Plural gTLDs could be a casualty as ICANN accepts big chunk of GAC advice

ICANN has accepted nine pieces of Governmental Advisory Committee advice pertaining to new gTLDs, essentially killing off two applications and putting question marks over many more.

Notably, the question of whether plural and singular versions of the same string should be allowed to coexist has been reopened for debate, affecting as many as 98 applications.

ICANN’s New gTLD Program Committee, which carries board powers but does not include directors with conflicts of interest, this week passed a resolution that addresses a good chunk of the GAC’s Beijing communique.

It does not discuss any of the amorphous “safeguard” advice from the document, which was subject to a recently closed public comment period and is likely to take much longer to resolve.

By far the line item with the broadest immediate impact is this:

The NGPC accepts this advice and will consider whether to allow singular and plural versions of the same string.

That’s right folks, singular and plural gTLDs (eg, .car and .cars) may not be allowed to coexist after all.

Using a broad interpretation (that treats .new and .news as clashes, for example), 98 applications could be affected by this decision.

Singular vs plural is a contentious issue with some strongly held religious views. Whether you come down on one side or the other depends largely on how you see new gTLDs being used in future.

Proponents of coexistence see a future of 30,000 gTLDs being used as direct navigation and search tools, while opponents worry about the risk of freeloading plural registries making a killing from unnecessary defensive registrations.

The NGPC did not say how the debate would be moved forward, but I’d be surprised if it didn’t involved the broader community through public comments or meetings in Durban next month.

Ding dong…?

Two line items appear to put the final nails in the coffins of two new gTLD applications: DotConnectAfrica’s .africa and GCCIX WLL’s .gcc.

Both clash with the names of geographic regions (.gcc is for Gulf Cooperation Council, a name often associated with nations in the Arabian/Persian Gulf) and received the GAC’s strongest possible form of objection.

In both cases, the NGPC said the applications “will not be approved” and invited the applicants to withdraw.

However, it gave both applicants the right to appeal using “ICANN’s accountability mechanisms”.

Islamic strings on life support

Some governments in the GAC had taken issue with the applications for strings such as .islam and .halal, and the NGPC said it “stands ready to enter into dialogue with the GAC on this matter”.

That’s the Applicant Guidebook-mandated response when the GAC cannot reach a consensus that an application should be killed off.

Amazon among geo strings delayed

As expected, the NGPC decided to work with the GAC’s extended timetable for the consideration of 19 applications whose chosen strings clash with geographic names such as .thai and .persiangulf.

Basically, the GAC asked for more time to discuss them.

In response, ICANN will not delay Initial Evaluation for these applications, but it will not sign contracts with the applicants until the GAC has issued its final advice.

The list includes two big trademarks: retail giant Amazon and the clothing brand Patagonia.

Both will have to wait until at least Durban to discover their fate.

The list also includes .wine and .vin, because some in the wine industry have been kicking up a stink about the protection of special geographic identifiers (eg Champagne, Bordeaux) at the second-level.

Weasel words on community objections

There’s one piece of advice that the NGPC said it has “accepted” but which it clearly has not.

The GAC had said this:

The GAC advises the Board that in those cases where a community, which is clearly impacted by a set of new gTLD applications in contention, has expressed a collective and clear opinion on those applications, such opinion should be duly taken into account, together with all other relevant information.

I think any reasonable interpretation of this item would require ICANN or somebody else to make a subjective judgement call on which applications should win certain contention sets.

To my mind, the advice captures contested strings such as .book (where publishers hate the idea of Amazon running it as a closed generic) and .music (where the music industry favors a restricted registration policy).

But ICANN, always reluctant to have to pick winners and losers, seems to have chosen to interpret the advice somewhat differently. In its response, it states:

The NGPC accepts this advice. Criterion 4 for the Community Priority Evaluation process takes into account “community support and/or opposition to the application” in determining whether to award priority to a community application in a contention set. (Note however that if a contention set is not resolved by the applicants or through a community priority evaluation then ICANN will utilize an auction as the objective method for resolving the contention.)

I don’t think this covers the GAC’s advice at all, and I think the NGPC knows it.

As the parenthetical comment says, communities’ views are only taken into account if an applicant has filed a formal “Community” bid and chooses to resolve its contention set with a Community Priority Evaluation.

To return to the above examples, this may well capture .music, where at least one applicant intends to go the CPE route, but it does not capture .book, where there are no Community applications.

There are 33 remaining Community applications in 29 contention sets.

