The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said today that all new gTLD applicants, even those that have not already been hit by government warnings, should submit Public Interest Commitments to ICANN.
In a rare comment sent to an ICANN public forum today, the NTIA suggested that applicants should use the process to help combat counterfeiting and piracy.
The agency, the part of the US Department of Commerce that oversees ICANN and participates in its Governmental Advisory Committee, said (emphasis in original):
NTIA encourages all applicants for new gTLDs to take advantage of this opportunity to address the concerns expressed by the GAC in its Toronto Communique, the individual early warnings issued by GAC members, and the ICANN public comment process on new gTLDs, as appropriate.
PICs were introduced by ICANN earlier this month as a way for applicants to voluntarily add binding commitments — for example, a promise to restrict their gTLD to a certain user base — to their registry contracts.
The idea is to let applicants craft and agree to stick to special terms they think will help them avoid receiving objections from the GAC, GAC members and others.
NTIA said that applicants should pay special attention in their PICs to helping out the “creative sector”.
Specifically, this would entail “ensuring that WHOIS data is verified, authentic and publicly accessible”.
They should also “consider providing an enforceable guaranty that the domain name will only be used for licensed and legitimate activities”, NTIA said, adding:
NTIA believes that these new tools may help in the fight against online counterfeiting and piracy and is particularly interested in seeing applicants commit to these or similar safeguards.
The PICs idea isn’t going down too well in the applicant community, judging by other submissions this week.
The Registries Stakeholder Group of ICANN, for example, says its members are feeling almost “blackmailed” into submitting PICs, saying the timing is “completely unreasonable”.
As DI noted when PICs was first announced, applicants have been given until just March 5 to submit their commitments, raising serious questions about the timetable for objections and GAC advice.
The RySG has even convened a conference call for March 4 to discuss the proposal, which it says “contains so many serious and fundamental flaws that it should be withdrawn in
ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee will next week reveal its shortlist of new gTLD applications that face possible death-by-government.
A brief notice posted to the GAC web site yesterday said:
During the week of February 18th, 2013, the GAC will post its list of applications for consideration by the GAC as a whole in Beijing, in the context of developing GAC advice as outlined in the Applicant Guidebook (Module 3 section 3.1).
This appears to mean that the GAC has been doing a lot of preparatory work to get the list of 1,916 remaining new gTLD applications down to a more manageable number.
ICANN is expecting to receive GAC Advice on New gTLDs, as defined in the Applicant Guidebook, not too long after its Beijing public meeting closes on April 11.
As reported earlier today, ICANN expects to start approving new gTLDs April 23. It’s not going to do this before it’s received the GAC’s go-ahead.
GAC Advice could take the form of a consensus recommendation to ICANN to kill off one or more new gTLD bids, or non-consensus “concerns” that would be less deadly to applicants.
GAC members have already issued 242 Early Warnings, which were designed to give applicants the opportunity to change their plans or withdraw before receiving full GAC Advice.
No doubt some of the companies in receipt of Early Warnings will have done enough in the interim to put governments’ minds at rest, but there’s also nothing stopping the GAC adding new applications to its hit-list.
With that in mind, it’s difficult to predict how many applications, and which ones, are going to be on the GAC’s new shortlist.
ICANN has given new gTLD applicants a month to draft their own death warrants.
Okay, that might be a little hyperbolic. Let’s try again:
ICANN has given each new gTLD applicant 28 days to come up with a list of voluntary “Public Interest Commitments” that, if breached, could lead to the termination of their registry contracts.
The proposed, far-reaching, last-minute changes to the basic new gTLD Registry Agreement were introduced, published and opened for public comment on Tuesday.
PICs — as all the cool kids are calling them — are designed to appease ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, which wants applicants to be held accountable to statements made in their gTLD applications.
If an applicant said in its application for .lawyer, for example, that only actual lawyers will be able to register a .lawyer domain name, the GAC wants ICANN to be able to step in and enforce that promise if the registry changes its registration policies at a later date.
Public Interest Commitments are the way ICANN proposes to let applicants state clearly what they commit to do and not to do, either by flagging parts of their existing application as binding commitments or by writing and submitting entirely new commitments.
Submitting a set of PICs would be voluntary for applicants, but once submitted they would become a binding part of their Registry Agreement, assuming their gTLD is approved and delegated.
“These are commitments you’re making to the community, to the governments, to everybody that can object to your applications, these are not commitments you’re making with ICANN,” ICANN COO Akram Atallah said on Tuesday’s webinar.
Registries would be subject to a new dispute policy (the Public Interest Commitment Dispute Resolution Process or PICDRP) that would enable third parties to file official complaints about breaches.
“We’re allowing third parties that are affected to be able to bring these claims, and then based upon the outcome of the dispute resolution process ICANN will enforce that third party dispute resolution result,” ICANN general counsel John Jeffrey said.
Registries that lost a PICDRP would have to “implement and adhere to any remedies ICANN imposes” up to and including the termination of the registry contract itself.
ICANN is asking applicants to submit their PICs before March 5, just 28 days after revealing the concept.
