The ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee deposited a shock fly into the wine-related gTLD ointment tonight, asking ICANN to delay approval of .wine and .vin on a technicality.
In its communique (pdf) issued at the end of the just-concluded ICANN 49 meeting in Singapore, the GAC said: “In the final deliberation of the Board there appears to be at least one process violation and procedural error”.
The procedure in question is the part of the ICANN bylaws that says the GAC “shall have an opportunity to comment upon any external advice received prior to any decision by the Board.”
The GAC therefore advises:
That the Board reconsider the matter before delegating these strings.
The GAC needs to consider the above elements more fully. In the meantime concerned GAC members believe the applicants and interested parties should be encouraged to continue their negotiations with a view to reach an agreement on the matter.
The only “external advice” referenced in the ICANN decision on .wine was the legal opinion (pdf) of French law professor Jerome Passa.
Reading between the lines (I have not yet listened to all of the GAC’s public deliberations this week, so I’m speculating) it seems Passa’s opinion was not provided to the GAC before the ICANN board made its call.
I’m further assuming that the EU or one of its member states spotted the bylaws provision about external advice notice and cunningly used it to revive the .wine debate.
The GAC has declined to object to .wine and .vin because countries such as the US and Australia disagree with the EU’s position on the international law governing geographic indicators such as “Champagne”.
But no matter what other GAC members think about the European demands GI protections, it would have been very hard for them to argue in favor of an ICANN board decision that violated process.
Even if there’s very little chance of rustling up a consensus objection against these two gTLDs, the EU seems to have successfully added delay to the approval process, giving it leverage over the applicants.
While this may not change the eventual outcome, it at least buys the EU more time to negotiate with the .wine and .vin applicants about protection for geographic indicators.
This apparent oversight, coupled with the controversy this week about rights protection mechanisms for intergovernmental organizations, makes me wonder whether ICANN’s legal department might need a refresher course on the ICANN bylaws.
Or maybe, more likely, the bylaws are just such a bloody mess that even the smartest guys in the room can’t keep track of them any more.
ICANN has approved the new gTLDs .wine and .vin, despite objections from the European Union.
In a resolution this weekend, published today, its board’s New gTLD Program Committee said “that the applications for .WINE and .VIN should proceed through the normal evaluation process.”
The resolution acknowledges the Governmental Advisory Committee’s lack of consensus against the two wine-related gTLDs, but not the EU’s view that geographic indicators such as “Champagne” should be protected.
European nations thought both gTLDs should be put on hold until the applicants agreed to these special protections, but the US, Australia and other nations disagreed.
ICANN sought the legal opinion (pdf) of a French law professor in its decision-making.
The EU is going to be pretty angry about this, but in the absence of a consensus objection from the GAC against the strings, it appears that the NGPC has made the right call in this case.
Donuts has asked ICANN to approved its .spa new gTLD application over the objections of the Belgian government, saying the town of Spa no longer has exclusive rights to the string.
As we reported at the weekend, Spa is asking Donuts and rival applicant Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council for an up to 25% cut of profits from .spa, as well as the right to help manage the TLD at the registry’s expense.
ASWPC has agreed to these terms, but Donuts has not. It says it offered Spa extra protections for sensitive names, but does not want to hand over any managerial control or profit.
Yesterday, Donuts wrote to ICANN (pdf) to say that “spa” is now so generic that no interest would be served by ICANN enforcing the city’s demands. Here’s the meat of it:
While the City of Spa maintains a historical link to the word “spa”, that word long ago evolved as a globally recognized generic term by people who have never even heard of the city of its origin. The public interest served by making that term available to a global community of spa users far outweighs any risk of confusion with the city of the same name. And for those names that may cause confusion, Donuts has provided a rigorous series of additional protections and controls.
The City of Spa gave the word “spa” to the world many centuries ago, and the world has done a great deal with it. Just as attorneys for the City of Spa don’t fly around the world handing cease-and-desist notices to resort operators and hot-tub manufacturers, we do not believe it is appropriate for them to overrun ICANN procedure to try to exert control over how that term is used in the Internet’s global addressing system.
I’m going to raise my hand to say that I’d never heard of Spa before this particular controversy arose, and I expect that goes for most of the people reading this article. Donuts surely has a point.
But that’s not to say Spa doesn’t have a point too. There are plenty of governments that managed to squeeze concessions out of applicants for gTLDs matching place names in their territories, with little complaint from applicants; it’s just that the line was drawn at capital cities, something which Spa is not.
Donuts urges ICANN to give no weight to the Spa-ASWPC deal and to move both applications forward to the next stage of the process — contention resolution.
We may see some progress at the ICANN meeting in Singapore next week, when ICANN will surely press the Governmental Advisory Committee for further advice on this string.
The Belgian government is blocking approval of Donuts’ bid for the new gTLD .spa until the company agrees to hand over up to 25% of its .spa profits to the community of the city of Spa.
It emerged in a letter from Spa published by ICANN this weekend that the city is also demanding a role in managing the TLD at the registry operator’s expense.
The gTLD has been applied for by Donuts and the Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council.
Not only does the string .spa match the name of the city, but also the English dictionary word “spa” is actually named after Spa, which has been known for centuries for its “healing” springs.
Despite this, Spa is not a capital city — it has roughly 10,000 inhabitants — so it does not qualify as a protected geographic string under the rules of ICANN’s new gTLD program.
Spa nevertheless wants a role in the TLD’s management, in order to protect the interests of itself and its local community, and wants some of the profits to benefit its local businesses.
According to the letter (pdf) from Spa outside attorney Phillippe Laurent, ASWPC has already signed a memorandum of understanding with the city. That MoU, published with the letter, states:
The turnover generated by the exploitation of the .SPA registry will be used in priority to defray reasonable out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the City as a result of its participation in the SPARC or any other of its activity related to the management and governance of the .SPA extension.
