLD restricted to medical professionals only.

It was an unprecedented “Public Interest Commitment” demanded by ICANN staff in order to keep the Governmental Advisory Committee happy.

The GAC has been asking for almost two years for so-called “Category 1” gTLD strings — which could be seen to represent highly regulated sectors such as law or medicine — to see a commensurate amount of regulation from ICANN.

Governments wanted, for example, registrants to show professional credentials before being able to register a name.

In the vast majority of instances, ICANN creatively reinterpreted this advice to require registrants to merely assert that they possess such credentials.

These rules were put in registries’ contracts via PICs.

But for some reason in February the organization told Donuts that .doctor domains must be “ascribed exclusively to legitimate medical practitioners.”

According to Donuts, this came out of the blue, is completely unnecessary, an example of ICANN staff making up policy on the spot.

Donuts wants to be able to to sell .doctor names to doctors of any discipline, not just medical doctors. It also wants people to be able to use the names creatively, such as “computer.doctor” or “skateboard.doctor”.

What makes ICANN’s decision especially confusing is that CEO Fadi Chehade had the previous day passionately leaped to the defense of new gTLD registries in their fight against unnecessary GAC-imposed red tape.

The following video, in which Chehade uses .dentist as an example of a string that should not be subject to even more oversight, was taken February 11 at a Q&A with the Domain Name Assocation.

The New gTLD Program Committee meeting that authorized ICANN staff to add the new PIC took place February 12, the very next day. Chehade did not attend.

It’s quite remarkable how in line with registries Chehade seems to be.

It cuts to the heart of what many believe is wrong with the GAC — that governments demand of ICANN policies that they haven’t even bothered to implement in their own countries, just because it’s much easier to lean on ICANN than to pass regulations at home.

Here’s the entire text of his answer. He’s describing conversations he’d had with GAC members earlier in the week.

They’re saying stop all the Category 1 TLDs. Stop them. Freeze them!

And we said: Why do we need to freeze them? What’s the issue?

They said: It’s going to harm consumers.

How will it harm consumers? We started having a debate.

It turns out that they’re worried that if somebody got fadi.casino or fadi.dentist, to pick one of Statton’s [Statton Hammock, VP at Rightside, who was present], that this person is not a dentist and will pluck your ear instead of your teeth. How do you make sure they’re a dentist?

So I asked the European Commission: How do you make sure dentist.eu is a dentist?

They said: We don’t. They just get it.

I said: Okay, so why do these guys [new gTLD registries] have to do anything different?

And they said: The new gTLD program should be better or a model…

I said: Come on guys, do not apply rules that you’re not using today to these new folks simply because it’s easy, because you can come and raise flags here at ICANN. Let’s be fair. How do you do it at EU?

“Well, if somebody reports that fadi.dentist.eu is not a dentist, we remove them.”

Statton said: We do the same thing. It’s in our PICs. If fadi.dentist is not, and somebody reports them…

They said: But we can’t call compliance.

You can call compliance. Anyone can call compliance. Call us and we’ll follow up. With Statton, with the registrar.

What we have here is Chehade making a passionate case for the domain name industry’s right to sell medical-themed domain names without undue regulation — using many of the same arguments that Donuts is using in its Reconsideration appeal — then failing to show up for a board meeting the next day when that specific issue was addressed.

It’s impossible to know whether the NGPC would have reached a different decision had Chehade been at the February 12 meeting, because no formal vote was taken.

Rather, the committee merely passed along its “sense” that ICANN staff should carrying on what it was doing with regards implementing GAC advice on Category 1 strings.

While Chehade is but one voice on the NGPC, as CEO he is in charge of the ICANN staff, so one would imagine the decision to add the unprecedented new PIC to the .doctor contract falls into his area of responsibility.

That makes it all the more baffling that Donuts, and the other .doctor new gTLD applicants, are faced with this unique demand to restrict their registrant base to one subset of potential customers.

ICANN ditches plan to give governments more power

Kevin Murphy, February 25, 2015, Domain Policy

ICANN has quietly abandoned a plan to make it harder for its board of directors to go against the wishes of national governments.

A proposal to make a board two-thirds super-majority vote a requirement for overruling advice provided by the Governmental Advisory Committee is now “off the table”, ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade told a US Senate committee hearing today.

The threshold, which would replace the existing simple majority requirement, was proposed last August as a result of talks in a board-GAC working group.

At the time, I described the proposal as a “fait accompli” — the board had even said it would use the higher threshold in votes on GAC advice in advance of the required bylaws change.

But now it’s seemingly gone.

The news emerged during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation today in Washington DC, which was looking into the transition of US oversight of ICANN’s IANA functions to a multi-stakeholder process.

Asked by Sen. Deb Fischer whether the threshold change was consistent with ICANN’s promise to limit the power of governments in a post-US-oversight world, Chehade replied:

You are right, this would be incongruent with the stated goals [of the IANA transition]. The board has looked at that matter and has pushed it back. So it’s off the table.

That came as news to me, and to others listening to the hearing.

The original plan to change the bylaws came in a board resolution last July.

If it’s true that the board has since changed its mind, that discussion does not appear to have been documented in any of the published minutes of ICANN board meetings.

If the board has indeed changed its mind, it has done so with the near-unanimous blessing of the rest of the ICANN community (although I doubt the GAC was/will be happy).

The public comment period on the proposal attracted dozens of responses from community members, all quite vigorously opposed to the changes.

The ICANN report on the public comments was due October 2, so it’s currently well over four months late.

UPDATE 1: An ICANN spokesperson just got in touch to say that the board decided to ditch its plan in response to the negative public comments.

UPDATE 2: Another ICANN spokesperson has found a reference to the board’s U-turn in the transcript of a meeting between the ICANN board and GAC at the Los Angeles public meeting last October. A brief exchange between ICANN chair Steve Crocker and Heather Dryden, then chair of the GAC, reads:

DRYDEN: On the issue of the proposed bylaw changes to amend them to a third — two-thirds majority to reject or take a decision not consistent with the GAC’s advice, are there any updates there that the Board would like to — the Board or NGPC? I think it’s a Board matter? Yes?

CROCKER: Yes.

Well, you’ve seen the substantial reaction to the proposal.

The reaction embodies, to some extent, misunderstanding of what the purpose and the context was, but it also is very instructive to all of us that the timing of all this comes in the middle of the broader accountability question.

So it’s — I think it’s in everyone’s interest, GAC’s interest, Board’s interest, and the entire community’s interest, to put this on hold and come back and revisit this in a larger context, and that’s our plan.

So it seems that the ICANN board did tip its hand a few months ago, but not many people, myself included, noticed.