How PIC (probably) would work
Let’s take an example new gTLD application, selected entirely at random.
Donuts has applied for .dentist.
While the applied-for string suggests that only dentists will be able to register domain names, like all Donuts applications the gTLD would actually be completely open.
The government of Australia has filed a GAC Early Warning against this bid, stating that “does not appear to have proposed sufficient protections to address the potential for misuse”.
The Aussies want Donuts to detail “appropriate mechanisms to mitigate potential misuse and minimise potential consumer harm” or risk getting a potentially lethal GAC Advice objection to its bid.
If Donuts were so inclined, it could now attach a PIC to its .dentist bid, outlining its commitment to ensuring that .dentist is not abused by amateur dental surgery enthusiasts.
The PIC would be subject to public review and comment. If, subsequently, Donuts won the .dentist contention set, the PIC would be attached to its .dentist Registry Agreement and become binding.
Donuts may even stick to its commitments. But the moment some Marathon Man-inspired nutter managed to slip through the cracks, Donuts would be open to PICDRP complaints, risking termination.
What’s good about this idea?
From one perspective, PIC is a brilliantly clever concept.
The proposed solution doesn’t require applicants to amend their applications, nor would it require lengthy contractual negotiations during the gTLD approval and delegation process.
Applicants could merely attach their commitments to the base registry agreement, sign it, and be on their merry way.
This means fewer delays for applicants and relatively little additional up-front work by ICANN.
On an ongoing basis, the fact that PICs would be enforceable only by third parties via the PICDRP means fewer headaches for ICANN compliance and fewer debacles like the aborted attempt to bring .jobs into line.
Finally, it’s also completely voluntary. If applicants don’t want to file a PIC, they don’t have to. Indeed, most applicants aren’t even in a position where they need to think about it.
Do I sense a “but”?
But I can’t see these proposals going down too well in applicant land.
ICANN is, essentially, giving applicants one short month to bind themselves to a completely new, almost completely unknown dispute resolution process.
Repeat: the PICDRP does not yet exist.
Indications were given that it will be modeled on existing dispute resolution procedures in the Applicant Guidebook, but there’s no actual text available to review yet.
We do know that the process would be designed to enable third parties to file complaints, however. Agreeing to PICDRP could therefore potentially open up applicants to competitive or nuisance complaints.
The “remedies” that ICANN could impose when a PICDRP case is lost are also currently rather vague.
While the nuclear option (termination) would be available, there’s no information yet about possible lesser remedies (financial penalties, for example) for non-compliance.
I’ve talked to enough domain name industry lawyers over the years to guess that most of them will take a very dim view of PIC, due to these uncertainties.
One of the guiding principles of the new gTLD program from the outset was that it was supposed to be predictable. ICANN has veered away from this principle on multiple occasions, but these eleventh-hour proposed changes present applicants with some of the biggest unknowns to date.
The timeline doesn’t work
The raison d’être for the PIC concept is, ostensibly, to enable applicants to avoid not only potential GAC Advice but also official objections by other third parties.
But according to ICANN documentation, applicants are being asked to submit their PICs by March 5. ICANN will publish them March 6. They’d then be open for public review until April 5 before becoming final.
But the deadline for filing objections is March 13. That deadline also applies to objections filed by governments (though not GAC Advice, which is expected to come in mid-late April).
Judging by this timeline, potential objectors would have to decide whether to file their objections based on PICs that have been published for just one week and that could be amended post-deadline.
Unless ICANN extends the objection filing window, it’s difficult to see how PIC could be fit for its stated purpose.
On the bright side
I believe that only a small percentage of applicants will be affected by PIC.
Out of 1,917 applications and 1,409 strings, GAC governments filed just 242 Early Warnings against 145 strings. Some of those warnings merely tell the applicant to withdraw its bid, which no amount of PIC will cure.
I expect that very few, if any, applicants without Early Warnings will bother to file PICs, unless of course the objections deadline is moved and PIC becomes an effective way to avoid objections.
For those with Early Warnings, an alternative strategy would be to lobby friendly GAC members — demonstrably flexible to lobbying, judging by the Early Warnings — to ensure that they do not receive full, consensus GAC Advice against their applications.
That would be risky, however, as there’s currently no way of knowing how much weight ICANN’s board of directors will give to non-consensus GAC Advice against applications.
ICANN will let new gTLD applicants change their applications in order to respond to the concerns of governments, it has emerged.
Changes to applications made as a result of Early Warnings made by the Governmental Advisory Committee “would in all likelihood be permitted”, ICANN chair Steve Crocker informed the GAC this week.
ICANN is also looking at ways to make these changes enforceable in the respective applicants’ registry contracts.
Combined, the two bits of news confirm that the GAC will have greater power over new gTLD business models than previously anticipated.
The revelations came in the ICANN board of directors’ official response to GAC advice emerging from last October’s Toronto meeting.
After Toronto, the GAC had asked ICANN whether applicants would be able to change their applications in response to Early Warnings, and whether the changes made would be binding.