Will the GAC accept the NGPC’s response as a proper implementation of its advice? If it’s paying attention and feels strongly enough about the issue, my guess is probably not.

More special favors for the Olympics

The International Olympic Committee holds extraordinary power over governments, which has resulted in the GAC repeatedly humiliating itself by acting an Olympic lobbyist before the ICANN board.

In the Beijing communique, it asked ICANN to make sure that the temporary temporary protections granted to Olympics and Red Cross are made permanent in the Applicant Guidebook.

Prior to April, the Registry Agreement in the Guidebook said that the protected strings “shall be initially reserved”, but this language has been removed in the current version of the RA.

The NGPC said that this was due to the GAC’s advice. Box ticked.

But here’s the kicker: the protections will still be subject to a Generic Names Supporting Organization Policy Development Process.

In other words, the discussion is not over. The rest of the ICANN community will get their say and ICANN will try to reconcile what the GNSO decides with what the GAC wants at a later date.

While “accepting” the GAC’s advice, it’s actually proposing something of a compromise. The NGPC said:

Until such time as the GNSO approves recommendations in the PDP and the Board adopts them, the NGPC’s resolutions protecting IOC/RCRC names will remain in place. Should the GNSO submit any recommendations on this topic, the NGPC will confer with the GAC prior to taking action on any such recommendations.

New gTLD registries will not be able to argue in future that their contracts only require them to “initially” protect the Olympic and Red Cross strings, but at the same time the GNSO as a whole gets a say in whether permanent protections are warranted.

It seems like a pretty nice compromise proposal from ICANN — particularly given the problems it’s been having with the GNSO recently — but I doubt the GAC will see it that way.

Other stuff

There were two other items:

  • The GAC had advised that no new gTLD contracts should be approved until the 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement is finalized. ICANN agreed. It’s already built into the timetable.
  • The GAC wanted its existing views taken into account in the current, ongoing, formative discussions about a replacement service for Whois. That’s already happening.

In summary…

…it’s a pretty sensible response from the NGPC, with the exception of the weaselly response to the “community views” advice.

Taken as a whole, it’s notable for its respect for other stakeholders and processes, which is admirable.

Even in the case of .africa and .gcc, which I firmly believed would be dead today, it’s given the applicants the opportunity to go through the appropriate appeals channels.

The GAC, it seems, doesn’t even get the last word with its kiss of death.

The official (unrealistic) go-live date for new gTLDs is September 28

Kevin Murphy, June 6, 2013, Domain Policy

September 28 could be (won’t be) the launch date of the first new gTLD sunrise period, according to a (unrealistic) timetable released by ICANN yesterday.

During a webinar for new gTLD applicants, program head Christine Willett presented the following slide:

Timetable

As you can see, using this timetable the first registry contract would be signed one month from now and the TLD itself would hit the root around August 28. Sunrise would follow a month later.

Willett was very clear that the timetable represents the absolute shortest path an application could take, and that it’s unlikely that any application will actually make it.

What the timetable deliberately fails to include is any delay caused by Governmental Advisory Committee advice.

The GAC’s Beijing communique had advice for all applicants, remember, but the response is currently being handled by the ICANN board and not new gTLD program staff, so the outcome is unknown.

The communique contains six “Safeguards Applicable to all New gTLDs” which are controversial because they appear to duplicate or preempt existing policy work, for example on Whois rules.

If ICANN adopts the advice wholesale, it’s difficult to see how these safeguards could be enforced if not by contract, which could delay the contract approval or contracting phases of the timeline.

If ICANN does not adopt the advice wholesale, it will have to consult with the GAC to find a “mutually acceptable solution”.

Last time it deviated from GAC advice, which covered considerably less complex ground, there was a great deal of to-and-fro over the space of months along with four days of face-to-face meetings.

The only hint so far that ICANN may be creating a fast-track for applicants came in notes from its May 18 New gTLD Program Committee meeting, which said:

The Committee agreed that it would adopt a strategy that permits full consideration of the ongoing community comment forum while resolving GAC advice in a manner that permits as many applications as possible to keep making forward progress.

Speculatively, could we be looking at some kind of hack? A way for new gTLD applicants to blindly sign up to whatever future agreement the GAC and ICANN come to, in exchange for a speedy delegation?

Or is it an indication that ICANN is leaning towards approving the “safeguards” that apply to all new gTLDs?

The GAC advice is open for public comment until June 11, so we won’t find out until the second half of the month at the earliest.

Verisign says people might die if new gTLDs are delegated

Kevin Murphy, June 2, 2013, Domain Policy

If there was any doubt in your mind that Verisign is trying to delay the launch of new gTLDs, its latest letter to ICANN and the Governmental Advisory Committee advice should settle it.