Additionally, 25% of the net profit generated by the domain names registered in the .SPA registry by any Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourgish, French or German person or entity will be earmarks to be contributed towards Internet and spa & wellness activities development in and for the City of Spa and its region, especially as related to the scope of the “.SPA” TLD, to be directed by the City of Spa.
The deal would also see ASWPC reserve 200 .spa domain names (included potential premiums such as poker.spa and golf.spa) for the city to do with as it pleases.
Donuts has refused to sign the MoU, saying it’s inconsistent with the Applicant Guidebook and sets a “bad precedent”. Spa has therefore refused to endorse its application.
The city has its national government on its side. In the April 2013 Beijing communique of the ICANN Governmental Advisory Committee, the GAC listed .spa as one of several bids needing “further consideration”.
This was reiterated in its Durban and Buenos communiques, with the GAC noting that “discussions” between “relevant parties” were “ongoing”.
Essentially, the GAC is delaying .spa from approval while Spa tries to get Donuts to agree to hand over part of its of .spa profits.
There was a somewhat testy exchange at the Buenos Aires meeting in November, after an ICANN director asked the GAC if it was appropriate for a governmental entity to try to get a financial benefit from an applicant.
The Belgian GAC representative responded later that “no money will flow to the city of Spa”, conceding that “a very small part of the profits of the registry will go to the community served by .spa”.
That now seems to be not entirely accurate.
The MoU sees Spa getting reimbursed for its self-imposed cost of inserting itself into the management of the registry, so some money will flow to it. But it will presumably be revenue-neutral to the city.
The issue of the 25% profit cut is a bit ambiguous though.
While the money would not flow directly into city coffers, the city would get the ability to direct how it was spent. Presumably, it could be spent on projects that Spa locals would otherwise look to the city to pay for.
With Donuts and Spa apparently at an impasse, ICANN recently told the GAC that it won’t sign contracts with either applicant, yet, but that it wants “a timeline for final consideration of the string”.
It also wants the GAC to “identify the ‘interested parties’ noted in the GAC advice.”
With Laurent’s letter and the MoU seemingly spelling out exactly what Spa wants and why, perhaps ICANN can move the issue closer to resolution at the Singapore meeting next week.
Is it a shakedown? Is it appropriate behavior for the GAC to hold an application hostage while it tries to obtain financial benefit for its local businesses? Or is Donuts unreasonably trying to exploit a city’s centuries-old cultural heritage for its own economic gain?
Or should that be Barzakh?
Rather than making the tricky decision on whether to approve .islam and .halal new gTLD applications, ICANN seems to have place both bids into permanent limbo.
It’s also put off calls on applications for .spa, .amazon, .wine and .vin, due to objections from the Governmental Advisory Committee.
On .islam and .halal, ICANN chair Steve Crocker wrote to Turkish applicant Asia Green IT System to say that the New gTLD Program Committee will not address the bids until AGIT has worked out its differences with the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.
He noted that AGIT has expressed a willingness in the past to work with the OIC, but that the OIC has formally decided to object to the two applications. Crocker wrote:
There seems to be a conflict between the commitments made in your letters and the concerns raised in letters to ICANN urging ICANN not to delegate the strings. Given these circumstances, the NGPC will not address the applications further until such time as the noted conflicts have been resolved.
This is not a formal rejection of the applications, but ICANN seems to have placed them in a limbo that will only be resolved when AGIT withdraws from the program or secures OIC support.
There’s also delaying treatment for .wine and .vin, which have become the subject of a raging row between Europe on the one hand and the US, Canada and Australia on the other.
Europe wants these two wine-related gTLDs to be subject to strict rules on who can register domains containing geographic indicators, such as “Champagne”. The others don’t.
ICANN in response has commissioned a third-party study on GIs, which it expects to be able to consider at its Singapore public meeting next month. Again, a decision has been avoided.
The two applicants for .spa don’t have any closure either.
Spa is the name of a town in Belgium, whereas the two applicants — Donuts and Asia Spa and Wellness Promotion Council — intend to use the string in its English dictionary sense.
There was a bit of a scandal during the Buenos Aires meeting last November when it was suggested that Belgium was using its position on the GAC to shake down the applicants for money.
Belgium denied this, saying the city of Spa didn’t stand to gain financially from the deals that it was trying to make with applicants. Some money would go to “the community served by .spa”, Belgium said, without elaboration.
ICANN has now decided to put .spa on hold, but wants to know more about these talks:
ICANN will not enter into registry agreements with applicants for the identified string at this time. The NGPC notes concern about concluding the discussions with the applicants and will request the GAC to (1) provide a timeline for final consideration of the string, and (2) identify the “interested parties” noted in the GAC advice.
Finally, ICANN has yet again delayed making a call on Amazon’s application for .amazon — until at least Singapore — out of an abundance of legal caution.
The GAC recommended that ICANN should reject .amazon because a few Latin American states claim ownership of the string due to it being the same as the Amazon region they share.
Amazon and others claim that it would be in violation of international law that prevents governments interfering with the use of trademarks for the GAC to block .amazon.
ICANN’s NGPC said:
ICANN has commissioned an independent, third-party expert to provide additional analysis on the specific issues of application of law at issue, which may focus on legal norms or treaty conventions relied on by Amazon or governments. The analysis is expected to be completed in time for the ICANN Singapore meeting so that the NGPC can consider it in Singapore.
In my view, the .amazon issue is the one most likely to bring a lawsuit to ICANN’s doorstep, so the organization clearly wants to get its legal position straight before making a call one way or the other.