In response, Crocker told his GAC counterpart, Heather Dryden, that ICANN already has a procedure for approving or denying application change requests.
The process “balances” a number of criteria, including whether the changes would impact competing applicants or change the applicant’s evaluation score, but it’s not at all clear how ICANN internally decides whether to approve a request or not. So far, none have been denied.
Crocker told Dryden:
It is not possible to generalize as to whether change requests resulting from early warnings would be permitted in all instances. But if such requests are intended solely to address the “range of specific issues” listed on page 3 of the Toronto Communique, and do not otherwise conflict with the change request criteria noted above, then such request would in all likelihood be permitted.
The “range of specific issues” raised in the Toronto advice (pdf) are broad enough to cover pretty much every Early Warning:
- Consumer protection
- Strings that are linked to regulated market sectors, such as the financial, health and charity sectors
- Competition issues
- Strings that have broad or multiple uses or meanings, and where one entity is seeking exclusive use
- Religious terms where the applicant has no, or limited, support from the relevant religious organisations or the religious community
- Minimising the need for defensive registrations
- Protection of geographic names
- Intellectual property rights particularly in relation to strings aimed at the distribution of music, video and other digital material
- The relationship between new gTLD applications and all applicable legislation
Some Early Warnings, such as many filed against gTLD bids that would represent regulated industries such as finance and law, ask applicants to improve their abuse mitigation measures.
To avoid receiving potential lethal GAC Advice this April, such applicants were asked to improve their rights protection mechanisms and anti-abuse procedures.
In some cases, changes to these parts of the applications could — feasibly — impact the evaluation score.
The GAC also made it clear in Toronto that it expects that commitments made in applications — including commitments in changes made as a result of Early Warnings — should be enforceable by ICANN.
This is a bit of a big deal. It refers to Question 18 in the new gTLD application, which was introduced late at the request of the GAC and covers the “mission/purpose” of the applied-for gTLD.
Answers to Question 18 are not scored as part of the new gTLD evaluation, and many applicants took it as an invitation to waffle about how awesome they plan to be.
Now it seems possible they they could be held to that waffle.
Crocker told Dryden (with my emphasis):
The New gTLD Program does not currently provide a mechanism to adopt binding contractual terms incorporating applicant statements and commitment and plans set forth within new gTLD applications or arising from early warning discussions between applicants and governments. To address concerns raised by the GAC as well as other stakeholders, staff are developing possible mechanisms for consideration by the Board New gTLD Committee. That Committee will discuss the staff proposals during the upcoming Board Workshop, 31 Janaury – 2 February.
In other words, early next month we could see some new mechanisms for converting Question 18 blah into enforceable contractual commitments that new gTLD registries will have to abide be.
The Independent Objector for ICANN’s new gTLD program has given a preliminary nod to applications for .sex, .gay, .wtf and six other potentially “controversial” applied-for strings.
Alain Pellet this week told applicants for these gTLDs that he does not expect to file objections against their bids, despite an outpouring of public comments against them.
The strings given the okay are .adult, .gay, .hot, .lgbt, persiangulf, .porn .sex .sexy, and .wtf.
A total of 15 applications have been submitted for these strings. Some, such as .gay with four applicants, are contested. Others, such as .wtf and .porn, are not.
The IO is limited to filing objections on two rather tightly controlled grounds: Limited Public Interest (where the bid would violate international law) and Community (where a community would be disenfranchised).
For each of the nine strings, Pellet has decided that neither type of objection is warranted.
In his preliminary finding on .gay and .lgbt, he also noted that to file an objection “could be held incompatible with the obligation of States not to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity which is emerging as a norm”.
As part of a lengthy analysis of the international legal position on homosexuality, De Pellet wrote:
even though the IO acknowledges that homosexuality can be perceived as immoral in some States, there is no legal norm that would transcribe such a value judgment at the international level. Thus, the position of certain communities on the issue is not relevant in respect to the IO’s possibility to object to an application on the limited public interest ground.
For the porn-related applications, Pellet noted that any bid for a gTLD promoting child abuse material would certainly be objected to, but that ICANN has received no such application.
On .wtf, which received many public comments because it’s an acronym including profanity, Pellet observed that freedom of expression is sacred under international law.
He regarded the problem of excessive defensive registrations — as raised by the Australian government in the recent wave of Governmental Advisory Committee early warnings — is outside his remit.
Pellet’s findings, which I think will be welcomed by most parts of the ICANN community, are not unexpected.
Limited Public Interest Objection, originally known as the Morality and Public Order Objection, had been put forward in the wake of the approval of .xxx in 2010 as a way for governments to bring their national laws to bear on the DNS.
But it was painstakingly defanged by the Generic Names Supporting Organization in order to make it almost impossible for it to be used as a way to curb civil rights.
The GAC instead shifted its efforts to the GAC Advice on New gTLDs objection, which enables individual governments to submit objections vicariously based on their own national interest.
Pellet’s findings — which are preliminary but seem very unlikely to be reversed — can be read in full on his web site.