The company has ramped up its anti-expansion rhetoric, calling on the GAC to support its view that launching new gTLDs now will put the security and stability of the internet at risk.

People might die if some strings are delegated, Verisign says.

Among other things, Verisign is now asking for:

  • Each new gTLD to be individually vetted for its possible security impact, with particular reference to TLDs that clash with widely-used internal network domains (eg, .corp).
  • A procedure put in place to throttle the addition of new gTLDs, should a security problem arise.
  • A trial period for each string ICANN adds to the root, so that new gTLDs can be tested for security impact before launching properly.
  • A new process for removing delegated gTLDs from the root if they cause problems.

In short, the company is asking for much more than it has to date — and much more that is likely to frenzy its rivals — in its ongoing security-based campaign against new gTLDs.

The demands came in Verisign’s response to the GAC’s Beijing communique, which detailed government concerns about hundreds of applied-for gTLDs and provided frustratingly vague remediation advice.

Verisign has provided one of the most detailed responses to the GAC advice of any ICANN has received to date, discussing how each item could be resolved and/or clarified.

In general, it seems to support the view that the advice should be implemented, but that work is needed to figure out the details.

In many cases, it’s proposing ICANN community working groups. In others, it says each affected registry should negotiate individual contract terms with ICANN.

But much of the 12-page letter talks about the security problems that Verisign suddenly found itself massively concerned about in March, a week after ICANN started publishing Initial Evaluation results.

The letter reiterates the potential problem that when a gTLD is delegated that is already widely used on internal networks, security problems such as spoofing could arise.

Verisign says there needs to be an “in-depth study” at the DNS root to figure out which strings are risky, even if the volume of traffic they receive today is quite low.

It also says each string should be phased in with an “ephemeral root delegation” — basically a test-bed period for each new gTLD — and that already-delegated strings should be removed if they cause problems:

A policy framework is needed in order to codify a method for braking or throttling new delegations (if and when these issues occur) either in the DNS or in dependent systems that provides some considerations as to when removing an impacting string from the root will occur.

While it’s well-known that strings such as .home and .corp may cause issues due to internal name clashes and their already high volume of root traffic, Verisign seems to want every string to be treated with the same degree of caution.

Lives may be on the line, Verisign said:

The problem is not just with obvious strings like .corp, but strings that have even small query volumes at the root may be problematic, such as those discussed in SAC045. These “outlier” strings with very low query rates may actually pose the most risks because they could support critical devices including emergency communication systems or other such life-supporting networked devices.

We believe the GAC, and its member governments, would undoubtedly share our fundamental concern.

The impact of pretty much every recommendation made in the letter would be to delay or prevent the delegation of new gTLDs.

A not unreasonable interpretation of this is that Verisign is merely trying to protect its $800 million .com business by keeping competitors out of the market for as long as possible.

Remember, Verisign adds roughly 2.5 million new .com domains every month, at $7.85 a pop.

New gTLDs may well put a big dent in that growth, and Verisign doesn’t have anything to replace it yet. It can’t raise prices any more, and the patent licensing program it has discussed has yet to bear fruit.

But because the company also operates the primary DNS root server, it has a plausible smokescreen for shutting down competition under the guise of security and stability.

If that is what is happening, one could easily make the argument that it is abusing its position.

If, on the other hand, Verisign’s concerns are legitimate, ICANN would be foolhardy to ignore its advice.

ICANN CEO Fadi Chehade has made it clear publicly, several times, that new gTLDs will not be delegated if there’s a good reason to believe they will destabilize the internet.

The chair of the SSAC has stated that the internal name problem is largely dealt with, at least as far as SSL certificates go.

The question now for ICANN — the organization and the community — is whether Verisign is talking nonsense or not.

Global standards group highlights silliness of GAC’s IGO demands

Kevin Murphy, May 14, 2013, Domain Policy

The International Organization for Standardization, known as ISO, doesn’t want to have its acronym blocked in new gTLDs by the International Sugar Organization.

ISO has told ICANN in a letter that demands for special favors coming from intergovernmental organizations, via the Governmental Advisory Committee, should be rejected.

Secretary general Rob Steele wrote:

We have very strong concerns with the GAC proposal, and firmly oppose any such block of the acronym “ISO.”

To implement a block on the term “ISO” (requiring its release be permitted by the International Sugar Organization) disregards the longstanding rights and important mission of the International Organization for Standardization. To be frank, this would be unacceptable.

please be assured that the International Organization for Standardization is prepared to take all necessary steps if its well-known short name is blocked on behalf of another organization.

For several months the GAC has argued that IGOs are “objectively different category to other rights holders, warranting special protection from ICANN” in new gTLDs.

Just like the “unique” Olympics and Red Cross were in 2011.

The GAC proposes that that any IGO that qualifies for a .int address (it’s a number in the hundreds) should have its name and acronym blocked by default at the second level in every new gTLD.

But ICANN pointed that this would be unfair on the hundreds (thousands?) of other legitimate uses of those acronyms. It gave several examples.

The GAC in response said that the IGOs would be able to grant consent for their acronyms to be unblocked for use by others, but this opened up a whole other can of implementation worms (as the GAC is wont to do).

ICANN director Chris Disspain of AuDA said in Beijing:

Who at each IGO would make a decision about providing consent? How long would each IGO have to provide consent? Would no reply be equivalent to consent? What criteria would be used to decide whether to give consent or not? Who would draft that criteria? Would the criteria be consistent across all IGOs or would consent simply be granted at the whim of an IGO?

In the GAC’s Beijing communique, it seemed to acknowledge this problem. It said:

The GAC is mindful of outstanding implementation issues and commits to actively working with IGOs, the Board, and ICANN Staff to find a workable and timely way forward.

The GAC insists, however, that no new gTLDs should be allowed to launch until the IGO protections are in place.

Given the amount of other work created for ICANN by the Beijing communique, I suspect that the IGO discussions will focus on implementation detail, rather than the principle.

But the principle is important. IGOs are not typically victims of pernicious cybersquatting. If they deserve special protections, then why don’t trademark owners that are cybersquatted on a daily basis?

ISO standardizes all kinds of stuff in dozens of sectors. In the domain name space, it’s probably best known for providing ICANN with ISO 3166-1 alpha-2, the authoritative list of two-letter strings that may be delegated as ccTLDs.

The International Sugar Organization is very important too, probably, if you’re in the sugar business.

Wikipedia gives it a single paragraph, Google ranks the International Society of Organbuilders higher on a search for “ISO”, and its web site suggests it doesn’t do much business online.

Does it need better brand protection than Microsoft or Marriott or Facebook or Fox? Is anyone going to want to cybersquat the International Sugar Organization, really?

If it does deserve that extra layer of protection, should that right trump the more-famous ISO’s right to register domains matching its own brand?

TLDH weighs in on “terrifying” GAC advice

Top Level Domain Holdings is the latest portfolio applicant to slate the Governmental Advisory Committee’s advice on new gTLDs, calling it “troubling in principle” and “terrifying in practice”.

The company, which applied directly for 70 gTLDs and is involved in several others, filed its comments on the “safeguard advice” in the GAC’s Beijing communique with ICANN today.

The comments focus mainly on the overarching issues of governmental power and process, rather than delve into the nitty-gritty implementation problems presented by the advice.

TLDH CEO Antony Van Couvering wrote:

The Communiqué’s prescriptions define the opposite of a well-regulated sector. Instead of a clear process in which all concerns are weighed, the Communiqué sets up an ad-hoc GAC process from which the views of applicants are excluded.

Instead of clear rules to which industry players must adhere, ill-defined categories have been set up that applicants have a hard time even to understand.

Instead of a clear authority on who will determine policy, the ICANN community must now wonder who is in charge.

The comment points to the fact that the GAC’s 2007 principles on new gTLDs state that applicants should have a clear, objective process to follow, and that Beijing undermines that principle.

It also puts forth the view that the GAC appears to be trying to create policy unilaterally, and in a top-down manner that doesn’t give the Generic Names Supporting Organization a role.

The GAC Beijing Communiqué as enunciated in Section IV.1.b [the safeguard advice] unilaterally expands the role of the GAC from an advisory committee, with a remit of providing advice on policy originating in the GNSO, into a policy-making body from which other members of the ICANN community are excluded.

TLDH also notes that some parts of the advice are “not in themselves bad ideas” and that the company has offered to adopt some of them already in the Public Interest Commitments appended to its applications.

It comments follow those from rival Demand Media, which questioned the feasibility of implementing the GAC’s advice, last week.

Separately, over the weekend, Medicus Mundi International Network — an organization of healthcare non-governmental organizations — filed comments saying that the GAC advice does not go far enough.

Rather, it said, ICANN should delay the introduction of .health until a “broad-based consultation of the health community” can be carried out and a “multi-stakeholder” governance model for it created.